China Brief

The Coronavirus Has Put the U.S.-China Relationship on Life Support

The effective expulsion of American journalists from China is part of a broader wave of anti-foreigner sentiment.

The empty courtyard of a usually busy shopping mall is seen on March 10, 2020 in Beijing, China.
The empty courtyard of a usually busy shopping mall is seen on March 10, 2020 in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: China expels American journalists, Beijing and Washington swap harsh words on the coronavirus, and grim economic data emerges.

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The U.S.-China Relationship Is on Life Support

China dropped a bombshell on the Western press yesterday as it announced the effective expulsion of all U.S. staff of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. It also demanded that both Time and the Voice of America, along with those three organizations, register all their employees in China as foreign agents. Thirteen journalists have been expelled as a result; more are likely to follow as China squeezes the bureaus, quite likely including non-Americans. The move came in part in retaliation for Washington’s recent limits on Chinese state media operatives in the United States.

The effective expulsion of three of the most important American outlets would be worrying enough. But there also appears to be a wave of anti-foreigner feeling building throughout the system. Americans and other Westerners in China are reporting police questioning of their bosses, restrictions on visits by other foreigners, and increased police checks. Anti-Asian racism, meanwhile, is on the rise in the United States at the street level—including targeting Asians for wearing masks—amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

Chinese ambassadors, meanwhile, continue to spread the lie that the virus didn’t originate in China, while state-linked media doubles down on conspiracy theories promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about an imaginary U.S. military role. In response, American conservatives, including the Trump administration, continue to refer to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an angry call to State Counsellor Yang Jiechi and summoned the Chinese ambassador for a dressing-down.

Hong Kong borders. The announcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Western journalists explicitly included Hong Kong. That’s a serious wound to the idea, enshrined in the agreements for handover, that Hong Kong’s border control is separate from Beijing’s, and it raises several legal and governmental questions. Meanwhile, Reuters confirms that People’s Armed Police paramilitary observers are present in Hong Kong, as Hilton Yip warned in FP last year.

Fear factor. The warning signs are flashing bright red for foreigners in China, who should, at a minimum, have an exit strategy—and would be wise to use it soon, especially with flights likely to be grounded globally for months. At a minimum, they should expect their next visa to be extremely hard to obtain—and keep paperwork, especially local police registrations, in impeccable order.

Cold War 2.0? There’s been a long-standing debate in the China watcher community over whether the brewing U.S.-China competition can be called a cold war. But neither the United States nor the Soviet Union ever accused the other side of causing a pandemic, either deliberately or through neglect. Relations are at their worst point in modern memory and likely only to get worse. Unless de-escalation comes soon, this could be very ugly. 


What We’re Following

Quarantine zones. Measures to protect China are still in place, with flights into Beijing now virtually impossible. China hasn’t shut its borders, but new arrivals now require a two-week quarantine period in a small list of approved hotels—self-funded. (Amid a crisis for the hospitality industry, it must have taken hotel owners serious pull to get on that list.) Caixin has a long report on the process. Chinese citizens who come back in without reporting their symptoms, meanwhile, are facing up to three years in prison.

Back to school. Chinese schools in some of the least-hit provinces, such as Qinghai and Guizhou, are returning to physical classes in the next few days. The “Two Sessions”—key political meetings of the year—may be held in May. Throughout much of China, excluding Hubei, public spaces are reopening, though still under strict monitoring regimes, including temperature checks and the use of apps to trace infected people. Hospitals are being dismantled. The next few weeks will see if these measures work—a hopeful sign for everyone in the next two months—or if a new wave of infection hits. (Early and unreliable data suggests that R0, the measure of the number of people each carrier infects, may be creeping back above 1—meaning the virus is spreading—in China outside of Hubei.) The world should be watching, and also praying that China reports the numbers accurately.

Firewall isolation. One thing that’s become very visible in the last few weeks: The Great Firewall cuts off the rest of the world from Chinese stories. If the Western internet had been flooded with firsthand accounts of the suffering in Wuhan and the struggles of living under quarantine, maybe the problem would have been taken a little more seriously. Front-line health care workers’ experiences also barely seem to have filtered through to their counterparts in the West, potentially costing lives. And censorship is only tightening. (I had a great piece on this lined up from a Chinese writer until they became too scared of retaliation to publish it.)


Tech and Business

The trade deal is dead. Not only dead, but forgotten—neither side will be able to fulfill even a fraction of its commitments, even as the new norms are worked out for cargo and ports during the pandemic period. Whether that means a return to trade war or a willingness to work from a blank slate after the dust settles is uncertain—but I’d bet on the former, with added viciousness.

Dire numbers. As the West stares into the abyss of depression, the Chinese numbers for the lockdown period aren’t encouraging. The first quarter is likely to see a 9 percent contraction in economic activity, says Goldman Sachs. Industrial output is down 13.5 percent, and retail has plummeted by 20 percent. Unemployment numbers—never reliable—have risen to 6.2 percent, the highest ever admitted. At the same time, China is bringing its state resources to bear, cushioning the immediate impact but also pushing economic reform a long way off.

Student numbers plummet. Chinese international students, facing a fresh virus crisis and a wave of racism, are flocking home. Unless something significantly changes, the number of new international students on campuses this fall will be close to zero. That’s going to be a devastating financial blow for Western universities that have become deeply dependent on Chinese student recruitment. An American degree is also going to look like a less attractive proposition in a more xenophobic China.

Relief measures. The United States is mulling massive emergency relief measures, including simply sending out checks to all citizens. In China, the high level of state control has pushed the burden largely onto businesses, which have been made to keep paying employees throughout the lockdown process. They’re now desperate for state aid to stay afloat—while workers outside the formal employment process, including migrants, have been particularly battered. Relief for individual families and vulnerable people appears to be being channeled through neighborhood committees and local governments, but income inequality is likely to sharply rise as a result.


What We’re Reading

We usually draw attention to more obscure journals or books in this space. But this time around, let’s pay tribute to some of the work by the correspondents who have just had their lives in China abruptly truncated—and get a sense of what the Chinese people are losing by their absence. Here are just three of them on the pandemic.

Locked down in Beijing, I watched China beat back the coronavirus,” by Gerry Shih, the Washington Post

Her Grandmother Got the Coronavirus. Then So Did the Whole Family,” by Amy Qin, the New York Times

Coronavirus Outrage Spurs China’s Internet Police to Action,” by Paul Mozur, the New York Times


That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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