When international journalists rushed to Zhengzhou city in Henan province to cover a deadly flood in July 2021, they were confronted by angry bystanders who accused them of “spreading rumors” and “smearing China.” Many also received harassing messages on social media and intimidating calls, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.
This hostility spread after the Henan Communist Youth League, a lower-level official organization of the Chinese Communist Party that saw international news coverage of the flooding as derogatory, put out a call on microblogging platform Weibo for its followers to report on the whereabouts of BBC correspondent Robin Brant.
Instead of calling for calm, the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Brant of “distorting the real situation of the Chinese government’s efforts to organize rescues and local people’s courage to save themselves, and insinuating attacks on the Chinese government, full of ideological prejudice and double standards.”
The threats to foreign correspondents covering last year’s flood were an early example of what has now become part of the Chinese playbook: state-linked entities publicly chastise foreign journalists, leading to massive online and in-person harassment campaigns. Recently, the harassment cropped up at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Washington Post China bureau chief Lily Kuo received so much blowback on Twitter over her story on China’s promotion of previously-mocked mascot Bing Dwen Dwen that she was forced to make her tweets temporarily private.
“These kinds of nationalistic attacks against people seen as criticizing China have happened for years, against journalists, human rights activists, and others, in different ways,” said Sophie Beach, operations and communications manager at the China Digital Times, a U.S.-based media organization that archives and translates content censored on China’s internet. “But it does seem that the online attacks have become more frequent and more prominent in recent years.”
China is a notorious censor of the country’s media, as the state supervises virtually all content published in any outlet and, according to CPJ’s annual prison census, is the world’s worst jailer of journalists. But the work of foreign correspondents, which escapes China’s massive firewall because it is published abroad, has been historically more difficult for authorities to silence, try as they might by expelling and refusing to credential reporters. Now, as China has become more sensitive to its image abroad amid accusations it mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic, it has taken to harassing foreign journalists online.
“Going after foreign journalists is part of a broad strategy to control all information, including online voices, which has indeed become more challenging for them on all fronts as the methods of communication increase and diversify,” said Beach. “But it is also part of their strategy to proactively rewrite the global narrative about China, especially with the COVID story.”
The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to CPJ’s email request for comment on the state’s roles in the online attacks. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in an email that it would forward a request for comment to its members, but CPJ received no responses.
As part of this new tactic, state-run news organizations and tabloids, as well as popular anonymous social media users on Weibo, often post the names and the pictures of foreign journalists who “smear and attack China,” calling their coverage “biased” or “dishonest” while conveniently leaving out, or intentionally mistranslating, the original news reports.
When NPR’s Beijing correspondent Emily Feng went to Liuzhou, a city in the Guanxi autonomous region in southern China, to write about the Chinese delicacy “luosifen,” or snail noodles, she was followed by officials who tried to impede her reporting on what was supposed to be a “fun” story, she wrote on Twitter. After the story was published early this year, the online harassment started: Feng was labeled an “anti-China foreign citizen of Chinese descent” by posters on Weibo and in stories on Chinese news sites.
One site in particular, the state-funded College Daily, appears to have deliberately twisted Feng’s words. “Foreign media journalist once again digs up ‘dirt on China,’: Luosifen will cause another COVID pandemic,” read the headline, which was followed by an article with a telling mistranslation. In her NPR report, Feng referred to the snail noodles as “another snack that might keep China entertained for another year under lockdown,” but College Daily changed it into a snack “that might keep China another year in lockdown.”
The publication went on to attack Feng with screenshots of her reports. “Almost every article she published on NPR was aimed at China. You can tell just from the titles that she couldn’t say anything good,” the College Daily article said, using shoddy and misleading translations of Feng’s reporting while failing to present the complexity of her work. “China excels at the Paralympics, but its disabled citizens are fighting for access” became “China excels at the Paralympics, but its disabled citizens are still fighting to get into the Paralympics.”
The College Daily’s singling out of Feng also represents a growing trend of Chinese propaganda targeting female reporters of East Asian descent, whose independent reporting is perceived by authorities as a betrayal of their roots and their homeland, said Beach.
“Journalists of Chinese descent are called ‘race traitors’ if they engage in any reporting on China that is less than flattering. The worst attacks appear to be aimed at women of Chinese heritage, because nationalism always has a strong undercurrent of misogyny.”
But the narrative that journalists with Chinese backgrounds serve as political tools for Western media and governments to bash China may have sinister uses beyond discrediting their work – it has raised fears they could face legal charges in the country.
In December 2021, the Chinese propaganda tabloid Global Times, an offshoot of state-run newspaper The People’s Daily, described China-born New York Times visual investigative reporter Muyi Xiao as an example of a journalist who uses Western media to “ambush their comrades and motherland from behind.”
The article noted Xiao’s resume included work with the Magnum Foundation, ChinaFile, and other groups. The paper called some of these organizations “anti-China” NGOs, accusing Xiao of “lying to her heart” or acting with the “zeal of a convert” in her affiliation with them.
By associating Xiao with foreign NGOs, the state-orchestrated information operation may be setting the stage for invoking the Law on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations, which prohibits Chinese nationals from “carrying out temporary activities in the mainland of China,” and “acting in the capacity of an agent” for foreign NGOs. Those found guilty of stealing, secretly gathering, purchasing, or illegally providing state secrets to overseas organizations can face five to 10 years in prison.
Xiao also declined an interview request with CPJ.
Reporters who are not Chinese nationals face fewer risks. But they too must watch their backs. In March 2021, the BBC’s Beijing correspondent John Sudworth left China, where he had been based for nine years, due to the surveillance, obstruction, intimidation, and threats of legal action against him and his team. Sudworth became a target of online propaganda campaigns after he reported on the origins of COVID-19, Xinjiang’s re-education camps, and forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry.
In a press conference last year after Sudworth left the country, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told foreign journalists: “There is a price to pay for those who make rumor and defamation.”
Sudworth did not respond to CPJ’s questions before publication and it remains to be seen whether Chinese authorities are planning to further impede, or even criminalize, foreign correspondents’ reporting in the country. For now, the fact that all but two of the 50 journalists in prison at the time of CPJ’s 2021 prison census are Chinese nationals may be cold comfort for international reporters.