The United States Can’t Win Playing China’s Media Games

Tit-for-tat media expulsions only end up benefiting Beijing.

China's state broadcaster CGTN anchor Liu Xin
China's state broadcaster CGTN anchor Liu Xin looks at a screen showing her debate with Fox Business Network presenter Trish Regan, at the CCTV headquarters in Beijing on May 30, 2019. Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

It’s very tempting to applaud the measures that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday—that the visas issued to five Chinese media organizations would be capped at 100, likely forcing them to send home dozens of Chinese employees—journalists, managers, or whomever the organizations select. After all, these bloated operations—Xinhua News Agency, CGTN, China Radio International, China Daily, and People’s Daily—really are propaganda outfits that do the bidding of the Communist Party of China. That’s not supposition or a big secret. That’s what China’s own leadership says about the role of Chinese news organizations. Of course, that’s not healthy, at least not for press freedom. So sure, send them home.

And what could be more fitting in view of the miserable way that China treats foreign reporters on its own soil? Monday’s report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China described in the great detail the sort of intimidation and threats foreign correspondents face day in and out: threats to revoke their visas when they report news that China doesn’t like, threats that are carried out often enough to scare everyone; threats and intimidation of locally hired Chinese staff who are asked to spy on their employers, including threats to their families; surveillance and interference with what are supposed to be legally authorized reporting activities around the country. A majority of correspondents in China reported on the FCCC survey that working conditions had deteriorated. For the second year in a row, not one said conditions had improved.

But as I write this, enjoying a kind of smug feel-good vibe as I watch Chinese media workers in the United States get the boot, I have to keep reminding myself that what may feel good isn’t necessarily good for you.

The State Department wasn’t technically wrong to designate these organizations last month as foreign missions, akin to foreign embassies or consulates. It’s not that they never report actual news. That’s just not their purpose, and they have free rein to broadcast or circulate, even in the United States, distorted or highly one-sided accounts, for example, of the Hong Kong protests that read more like press releases from China than a news report. Under President Xi Jinping, controls over the Chinese media have grown progressively stricter. So, yes, it’s fair to question whether they are really journalism operations. Indeed, the organizations are believed to act as cover for espionage operations as well, sending exclusive reports back to China’s spy agencies. All the more reason to get a handle on their operations.

But just one day after the United States designated these media groups as “foreign missions,” China decided to expel three reporters for the Wall Street Journal, citing an allegedly racist headline in an opinion piece the previous week that had nothing to do with the reporters. True, some Chinese undoubtedly found the headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asiato be offensive. But, honestly, so what? China can’t live with a few offensive words thrown its way? (And the Journal made a reasonable case for why they were not offensive.) The timing of the move made it obvious what the real reason was; the reporters simply happened to be in the crosshairs. That brings to nine the number of journalists expelled since 2013, including those denied visa renewal—often for exposing corruption or human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The expulsions were a stark reminder about the need for caution, especially today. One of the Journal reporters, an American named Chao Deng, has been unable to leave China by the deadline because she is stuck in Wuhan under quarantine. She had been sending excellent dispatches on what was happening at the epicenter of the epidemic, and now that voice is silenced. She’s been permitted to remain, but not allowed to continue her reporting.

It’s true that the visa imbalance is extreme. Last year, according to the State Department, 425 visas were issued to Chinese media workers and immediate family, while U.S. journalists working in China number about 100 (not including families). Now that the U.S. government has decided to prohibit the five designated organizations from employing more than 100 Chinese nationals, forcing up to 60 to lose their jobs and visa sponsorship, just how many foreign correspondents will China decide to expel in retaliation? And how will that affect the vitally important work of reporting on the unfolding global health crisis?

Sure, Pompeo spoke about creating a level playing field, and hoping that Beijing would, in response to U.S. moves, “adopt a more fair and reciprocal approach to U.S. and other foreign press in China.”

Really? Is there some precedent that no one else knows about suggesting that China will respond in a positive, cooperative, way after the United States gives it a thrashing by expelling up to 60 of its nationals? And it won’t simply turn the screws tighter on the Beijing foreign press corps.  China took just one day to vow retaliation. “Now the US kicked off the game, let’s play,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Twitter.

I appreciate Pompeo’s intent, but we’ve been suckered into playing China’s game, and they are just better at it than we are. We might have real leverage on trade issues; not so much on media visas. And the timing—when the world needs a free flow of accurate information in the midst of a global crisis—that could not be worse. There’s no easy solution. What hasn’t been tried is a global coordinated and principled push for China to behave, executed by governments that understand the critical importance of press freedom. For that to happen, the U.S. president would have to show some so-far absent leadership.

Steven Butler is the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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