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Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP

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

The disappearing China correspondents

Beijing keeps expelling foreign journalists as relations with the West sour

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.”

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AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

A New York City Police Department officer work a crime scene. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Death on the streets and on the screen

Murder and cancer deaths are real. So is resurrection

A New York moment: Late last week I was on a corner in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where a man had just been shot and killed. Someone had washed the man’s trail of blood off the sidewalk. The family wept, while neighbors came by to light candles and offer condolences to the man’s mother. She sat stricken on a beat-up office chair on the sidewalk next to the candles. Police sat in a patrol car on the corner, keeping a distance. One man came by, bent over with anger and grief, and muttered, “Someone will have to answer for this.” 

Neighborhood pastors and others urged the man to think about how a revenge shooting, in addition to being wrong, might hit a bystander, like a child. The spike in New York City’s shootings, which mirrors other cities around the country (including Republican-run ones like Tulsa, Okla.), appears to be partly gang-driven. Shootings beget retaliatory shootings. 

I thought about the man’s comment over the weekend, as the news came in about another death, that of actor Chadwick Boseman, who embodied the royal dignity of King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther. Boseman died from colon cancer at age 43. The man killed in Brooklyn was 41. 

Someone has to answer for the deaths of a man who died too young from colon cancer and a man who died violently, whatever his backstory was, because death is wrong. At the site of the Brooklyn shooting, local pastor Charles Galbreath said: “We’re here to declare that this is not normal … that we all have worth and value … that our young people are kings and queens.” He prayed for young people to know “who they are and Whose they are.” 

Regardless of the circumstances of the homicide—police said it was gang-related—it brought pain even to people unconnected with this man. I was walking the block with other Brooklyn mothers who had lost sons to gun violence. After they bear-hugged the mother of this most recent victim, one of them, Pamela Hight, was so overwhelmed she walked away and had to stop in the street and bend over to catch her breath. 

“Why, every time I hug a mother, I feel the pain?” said Hight, who lost two sons to violence. “That’s a feeling you don’t want to feel.” Without knowing the details of this man or his story, the moms could feel the wrongness of it.

After Boseman’s death, people widely shared a video on social media of him on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where Black Panther fans talked about what the superhero meant to them, and then Boseman would step out from behind a curtain to surprise them and give them a hug. I think part of the power of that video, after Boseman’s death, is the hint of resurrection there. People thought they were just talking to a poster, and then: Look! The real, live King T’Challa is right there, stepping from behind a curtain. 

Only Jesus provides us both with someone who will “answer for” deaths, violent or otherwise, and with resurrection life. The dark things of the world are not all they appear to be. So as we weep and long for better things, we also can know that Christ will surprise us with justice, and he will surprise us with resurrection. And those in Christ will one day step through that curtain, surprised by joy. 

This week I learned: The New York Police Department has 37 full-time scuba divers who conduct rescues and search for evidence and bodies in the waters surrounding New York City. Apartment-bound New Yorkers, including myself, can sometimes forget that they live on an island.  

Culture I am consuming: Lenox Hill, a new documentary series from Netflix about a hospital in Manhattan. Having done reporting in hospitals and having visited this hospital recently, I found it to be a very realistic portrayal of the daily chaos and drama that doctors live through. There’s some cursing, but otherwise, it’s a series I would highly recommend, with a rare fly-on-the-wall look inside operating rooms, emergency rooms, and patients’ bedsides.

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AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

A Central American migrant girl plays near Mexican National Guards near the Mexican shore of the Suchiate River in January. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

“Become like little children”

A pastor ministering to migrants in Mexico sees the wisdom of children’s faith

About two months ago, I interviewed a 55-year-old single woman who pastors a church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Mexico. My interview with her didn’t make it into a story, but my interactions with her left a deep impression on me as my church begins praying about how to help the marginalized in our community.

Virginia Ponce has been pastoring El Rey Ya Viene (The King is Coming Soon) Church in Anapra, Mexico, for more than 25 years. Anapra is close to the U.S-Mexico border, so when the migrant caravans started arriving at the border three years ago, many asylum-seekers from Central America spilled over into Ponce’s town. Her church—as tiny and dirt-poor as it is—opened its doors and gave them food, shelter, and legal help. It could only house 10 people, so sometimes Ponce invited migrants into her own house right next to the church. At any given time, the yards around the church and Ponce’s house were full of children’s laughter and squeals. 

And then the pandemic hit. If first-world folks in the U.S. are reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic shutdown, imagine how much more asylum-seekers and migrants in an already-poverty-stricken Mexico border town must be suffering. Before the pandemic, many were barely scraping by day-by-day, doing low-paid manual labor such as cleaning houses, washing cars, working in factories, and peddling snacks and trinkets on the streets. When local authorities enforced public health measures, migrants were the first to lose their jobs.

Despite lockdown orders, Ponce decided her ministry couldn’t stop. As often as she could, she piled her van with dispensas (baskets filled with basic staples such as dried beans, rice, milk, and some fresh produce and candy if Ponce had extra money) and drove door-to-door to the 50 families she knows. A coalition of American churches in Las Cruces, N.M., regularly sent funds to Ponce to provide for those basic needs. 

Ponce always took precautions. She would stay in her van and honk when she arrived. The family would come out to greet her, and Ponce would pass out the dispensa from inside her van, knowing if she stepped out, the kids would jump over to hug her. She would check up on each family, ask if they needed anything, and prayed out loud for them. God’s work need not cease due to the pandemic, even if it continues in a van. 

I was amazed at Ponce’s positive attitude and active love for her community during this time. This is a woman who had suffered her share of trauma in the past, a single woman who gives her all to serve the needs of others despite having very little for herself. No matter the obstacles, she finds ways to care for and love people in her community.

Here’s another way she’s serving her community: Schools are closed, and all classes are virtual. However, a lot of poorer folks—particularly migrants—cannot afford internet service, which means their kids have no access to education. So Ponce went to her local school district, asked for that year’s schoolwork, and printed out all the classwork. She then packaged the print-outs in plastic booklets and distributed them to each kid according to grade level, along with a Bible study curriculum she created. Each time she visits in her van, she asks the kids about their schoolwork, answers any questions they may have, and if needed, calls the teachers for help on solving a question in their booklet. 

Children are the heart of Ponce’s ministry. And I sensed a childlikeness to Ponce’s spirit as well, in the way she sees the world with childlike faith and trust. It is a purity of heart and soul that isn’t naïve—Ponce knows better than most of us Americans what fear, hardship, persecution, and poverty are—but her purity is one that is both childlike and mature. Her posture and perception don’t sink into today’s cynicism, conspiracies, and criticism. Instead, I sensed in Ponce a constant, daily wonder in the world God has created, a strong belief in the supernatural, and a trusting acceptance of God’s mysteries. 

And because of that childlikeness, Ponce doesn’t miss the opportunity to see God’s work. Every time I talked to Ponce, she praised and thanked God for every little thing that happened, then expressed delight in the people in her life—especially the kids, who unlike their parents, are not weighed down by cynicism. 

Ponce sees the difference between adults and children: The parents are worried and anxious. They watch the news on TV, hear things on the radio, and ask Ponce, “Is this a political attack?” “Are we being manipulated?” “Did God send us a plague to punish us?” And Ponce directs them back to God’s Word: “No, this is humanity. This is part of living in a fallen world. Let us look to God. Didn’t He promise to be with us, to strengthen and guard us? Trust in God to carry us through this.” 

The parents, momentarily encouraged, nod their heads and respond, “Amen, amen.” But whenever they watch the news or count the few pesos they have left, their hearts fail them again. That’s when their children turn to remind them, “Remember what the pastor said? We need to look to God!” 

I was reminded of Matthew 18:1-5, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus called a child into His arms and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” At a time when society dismissed children, Jesus uplifted them in front of all and publicly recognized their innocence and purity as something to be valued and celebrated. 

Ponce said when she first began her ministry, she cried out to God, “How will I know that I’m doing Your will?” And she said God answered, “Look at the faces of My children. When you see them smiling, that’s Me smiling.” 

What a simple yet profound way to test and do God’s will. Let us never grow too old and too sophisticated to become like little children in God’s eyes. 

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