Wall Street Journal reporter Julie Wernau embraces a colleague before her departure at Beijing Capital International Airport March 28, 2020. China expelled more than a dozen American journalists working for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

Prospects bleak for recovery of US media presence in China

The slugfest between China and the U.S. over the treatment of media workers in each country appears to have paused. Rather than expel each other’s journalists, as they did a few months ago, each side in early July imposed registration and reporting requirements on those remaining—still many more Chinese in the U.S. than Americans in China.

Many observers say the U.S. government has badly misplayed its hand, resulting in the decimation of American media operations in China while Chinese operations in the U.S. suffer much less impact. And, even though a group of experts is working on recommendations to repair the damage, prospects for recovery are dim.

“I imagine China is pretty happy with the way things are now,” said James McGregor, a business consultant, longtime China resident, and former Wall Street Journal reporter who chairs APCO Worldwide’s greater China operation.

The expulsion from China of prominent reporters from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal who had pioneered reporting on everything from COVID-19 to mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang was not the stated intent of the U.S. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in March, after the U.S. effectively expelled dozens of Chinese journalists: “We expect Beijing to take a more fair approach towards American and other foreign press inside of China.  Where the Chinese Communist Party has imposed increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment, and intimidation on our independent and world-class journalists, we will respond to achieve reciprocity.”

Instead, “The U.S., by taking on this issue the way they have, have played into the hands of all the bad actors in the Chinese system and given them carte blanche to get rid of American journalists,” said Richard McGregor (no relation to James McGregor), senior fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute, a private think tank. “If the idea was to strengthen the leverage over a country’s nationals working in China, it has backfired spectacularly.”

“I think we fell into China’s trap,” said Minxin Pei, a Chinese politics specialist at Claremont McKenna College, arguing that China has long wanted to rid itself of the U.S. journalists.

As Richard McGregor, previously stationed in China and the U.S. for the Financial Times, said: “The Chinese journalists in America, however many there are, add nothing to the greater universe of knowledge about America at all. If they stopped working tomorrow, I don’t think anyone in China would be less wise about what’s happening in the U.S. because the U.S. system is open, and well reported on by the locals.”

By contrast, he said, restrictions on the local press in China are severe, leaving it to foreigners to dig into news and trends.

James McGregor agrees: “Most of what you know about China that China doesn’t want you to know comes out of those journalists [who are now expelled]. He adds that it’s a loss for the business community that needs to know what is happening in China.

China-U.S. tit for tat

  • In February 2019, CGTN registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department. The registration led a few months later to CGTN losing its accreditation to cover Capitol Hill.
  • On February 18, 2020, the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese media organizations—Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation, and Hai Tian Development USA—as “foreign missions” controlled by the Chinese government, forcing them to comply with reporting requirements on employees and property ownership.
  • On February 19, 2020 China announced that three reporters working for The Wall Street Journal would be expelled, ostensibly to protest an allegedly offensive headline in the Journal.
  • On March 2, the U.S. government limited visas that could be issued by five Chinese organizations to 100, forcing up to 60 journalists to leave the U.S.
  • On March 17 (March 18 in China), Beijing announced the revocation of press credentials, and therefore visas, of at least 13 journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
  • In mid-March, China forced the dismissal of at least seven Chinese nationals working for U.S. news bureaus.
  • On May 11, the Department of Homeland Security restricted work visas issued to Chinese journalists to 90 days, renewable.
  • On June 22, The State Department designated four additional media operations—China Central Television, China News Service, The People’s Daily, and the Global Times as “foreign missions.”
  • On July 1, 2020, China demanded that four U.S. news agencies—The Associated Press, CBS News, National Public Radio, and United Press International—provide information on staff, finances and real estate holdings.

The conflict has brewed for years, as China abused and oppressed foreign journalists, or those trying to gain entry. CPJ has documented repeated cases of China delaying or refusing to grant visas to those who wrote stories that China found embarrassing. On the ground in China, reporters frequently face harassment from security officials who do not accept rights of foreign correspondents to travel freely and interview anyone willing to talk to them. The number of Chinese willing to talk to a foreign journalist has also declined, as interviewees can face harassment or even arrest. Every year, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China documents the sad deterioration of the working environment for foreign correspondents in an annual report.

Meanwhile, as China blocked access to The New York Times and other news websites, the U.S. freely admitted hundreds, possibly thousands, of Chinese journalists and allowed them to roam the country and do what they wanted. (While the State Department apparently wasn’t counting, the U.S. government should now have access to data on Chinese journalists, since forcing them to register as “foreign missions.”) China Global Television Network (CGTN) set up its own U.S. broadcast operation. Some Chinese outlets were openly propaganda controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

Or worse: “Some of them are spies; that’s a fact,” Pei told CPJ.

How to rectify the imbalance has long vexed journalists, China specialists and U.S. diplomats. Keith Richburg, head of the media program at Hong Kong University and a longtime foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, recalled a conversation with a U.S. diplomat in Beijing from 2011 where Richburg suggested casually that the U.S. go for reciprocity and get tough on issuing visas to Chinese. The diplomat responded that the U.S. could never win by going down that road. And, Richburg said, “What’s happened so far was what all the people opposed to reciprocity always said would happen.”

China described its retaliatory measures as “entirely necessary and reciprocal countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the U.S.” It did not mention the history of its mistreatment of foreign correspondents in China.

Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, told CPJ that the rupture over media personnel was inevitable.

 “The Chinese had us in a stranglehold,” Schell said. “China was just flooding the place with journalists, executives, spies, you name it. We had limited numbers of journalists, constantly getting expelled and threatened. It’s just total madness and total inequality and totally lacking in reciprocity.”

 “The Trump administration said this was not sustainable,” said John Pomfret, a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief. “And to that extent, I agree with them.”

This isn’t to say that either Schell or Pomfret applaud Trump administration tactics, which Schell calls inept and clumsy.

What’s next? Schell heads an Asia Society task force drawing up recommendations for the U.S. government. He suggests looking back to the Soviet era to see how the Soviet Union and the U.S. managed differences. Pomfret, part of the task force, suggested that each side cap media visas at a number, perhaps 100, and that under the cap each side would have total freedom to decide who gets the visas to send into the other country. If more U.S. journalists want China visas than allowed, a non-profit entity would decide who gets them. Pomfret then suggested that issues such as Chinese broadcasting in the U.S. and websites or broadcasts by U.S. outfits be negotiated as a trade issue.

Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said a further round of expulsions that could reduce the headcount to zero in each country is “a real possibility.” At the same time, drawing on her experience in the State Department during the Clinton administration, she said the key is to start with something simple and achievable, such as a cap on visa numbers, on the assumption that China values the presence of its media operations in the U.S. enough to overcome its distaste of hosting foreign correspondents in China.

While Minxin Pei sees no prospect for movement under the Trump administration, he said a truce followed by agreement on stationing journalists in each country could be a relatively easy win for the two countries if they want to patch up relations, given the complexity of other issues of conflict.

Others are more skeptical, especially on the idea of reciprocal numbers. “China probably would not go for it because they have far more journalists in the U.S. operating freely than they would allow in China,” Richburg said.

James McGregor said China’s media outlets can easily replace expelled reporters with experienced, out-of-work U.S. journalists.

“What pressure point could you put on the Chinese to get them to treat American journalists better?” Richburg asked, unable to provide an answer. “It was better to have journalists working in China under those conditions rather than having them all kicked out.”

No one knows how to roll back the clock, much less broadly improve the treatment of foreign correspondents in China.

The State Department declined to comment when CPJ asked whether it had proposed negotiations to China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s International Press Center and the Department of Consular affairs did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.

“There are no good answers here,” James McGregor said.