Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Understanding China Is Getting Harder Every Month

Limitations on reporters and political crackdowns make covering even everyday stories tough.

A Chinese police officer checks the ID card of Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher (second left) as he arrives at the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court before the trial of the Australian academic Yang Jun on espionage charges in Beijing on May 27.
A Chinese police officer checks the ID card of Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher (second left) as he arrives at the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court before the trial of the Australian academic Yang Jun on espionage charges in Beijing on May 27. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

It has never been easy to write about China, but today access is harder, and sources are more limited than they have been for decades. The pandemic hasn’t helped—since March 2020, China’s borders have been closed to most non-Chinese citizens. The result of this is that it is even harder for outsiders—and even most Chinese—to understand what is happening inside the country.

As a journalist, you risk being targeted by an ever changing set of measures by the Chinese government. A weaponized visa process means your credentials may be renewed for six months or denied without explanation. You, or more likely your Chinese colleague, might be detained as the Bloomberg reporter Haze Fan was in 2020.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China reported that the government expelled at least 18 foreign journalists in the first half of 2020. John Sudworth, a BBC reporter, is the latest departure from a prominent news organization, along with his wife, Yvonne Murray, a reporter for the Irish station RTE. As someone who was given rare access to “thought transformation camps” in Xinjiang, his reporting helped bring the story to a global audience.

It has never been easy to write about China, but today access is harder, and sources are more limited than they have been for decades. The pandemic hasn’t helped—since March 2020, China’s borders have been closed to most non-Chinese citizens. The result of this is that it is even harder for outsiders—and even most Chinese—to understand what is happening inside the country.

As a journalist, you risk being targeted by an ever changing set of measures by the Chinese government. A weaponized visa process means your credentials may be renewed for six months or denied without explanation. You, or more likely your Chinese colleague, might be detained as the Bloomberg reporter Haze Fan was in 2020.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China reported that the government expelled at least 18 foreign journalists in the first half of 2020. John Sudworth, a BBC reporter, is the latest departure from a prominent news organization, along with his wife, Yvonne Murray, a reporter for the Irish station RTE. As someone who was given rare access to “thought transformation camps” in Xinjiang, his reporting helped bring the story to a global audience.

The sense that foreign journalists are less at risk from retribution has waned, and there is less room for investigative journalism in China. Sudworth is one of a number of China correspondents from major news outlets now based in Taiwan, while others have gone to Hong Kong or left the region altogether. Without access to China, developing sources becomes considerably more difficult.

Megha Rajagopalan, a journalist at Buzzfeed News, knows about these challenges. After seven years in Beijing, her visa application was denied in 2018. She still writes about Xinjiang, which she thinks got her kicked out, but acknowledges the limitations. “You’re talking to a limited number of people who have been able to leave China and resettle with a stable immigration status,” she said. “A lot of the time, the information we get on what’s happening can be a little out of date.” Where reporting on Xinjiang relies on the few who have managed to leave China, it becomes harder to look at the experiences of the average person.

Local perspectives are important in China, where government programs are often trialed before a decision to roll them out at scale is made. Fewer sources and less access mean this process is more difficult to track. In 2014, for example, Islamic headscarves and beards were banned in public spaces in Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang. Three years later, this became law across the region. With less reporting being done on the ground, it’s harder to look at the impact of these changes in their early days and provide a detailed and up-to-date picture.

Researchers have also been squeezed out of China. Michael Kovrig, a Canadian researcher with the International Crisis Group, remains in solitary confinement on espionage charges, held, along with another Canadian, for over two years as a hostage after Canada arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. In April, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) banned more European academics and researchers from entering the country. Chinese citizens and organizations are also forbidden from dealing with those blacklisted. In what may become a new tactic, Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist, is the target of a defamation lawsuit from Chinese companies that have asked a domestic court to order him to stop his work on Xinjiang and pay damages to them. It might be a stunt, but it’s a fierce deterrent for anyone who wants to keep visiting China for research.

Christian Göbel, a professor at the University of Vienna who looks at protest movements in China, said his fieldwork trips to the country have gradually become less productive since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. After that, he was forced to conduct interviews with local officials and citizens as a group, rather than individuals. Anyone who worked for the party began to use pre-prepared notes, he said.

Like other academics, Göbel has tried to overcome these obstacles through more creative means. He now compiles large data sets from Chinese social media platforms to better understand how people feel about what the government delivers and how they register these opinions. This type of research helps counter the well-worn cliché that the CCP presides over an unresponsive population that is forever acquiescent to its rule.

But Göbel added that this approach comes with its own set of problems. “Social media tends to dramatize problems, so you often end up with a more negative and problematic sense of the issue you are working on,” he said. Qualitative, in-country research is now much harder to do for academics such as Göbel. For his work, the result is that softer, more complex views that may not make it onto social media are less likely to be picked up.

Research coming out of Chinese institutions has also been undermined. China has had an ongoing problem with credibility due to plagiarism and falsification, but pressure by the CCP is forcing social science studies into a thematic cul-de-sac. Göbel said the permissible gray zone for Chinese academics has been eroded and he sees considerably more work from his Chinese counterparts on topics such as Xi Jinping Thought or the value of Marxism. Göbel said this makes it harder to rely on domestic analysis.

A proposal submitted to the CCP this year appears to acknowledge how much the culture of repression has affected academic output, but it’s unclear if there’s much possibility of reform. Jia Qingguo, an academic at Peking University, criticized rules at some institutions that require two university staff to approve a meeting between a Chinese academic and a non-Chinese one. He also took aim at regulations that prevent meeting the same foreigner more than twice in a year and the need for a report after each meeting. Jia’s complaint is unusually outspoken—but for now it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.

While it’s worth acknowledging China’s progress on data transparency, this comes with a big caveat. It publishes more figures than ever before, on court decisions, consumption habits, and more, which has sparked insights that would previously have been impossible. Despite this, the open-data project is not managed by an open government. Researchers often probe obscure corners to get the information they need.

Predictably, Beijing refused to hand over raw patient data to the World Health Organization during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak—a practice considered standard among the international community. Leaks are inevitably rare because the CCP openly jails journalists such as Gao Yu, who was highly respected in China before she was accused of supplying a news outlet with a document that showed the ideological direction under Xi. It’s hard to see how these sources won’t continue to dry up, and the limitations of the data revolution are clear. The data, too, must serve the party.

Through the reform era and beyond the 2008 Beijing Olympics, writing about China helped soften perceptions of the country. The absence of these everyday stories has helped reduce our image of China to its authoritarian government. For Yangyang Cheng, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School, the contemporary approach to China overly focuses on the geopolitical and has pushed out a more humanized, nuanced view of the country.

“Current perspectives often greatly exaggerate and mythologize the capability of the Chinese government, which inadvertently supports the Communist Party’s own narrative,” she said. “This helps to strengthen its domestic control and international status.”

The stories of acceptance, resistance, and everything in between that ripple throughout China play an important part in political responses. Policymakers who see China as a country with real people and culture are likely to make better, less reactionary decisions. If what we’re left with is Mike Pompeo proclaiming that Taiwanese pineapple is a symbol of freedom, the binary encourages us to see everything Chinese as suspicious.

The more simplified narrative has contributed to anti-Chinese sentiment in the West, where anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise. Perversely, this plays into the CCP’s appeal to the diaspora that Western countries are unable to abandon their historic prejudices against the country.

It’s almost impossible to suggest how to improve the way we report, write about, and discuss China as the information available has always been a house built on sand. At any time, the web of censorship, paranoia, or disregard for the truth threatened to overwhelm. The familiar call for more diplomacy overlooks that the Chinese government has done the most to damage our understanding of China—the issue is that the CCP probably doesn’t care.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 print issue.

James Thorpe writes about law and politics.

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.