Voice

China Is Fighting the Coronavirus Propaganda War to Win

Beijing isn’t interested in a tit-for-tat media feud with the United States—it’s going for escalation dominance.

A Chinese man wears a protective mask
A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he walks by a propaganda billboard at a normally busy intersection in Beijing on Feb. 21. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
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China’s expulsion this week of American journalists from the Washington Post, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal represents a dangerous escalation of a feud over the freedom of each country’s journalists to report from inside the other’s borders. China has cast the move as proportionate retaliation against the Trump administration’s decision to limit the number of reporters from Chinese government-controlled media outlets who may work in the United States.

But there are essential differences between Beijing’s and Washington’s actions in this standoff. Regrettably, the Trump administration’s betrayals, blunders, and jingoism have forfeited the high ground that the United State once claimed on matters of press freedom, allowing China to cast this as a two-way fight. But China’s characterization belies the reality of a rising power bent on controlling its global image at all costs and by any means.

China’s ejection of journalists from some of the world’s most venerated news outlets is only the latest round in a long-standing war between China and the press. In 2016, during a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese guards prevented the traveling press corps from covering even so routine a moment the president’s disembarkation from his plane. “This is our country,” a Chinese official chided. “This is our airport.” As China has emerged as a global power in the last two decades, media interest in the country has spiked. Around 700 accredited foreign journalists from more than 50 different countries worked on the mainland as of 2016. China maintains stringent and ever-tightening controls on its own domestic media and ranks among the world’s leading jailers of journalists—meaning that objective reporting of the government’s activities depends on these international news outlets. Coverage of the coronavirus earlier this year brought home the essential role of foreign media in informing the world about a crisis soon to reach their shores. The New York Times, for example, managed to communicate via WeChat with a hospitalized Li Wenliang, the doctor who was disciplined for trying to sound an early warning alarm about the virus before he succumbed to it himself.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Traditionally, China has been less concerned about its international reputation than with perceptions of the government at home. After the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010-2011, Beijing intensified controls over the internet and social media, aiming to silence critics, snuff out dissent, and seal off the Communist Party government from challenges. Stringent controls block most foreign news sites and social media platforms including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, none of which is available in China. But the digital information realm is intrinsically permeable. Since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, Beijing has seen accurate, fact-based reporting on the Chinese government and society as a potent threat, to the country’s global reputation and to its domestic controls.

The Chinese government’s crackdown on foreign media over the last seven years has been multipronged. Strictures imposed by a half dozen distinct government agencies prohibit Chinese nationals from reporting for international news outlets, subject foreign journalists to frequent and strict visa and credentialing requirements, and constrain travel to certain regions of the country. (Almost all reporting on China’s gigantic Uighur internment camps in Xinjiang province is forbidden.) News outlets receive warnings of harsh reprisals for stories that depict Chinese leaders as corrupt or authoritarian. Stories questioning the health of the Chinese economy also rankle, sometimes resulting in foreign reporters being reprimanded or punished by.

One U.S. news outlet left out of this week’s ban is Bloomberg News. Following an explosive 2012 Bloomberg expose detailing the vast financial and real estate holdings of Xi Jinping’s extended family, Beijing shut down access to the news site, withholding visas for its reporters and threatening to freeze out Bloomberg LP’s highly lucrative financial information business. Having learned of the story before its publication, Chinese authorities had warned Bloomberg editors not to run it; once the piece appeared, bylined journalists were subject to intimidation and death threats. The journalists later recounted that the company began dialing back tough-minded coverage, admitting that they did not want to risk their access—prompting several reporters and editors to quit. Nearly two years later, Bloomberg LP’s then-Chairman Peter Grauer stated at an event in Hong Kong that henceforward the company would be “primarily writing stories about the local business and economic environment” and that “every once in a while we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably … should have rethought.” After Grauer’s statement, China resumed granting visas to Bloomberg; it’s not clear if the terms of that truce are what exempted the company from the exclusions now confronting its competitors.

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While Bloomberg’s news organization is part of a large corporation with interests distinct from a regular newspaper, other news organizations have paid a price for resisting Beijing’s edicts. Before the New York Times published disclosures about the financial holdings of then-Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2012, Chinese officials summoned Times journalists for a stern warning about heavy fallout. When the story went up, China shut down the Times’ Chinese website permanently. (Its content continues to circulate through virtual private networks and other workarounds.) China also stopped issuing new visas to Times correspondents (forcing its reporters to extend their tours of duty, as they could not be replaced) and threatened to refuse to renew visas for those in-country. At the end of 2013, nearly two dozen journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg faced the prospect of having to leave China, because their visas were about to expire and had not been extended. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, during a December 2013 visit, implored the Chinese both privately and publicly to relent, saying, “innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences.” Shortly thereafter the situation eased somewhat, with reporters receiving visa renewals in the nick of time. The granting of visas to allow new Times reporters in the country would take another two years.

In the ensuing years, foreign correspondents in China have been subject to periodic retaliatory visa revocations. China has also intimidated news assistants working for U.S. outlets who are Chinese nationals, conducted surveillance against U.S. reporters, restricted their travel, imposed onerous visa renewal hurdles, and launched cyberattacks. In an annual report issued this month, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found that 82 percent of the 114 correspondents surveyed had experienced harassment or violence while reporting. Not a single respondent judged that conditions had improved in the last year.

While turning the screws on those reporting from the mainland, China has also mounted an aggressive effort to control its global image. It has sent more Chinese state media reporters abroad, bought foreign radio stations—at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries were owned by state broadcaster China Radio International as of 2015—and established start-up news media companies abroad that look and feel like independent news organizations but are in fact controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

The advent of the new coronavirus has thrown these Chinese information control efforts into overdrive. Alongside punishing doctors and dissidents who dare to criticize the government’s response to the outbreak, Beijing has lashed out against foreign critics of its management of the pandemic and muzzled debate across the country’s social media platforms. Fearful that the initial denial and mismanagement of the outbreak could trigger social unrest, Beijing has now mounted an aggressive domestic and global propaganda campaign to tout its draconian approach to the epidemic, downplay its role in sparking the global outbreak, and contrast its efforts favorably against those of Western governments and particularly the United States. That brute-force public relations campaign led to the outright expulsion in February of three Wall Street Journal reporters as punishment for an opinion column headlined, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”  Of note, none of the reporters had anything to do with the piece, much less the headline.

These developments come against the backdrop of a rise in aggressive, stealthy disinformation operations. Often government-initiated, these campaigns have aimed to shape opinions, sow social disorder, and even influence elections in democracies, especially the United States. It was in this context that the United States announced in mid-February that five Chinese news outlets—Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily, and the People’s Daily—previously all treated as media organizations, would now be dealt with as arms of the government in Beijing, subject to similar rules as those that apply to professional diplomats.

While provocative and ill-timed, the administration’s move was not unjustified: None of these media outlets has any semblance of editorial independence. Their role is to promote Chinese government messages and interests. While most press-freedom advocates opposed the move as likely to escalate constraints on Western media operating within China, as a matter of principle it is hard to argue that the United States was doing more than labeling the agencies accurately.

In early March, almost immediately after the banishment of the three Wall Street Journal reporters, the Trump administration took its policy a step further. It limited to 100 the number of Chinese citizens allowed to work in the United States for five specific Chinese news entities and required that 60 such employees leave the country. In announcing these new strictures, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that his goal was “reciprocity” and “a long-overdue level playing field.” The move was widely interpreted as yet another example of tit-for-tat statecraft that has marked the U.S.-China relationship in the era of President Donald Trump, cutting across trade, cybersecurity, human rights, and now the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, the tensions have climbed. The Trump administration has sought to deflect attention from its ill-preparedness for COVID-19 by constantly reminding people that the virus originated in China. His administration and supporters have rebranded the coronavirus as the “China virus” or “Chinese flu,” fanning racial tensions and bigotry toward Asian Americans, and fueling a self-defeating nativism in response to a pandemic that begs for transnational solutions. When called out, Trump and his allies have maintained an aggrieved innocence, pointing out that few objected to the appellations of Spanish flu and German measles. But no one is fooled, because the only officials who spurn the virus’s proper clinical names are those abetting Trump’s campaign to deflect blame for the unfolding catastrophe.

China’s most recent eviction of journalists (and the imposition of heightened disclosure requirements regarding staffing, finances and real estate on a broader group of U.S.-based media outlets including Time magazine and the Voice of America) is another salvo in a futile war of words and gestures between two superpowers whose incentives to cooperate have never been plainer. Besides thwarting needed collaboration, the fiasco has left many with the false impression of an equivalency between how Beijing and Washington treat the other’s press corps. Until recently, the United States was known as the world’s standard-bearers on freedom of the press. Though Washington’s record was never unblemished, the United States was properly viewed as a global model for robust media freedom at home and support for embattled journalists everywhere.

Now that reputation lies in tatters. The president’s persistent threats, attacks, acts of retaliation, insults, and denigration of the press have provided a practical playbook adopted by authoritarians around the world who seek to discredit their critics and muzzle objective coverage.

But this tragic development should not obscure China’s singular and dangerous acceleration of its war on factual information and credible journalism. Despite Trump’s obscene attempts to recast the U.S. press as “enemies” of the American people, America’s approach toward press freedom has remained infinitely more respectful and tolerant than China’s. The United States doesn’t jail journalists, and its reporters produce harshly critical coverage and commentary about their government every day. According to the New York Times, while China permits just 100 American journalists to work there, the U.S. granted 425 new media visas to Chinese journalists and their families in 2019 alone.

Moreover, despite Pompeo’s misplaced reference to “reciprocity,” the actions taken by Beijing and Washington toward one another’s journalists are far from symmetrical. While the Chinese journalists in question were doing Beijing’s bidding as employees of state-controlled media organs, the American reporters and outlets targeted by China are, with the exception of Voice of America, employed by private, independent journalism outlets. Whereas the U.S. government’s action responded to a bald Chinese attempt to shape the global narrative, the reporters targeted by China are guilty only of journalism. And the consequences are dire: With so many facets of the historic coronavirus story unfolding, the loss of access for dogged professional journalists reporting inside China risks hobbling our understanding of this pandemic and our ability to combat the next one.

Beijing is pursuing superpower status with a steely determination to dictate how its every deed is seen both at home and around the world. The moral high ground that Joe Biden asserted just six years ago in reminding China of the value of a free press has been squandered by the Trump administration. The spectacle of a White House that has turned its back on press freedom so thoroughly that it can scarcely advocate on behalf of leading U.S. media outlets is sobering. But the fact that Washington has forfeited much of its credibility in sticking up for press freedom should not lead Americans to lose sight of the stakes in this tussle with China: namely, the right of citizens across the globe to accurate, impartial, and fact-based reporting on the world’s most powerful nations. It is urgent that the United States reclaim the mantle of a nation fiercely committed to a free and independent press. It must then set about to rally the world in insisting that these media outlets be free to cover China with neither favor nor fear.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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