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The disappearing China correspondents

Beijing keeps expelling foreign journalists as relations with the West sour

The disappearing China correspondents

Journalists attend a news conference in Beijing, China, on May 20, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP)

On Monday, the last two credentialed Australian journalists in China boarded a flight to Sydney after a five-day diplomatic standoff. The expulsion occurred as relations between Australia and China have deteriorated and the Chinese government continues its crusade to rid the country of foreign reporters.

Police officers visited both Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in Beijing and Mike Smith of The Australia Financial Review in Shanghai late on Sept. 2. The officers said they wanted to interrogate them about their reporting on Cheng Lei, an Australian who worked for China’s CGTN television station. Detained in August, Cheng is being kept under “residential surveillance” in an unknown location, where she is unable to contact family or lawyers and torture is common.

Diplomats had warned Birtles and Smith earlier last week that they should leave China, according to ABC, and they both planned to fly out the morning of Sept. 3. But Chinese officers showed up in the middle of the night, banning them from leaving and informing them they needed to come in for questioning. After the police visit, Birtles hid in the Australian Embassy in Beijing for the next few days while Smith went to the Australian Consulate in Shanghai. 

Chinese officials continued to ask for interviews with the reporters, which they refused over concerns for their safety. After negotiations, Australian officials received confirmation that Birtles and Smith could leave the country if they agreed to a one-hour interview with Chinese officials. On Sunday, Australian ambassador Graham Fletcher accompanied Birtles as Chinese authorities interviewed him. ABC reported the authorities did not ask questions about his reporting or conduct in China.

“It’s nice to be home but deeply disappointing to leave China under such abrupt circumstances,” Birtles tweeted Tuesday after returning to Australia. “It’s been a big part of my life & the past week was surreal.”

Australia-China relations have tanked as Australia has taken a stronger stance toward China’s aggression, calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, cracking down on Chinese interference, and sending a strong message against China for limiting freedoms in Hong Kong. In response, China started a trade war, targeting Australian beef, barley, and wine. 

The expulsion of Birtles and Smith follows a trend of China kicking out foreign reporters: In the first half of 2020, the Chinese government expelled 17 journalists, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. It began in February when China kicked out three Wall Street Journal reporters in a tit-for-tat measure after the United States designated five Chinese media outlets as foreign entities. The label requires the news organizations to send the U.S. government a list of their employees and real estate holdings. The Wall Street Journal was specifically targeted after it published an op-ed titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

Then in March, China expelled all U.S. journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post after the State Department limited the number of non-Americans that the five Chinese state-run media operating in the United States could hire. Another four media groups were named foreign entities in June. 

Most recently, the Chinese government has stopped renewing press credentials for U.S. news organizations in China, which will affect reporters for CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and Getty Images. Foreign Ministry officials told reporters their press renewals depended on whether the United States decided to renew the press credentials of Chinese journalists at state-run news organizations in the U.S. In May, all Chinese journalists in the United States were given 90-day work visas, which expired in August. New regulations allowed them another 90-day extension that lasts until early November. The U.S. reporters were also told they could stay in China until November.

The expulsion of reporters in China makes it more and more difficult to find out what is happening on the ground in China. The Chinese government tightly controls its own press, and the dwindling number of foreign reporters find more and more areas off-limits. Reporting in Xinjiang, where more than a million Uighurs are kept in reeducation camps, has led to police surveillance, officials barring interviews, and reporters detained and sent away.

When protests in Inner Mongolia began in late August over a new policy that would transition half of the region’s classes from the Mongolian language to Mandarin, Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau chief Alice Su went to report on it. She visited a school in the capital of Hohhot and interviewed parents as police surrounded the campus to prevent any more protests. 

In the article, she describes being surrounded by plainclothes cops, placed into a police car, and taken to a police station where officers interrogated her. An officer grabbed her throat and pushed her into a cell. After a four-hour detention, government officials accompanied her to a train headed back to Beijing. 

Ian Johnson, a New York Times reporter who was kicked out in March after spending more than a dozen years reporting in China, noted that the departure of newspapers like the Times and the Journal means the world will no longer have access to in-depth reporting on important issues, such as the treatment of Uighurs or the finances of top Chinese leaders. 

The few reporters who remain will hardly have the resources for such projects,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed, “meaning that outsiders’ understanding of China will be increasingly limited to daily news.”