AS A RULE, authoritarian governments seek to corral the foreign press posted to their country into presenting them as they would like to be seen or indeed believe that they are. When that does not match the reality, unable to censor foreign journalists as they can domestic media, governments can co-opt foreign correspondents or confront them.
In keeping with Xi-era front-foot diplomacy, Beijing has chosen the the latter course. However, it has also started driving the foreign press — or at least the Western elements of it seen as most critical of the Party — out of the country. In keeping with its pragmatic, push-until-there-is-pushback approach to everything international, from criticism over Hong Kong to island-building in the South China Sea, it has been steadily intensifying the harassment and intimidation of foreign journalists.
Over the past year or so, and especially since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, approaching a score of US, UK and Australian journalists have left China. The latest isJohn Sudworth, a Beijing correspondent for the UK public broadcaster, the BBC, and his wife, Yvonne Murray, of the Irish broadcaster RTE. Their departures follow the expulsions of reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and the flight under diplomatic protection of two Australian reporters fearing for their safety.
China has also increased the harassment and intimidation of foreign news organisations’ Chinese employees and sources while Australian national Cheng Lei, who worked for China’s state television network, was detained last August.
Detentions, expulsions, and harassment, which also extend to independent researchers, will lead to more caution when reporting and researching China. It will not stop coverage, critical or complimentary, which will continue from outside the country. However, the loss of the nuance, colour and access that on-the-ground reporting provides will exacerbate speculation and distrust.
The Sudworth family’s hasty departure to Taipei appears to have been to forestall an exit ban being imposed as ‘some Xinjiang residents’ were going to take legal action against the BBC for Sudworth’s reporting on the region. Beijing officials have been particularly furious in denouncing the BBC’s coverage of Xinjiang. In February, BBC World News was banned from broadcasting in China, despite it being little seen there, prompting London’s tit-for-tat ban on the state-owned television channel CGTN.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying cast Sudworth’s departure as confirmation that he accepted his reporting was unfounded.
If he was worried about being sued by people in Xinjiang, he should have stayed to face the litigation if he knew for sure he hadn’t produced any fake news or rumors. In China, a place with rule of law, no innocent people will be wronged…But he chose to run. Why? Why did he leave in such a hurry? What’s he worried about? What’s he afraid of? There is only one explanation: a guilty conscience.
She was particularly pained by Sudworth’s description of Uighur vocational education and training centres as re-education camps, technical schools as places to conduct Uyghur cultural isolation and family separation, and efforts to renovate mosques as attempts to demolish mosques.
Beyond the fury of not having China’s version of events in Xijiang accepted as gospel, Hua also tapped into another strand of the China’s narrative, victimhood.
We must point out that China is the victim when it comes to BBC’s disinformation targeting China. In recent years, BBC has fabricated a large amount of immoral fake news and disinformation, especially on COVID-19 and Xinjiang, which has not only caused direct damages to the interests of some people in Xinjiang, but has also cast a severe negative influence on China’s national image.
The deterrence of an already small cadre of foreign journalists and researchers working in the country is about more than controlling the information flow reaching international audiences. All nations seek to do that in some degree through a global army of government press and information officers and public relations specialists and consultants. The Party has been campaigning steadily against Western values, including the centrality of a free press to democracy, as part of an infowar strategy in which the Chinese governance system is pitted against Western democracy, with the latter appearing in the worst light.
The press in the Chinese system is an agency of the state, itself an agency of the Party. Journalists are overwhelmingly state employed and subject to government-dictated reporting guidelines. They are designated as propaganda workers whose job is not ‘to speak truth to power’ but to guide the thoughts of the people correctly.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua made an unintended reference to that when she told foreign correspondents that they should:
When reporting on China, verify first and present the facts and materials we provide in a balanced way in your reports.
Independent journalism exists in China but is discouraged with harsh prison sentences. Reporters without Borders, a press freedom NGO, says China ranked 177th out of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index and is the world’s biggest captor of journalists with at least 120 detained according to its most recent count.
Jailing Western foreign correspondents, if not researchers, would come with political friction and would be counterproductive in the effort to delegitimise them as purveyors of ‘fake news’. Voluntary or forced departures are a readier option for stifling reporting from inside China that goes against the narrative about China that Beijing would like to establish internationally. Efforts to develop that narrative will get ramped up this year, so the marginalisation of Western journalism will continue.
In contrast to China’s domestic censorship across all media, Western social media platforms’ openness lets Beijing spread widely abroad what the EU has called targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns. With the large US tech companies in their domestic politicians’ crosshairs, that may be the next battleground in this particular war.