On May 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked about a recent New York Times article on Chinese efforts “to create an alternative to a global news media dominated by outlets like the BBC and CNN.”
The Times cited a report from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a Brussels-based group advocating for journalists and press freedom, which surveyed 54 journalist unions from 50 countries and territories.
That report found an “an activation of” China’s global media infrastructure, both to spread positive messages about China and to mobilize “more novel tactics such as disinformation.”
“Beijing has weaponized foreign journalist visas, forcing resident journalists out of China,” the report stated.
According to the IFJ, Beijing’s increasingly interventionist approach, often described as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, uses Chinese embassies and ambassadors to “frequently comment on local media coverage of China.”
The IFJ report coincides with a seven-month investigation by The Associated Press and Oxford Internet Institute, which found that “an army of fake Twitter accounts” had been used to amplify Chinese diplomats and state media.
Hua’s comment came a day ahead of the IFJ report’s release. She said China deserves a place in the international media landscape and accused the U.S. of engaging in “discourse hegemony” by launching “a disinformation attack on China under the pretext of media freedom.”
Hua further pushed back against evidence that Beijing has sought to muzzle foreign journalists operating in China.
“[It] is a complete distortion of facts to accuse China of suppressing foreign media and denying U.S. journalists visa[s],” she said. “The fact is that since 2018, the US has indefinitely delayed or denied visa approval for 20 Chinese journalists. It designated US-based Chinese media as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘foreign missions’, expelled 60 Chinese journalists in all but name, and limited visas for Chinese journalists to a maximum 90-day stay.”
However, it is misleading to conflate the tit-for-tat battle over foreign media credentials to the outright suppression, harassment, intimidation and censorship of foreign media inside China.
Hua is correct that in May 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) limited Chinese journalists’ visas to a maximum of 90 days, albeit with the possibility of extension. That 90-day rule excluded journalists from Hong Kong and Macau.
DHS said that decision was a response to the mistreatment of foreign journalists, including U.S. citizens, operating in China.
The department noted China’s forced departure of foreign journalists since 2013, “either through expulsion or by non-renewal of visas.”
Among them were three Wall Street Journal reporters who, according to DHS, “were expelled from China following an opinion piece criticizing the country's response to the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic.”
In March 2020, Beijing revoked the accreditations of journalists with U.S. citizenship working at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, which were set to expire by year-end.
China also designated the Voice of America (VOA), The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine as U.S. government functionaries.
The Times, Post, Journal and Time are, of course, private publications and often fiercely at odds with the U.S. government. And although VOA (which includes Polygraph.info) is a U.S. government agency funded by American taxpayers, its journalists are independent and shielded by law from political interference.
China’s move came a month after then-President Donald Trump’s administration labeled five Chinese state-run outlets working in the U.S. as foreign missions. That required the outlets to register property they own or rent in the U.S., to get permission to lease or acquire additional property and to disclose the names of their U.S. employees.
U.S. State Department officials told The Associated Press the designation does not require reporters at those Chinese outlets to report to U.S. authorities on their movements in the country, and does not “impede them from conducting journalistic activities.”
The U.S. expanded that list twice, in June and October 2020, labeling 10 more Chinese media outlets as foreign missions.
China responded again in October 2020 by restricting six additional U.S. media outlets.
On April 29, the Biden administration’s new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, defended the Trump administration’s policy, alleging Beijing was using propaganda and disinformation to interfere with or undermine democracy abroad “while restricting freedom of the press and speech in China.”
DHS said Being’s efforts to pass off its actions as “reciprocal” were false, claiming those actions represented “an escalation of hostile measures targeting a free press within its borders.”
According to DHS, China expelled Western journalists for reporting on sensitive issues like “mass incarceration of minorities in the Xinjiang region of northwest China” and “high-level corruption.”
Meantime, Washington forced four Chinese state media outlets working in the U.S. to cut their staff there from 160 to 100.
Steven Lee Meyers, the former New York Times Beijing bureau chief who was expelled from China last year, did not see parity between the U.S. and Chinese expulsions.
“[Beijing] couched [the expulsions] as being reciprocal, but, obviously, they targeted it at news organizations that they particularly didn't like,” he told PBS.
“And whether or not it was proportionate, they would argue that it is, but the number of Chinese journalists allowed to operate even now is far greater than the number of Americans that are allowed to operate in China,” Meyers noted.
Citing the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC), PBS reported that 39 U.S. journalists were operating in China as of March 2021. The FCCC said Beijing expelled at least 18 foreign journalists in the first half of 2020.
The club said that one out of six correspondents was “forced to live and work” by renewing visas running one-to-three months, adding that “some Chinese tourist visas last longer than that.”
The FCCC said China had imposed additional restrictions on foreign journalists under the pretext of COVID-19. Chinese citizens working with Western outlets were increasingly harassed, vilified and subject to interrogation by state security forces, the group said.
Other journalists have faced detention and assault. Los Angeles Times' Beijing Bureau Chief Alice Su was held, assaulted and interrogated for reporting on “tensions following a government move to remove Mongolian-language content from school curricula” in Inner Mongolia, the Committee to Project Journalists reported.
Foreign correspondents in China face increased levels of surveillance and harassment, both in traditionally sensitive areas like border regions and major urban areas.
In March, the FCCC reported that Chinese authorities had “dramatically stepped up efforts in 2020 to frustrate the work of foreign correspondents.”
“All arms of state power – including surveillance systems introduced to curb coronavirus – were used to harass and intimidate journalists, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom the foreign press sought to interview," the report said.
“Foreign correspondents were targeted in alleged national security investigations and told they could not leave the country. China cancelled press credentials and refused to renew visas, resulting in the largest expulsion of foreign journalists since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre more than three decades ago.”
On April 1, Hua slammed the FCCC as “an illegal organization, which China has never acknowledged.”
Hua’s comments came soon after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s China correspondent, John Sudworth, was forced to leave China for his safety.
His partner, Yvonne Murray, who reports for Ireland’s national news service. RTE News and Current Affairs, also left China.
The FCCC said Sudworth’s departure followed “months of personal attacks and disinformation targeting him and his BBC colleagues, disseminated by both Chinese state media and Chinese government officials.”
The FCCC added that the campaign against Sudworth was precipitated by his critical reporting on the origins of COVID-19 and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
In February, China blocked the BBC from broadcasting within the country. It claimed the BBC had “seriously” violated broadcast guidelines, including “the requirement that news should be truthful and fair” and not “harm China's national interests.”