19 March 2020

As both sides expel journalists, a new US-China Cold War is upon us

By Ron Shine

Until last month, China  had not expelled a journalist since 1989 and the nation-shaking tumult of Tiananmen Square.

Until now, Beijing has limited itself to refusing visas to certain reporters, such as Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian of AFP – presumably for offending the authorities with their coverage of China, though no explanation has ever been given.

Now, the gloves are truly off. Just over a month ago, Beijing expelled three foreign journalists (two American and one Australian) from the Wall Street Journal over a perceived insult in the headline ‘China Is The Real Sick Man Of Asia’, referring not just to the coronavirus but the slide into ever more authoritarianism under Xi Jinping.

The Trump administration retaliated by ordering the expulsion of around 60 Chinese journalists from five outlets. Xinhua news agency, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and People’s Daily were left with a maximum combined total of 100 journalists in the US.

The Chinese government was never going to let this pass, however, and now has said it will reciprocate. Beijing has now made a series of moves against Western media: first, China-based branches of Voice of America, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and Time must “declare in written form information about their staff, finance, operation and real estate in China”.

Then there are the measures against journalists from certain publications. A statement from the Chinese government sets things out starkly:

“China demands that journalists of US citizenship working with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post whose press credentials are due to expire before the end of 2020 notify the Department of Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within four calendar days starting from today and hand back their press cards within ten calendar days.”

So, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have had their journalists booted out (journalist visas run for one calendar year only), while the Voice of American and Time also are, essentially, to be squeezed out. It’s also worth nothing that this also applies in Hong Kong: the myth of “One Country, Two Systems” can safely be declared dead.

This was clearly part of a planned package. (A China Daily editorial supporting these measures was published almost simultaneously). But the package is, of course, about far more than tit-for-tat measures.

While the Chinese government has delivered its countermove as a near-mirror image of the US expulsions, and the statement emphasises that this is all in the name of reciprocity, that presumes a level playing field that simple does not exist. In China, foreign journalists are subject to constant pressure, both physical (being pursued by thugs and goons, or prevented from filming or travelling freely), and digital (hacking and interception of messages is endemic). China remains a closed society, where information dissemination is proscribed and the first instinct is to censor.

Though foreign journalists have long been targeted in China, the US action was, I think, foolhardy. It allowed the Chinese government to present the whole matter as a dispute between two equally wronged sides. There’s no low to which the Chinese government will not go: it clearly feels it can do without foreign journalists, no matter what this says about it. And, fundamentally, it makes news and information from China so much harder to come by.

Media expulsions will not impede Chinese in the US. But expulsions are a huge problem for investors, corporations, governments and concerned individuals seeking reliable information in China. Foreign Policy’s James Palmer has written about how no-one ever really knows what’s going on in China, because of this strategy of information-witholding.  (China not only has Potemkin villages, it has Potemkin factories to fool investors). Even at the moment, Chinese companies listed on US markets, for example, can only be audited by Chinese branches of accountancy firms. This issue will multiply exponentially, making it impossible to believe any figures coming out of the country.

But this is only to view it as an information problem. The diplomatic aspect is far more significant. Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter, has written that “I can not think of a more dangerous time in the US-China relationship in the last 40 years, and the carnage from the coronavirus has barely begun in the US”.

I have previously discussed the ongoing campaign by China to shift the “blame” for the coronavirus on to the US, with diplomats and foreign ministry spokesmen raising “suspicions” about the virus being planted in China by the US. The Chinese economy will shrink for the first in decades, people will lose their jobs, unhappiness will broil, and the Chinese Communist Party will take a significant reputational hit. That’s why it is now urgently implementing strategies to assuage that impending anger.

Ever since Tiananmen Square in 1989, foreigners in general and the US in particular have served as a foil for Chinese leaders stoking nationalist sentiment. This remains the playbook, but what we are now witnessing may well be a new Cold War. Deleveraging – the former watchword – isn’t a strong enough term for what is happening, as a deep freeze on Sino-US connections, from trade to academia to tourism, takes over. Everything will be affected.

Journalists – as conduits of information – are only the pawns in the opening gambits. The larger pieces will be coming into play shortly, and we should all get ready for that. The next moves will not be pretty.

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Ron Shine is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.