Chinese Foreign Ministry news briefing

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang speaks during a daily news briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing on March 18, 2020. More than a dozen American journalists stand to be expelled from China in retaliation for a new limit imposed by the Trump administration on visas for Chinese state-owned media operating in the U.S

On Tuesday, China announced it would rescind reporting credentials for more than a dozen American journalists. The news felt like a punch in the gut.

As many as 13 journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal will lose their accreditation, as Beijing retaliates against five American news outlets for the Trump administration’s decision to limit China’s five state news agencies to a total of 100 visas. Several Chinese employees of those outlets have also lost their jobs.

Many of these journalists worked flat-out to document for the world the mystery virus that originated in Wuhan, China, a few months ago. Now they are collateral damage as insecure governments in both Beijing and Washington try to divert attention from their failure to contain coronavirus.

The expulsions upend personal lives and interrupt careers. There’s a bigger cost too. There is a real risk that the outside world could lose what little visibility we have into one of the world’s most powerful countries – visibility that had been provided in part by a dedicated foreign press corps and their Chinese colleagues.

“There are no winners in the use of journalists as diplomatic pawns by the world’s two pre-eminent economic powers,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China wrote. “Journalists illuminate the world we live in. China, through this action, is dimming itself.”

This week’s group expulsion is part of a pattern. China kicked out three journalists from The Wall Street Journal in February – ostensibly because it found a headline in a WSJ op-ed to be racist.

That could make as many as 16 foreign journalists pushed out of China this year, and it’s still only March. Many speak fluent Chinese. Some had lived in China for decades, or had Chinese spouses, or children attending Chinese schools. The Chinese working for American news agencies are patriots who believe that true and open information is necessary for their country. All are fair, professional, and completely devoted to the task of explaining what’s happening in China to the outside world.

Since 2013, when Xi Jinping took power, six other foreign journalists have been forced to leave China after their visas were not renewed. Nearly all of them had reported on conditions in Xinjiang, where an estimated one million Uighurs have been locked up in a modern-day gulag.

I myself left China nine months ago to take up a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. At the time I told myself I’d be back someday. Maybe not right away, but definitely someday. My employer, the Financial Times, was not targeted in this latest round of expulsions. Nonetheless, I am forced to wonder: What if China squeezes out all but a few foreign reporters? Can those of us who have devoted our careers to reporting within China still shed light on this difficult but important country from afar?

Nations have a sovereign right to decide what visas to grant. But China is also the world’s second-largest economy and home to a fifth of the world’s population. Events that originate in China – whether today’s coronavirus or the commodities “super-cycle” of  more than a decade ago – impact everyone else.

Even before the Xi-era expulsions began, coverage of China was diminished by the financial disintegration in the news industry. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games, about 700 foreign correspondents resided in Beijing alone, plus dozens more in Shanghai and a handful in other cities. By 2019, 536 foreign journalists remained in all of China, the vast majority of them reporting in English, Japanese or Korean. Reporting on China in other languages – for instance, Italian – has been decimated.

China’s intrepid independent media has also suffered under Xi. Chinese citizens have learned to curb their opinions on social media. If not, the censors and police do it for them. Each tightening of the vise leaves the information flow to the rest of the world more constricted.

China has been a closed box before, notably during the Cultural Revolution. The resident Reuters reporter at the time was under house arrest for more than two years, and nearly killed. The only journalists allowed to visit China in those days were “friendly” fellow travellers on supervised tours. Most dutifully reported how wonderful things were in Chairman Mao’s paradise. The few clues to the famines and turmoil roiling the country came through interviewing refugees in Hong Kong, and by painstakingly “reading the tea leaves” in opaque state media.

Times have changed, of course. China is far, far more open now than it was then. But still. We don’t know exactly what deliberations went on in Beijing in early January, when the virus was spreading through Wuhan unchecked. We don’t know which scientists are advising Xi on his country’s response. We are only beginning to see how badly the economy was damaged – all questions that are playing out in public here in the US as we stumble through our own crisis.

In the past few weeks, British journalists who reported from Wuhan have gone on social media to sound the alarm about coronavirus before their government was willing to do so. They wouldn’t  be so persuasive if they hadn’t had direct experience from the epicenter of the outbreak.

What would future reporting on China from outside China look like?

For one thing, it will be much more vulnerable to distortion by political interests outside China. We can already see how the discussion of the coronavirus has shifted from the factual articles coming out of Wuhan in January to a blame game played by politicians who failed to heed those articles.

I’ve watched this politicization unfurl in real time on the FT’s comment pages. China admirers and China skeptics are duking it out over how to fight the coronavirus in the UK. Neither side has much of a grip on the specifics of what China actually did or didn’t do.

Second, without the reality check provided by reporters on the ground, information about China would be more dependent on official Chinese government sources, including state media and official statistics. Both have become less reliable under Xi. Recently, even the somber Chinese foreign ministry has devolved into a platform for conspiracy theories and personal attacks.

Covering China from outside will require creativity and discipline. Journalists today have a few tools to add to the old skill of “reading tea leaves” – the painstaking parsing of state media that Sinologists use to guess at elite politics in the ruling Communist party.

There is an enormous amount of material on the Internet, from social media to the directives and tenders put out by Chinese government bureaus.

Emissions data, customs records, and supply chain signals give clues to China’s economic performance. Corporations may provide early indications of any disturbance in their sprawling supply chains. Elite money moved overseas leaves a trail that dogged journalists can follow.

Satellite photos of prisons in Xinjiang, light measurements along China’s Belt and Road investments, big data tracking of censored terms – these are all methods that are being developed outside China to keep track of what’s happening inside.

But none of this substitutes for the personal interactions that fuel foreign journalists’ passion to report on China. That passion and sense of shared humanity helps create international goodwill for China, especially during times of disaster like Wuhan faced this winter.

Reporting on China from afar is possible. It won’t feel the same. But one thing won’t change – the foreign press corps won’t give up.

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