11/09/2020 8:59 AM IST

How China Is Targeting Foreign Journalists To 'Send A Signal' To US And Australia

Experts say China is using foreign journalists as ‘bargaining chips’ amid growing pressure from the two countries.

Earlier this week, the last two reporters working in China for Australian media outlets were flown out of the country for security reasons. American journalists are facing possible expulsion as China has reportedly held off renewing the press credentials of journalists from CNN, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg among others. 

When journalists from these organisations tried to renew their press cards with China’s foreign ministry, they were told that this couldn’t be done, The New York Times reported on 6 September. One journalist told the NYT that foreign ministry officials told him his fate depended on whether the United States decided in the fall to renew the visas of Chinese journalists working in America. 

Experts told HuffPost India that China is sending a signal to Australia and the US by its latest move to target journalists from the two countries. “If this was an isolated incident, I would see it as a bargaining chip by the Chinese or a pressure tactic on Australia and sending a signal to the US. But this level of intimidation against the two journalists from reputed media outlets is an escalation that could suggest a more hardline turn generally speaking,” Deepa M. Ollapally, Associate Director, Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, told HuffPost India

As China and the US up the ante against each other with embassy closures and sanctions, analysts expect more restrictions to be placed on the media, especially by Beijing. Tensions between the United States and China have increased in recent months.

President Donald Trump said in April that he was confident the coronavirus may have originated in a Chinese lab. When asked if he had seen anything giving him a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of the outbreak, Trump said, “Yes, I have.” He, however, refused to give any more details. 

China-Australia relations have worsened since Canberra’s call in May for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Relations have also soured amid allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society, according toBBC.

China has often been criticised for the shrinking freedom given to foreign journalists in the country. It ranked 177th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index. RSF said that far from welcoming foreign correspondents, China consistently practices intimidation, harassment, and surveillance against them and their sources.

China has never liked having foreign correspondents travelling the country and freely reporting, Steven Butler, Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Asia Program Coordinator, told HuffPost India. “Working as a foreign correspondent in China has been difficult for years, and has been gradually getting worse. Actions by the Australian government and the US government have given China cover to take harsher measures against journalists,” he added. 

Butler said that by “actions”, he was referring to the Trump administration’s move of restricting visas of Chinese journalists and the reported raid by Australian intelligence agents in June, where they seized electronic devices of Chinese reporters. 

The Trump administration in May tightened visa rules for Chinese journalists — limiting visas to a 90-day period, with the option for extension. These Chinese journalists are still waiting for their lapsed work visas to be renewed. They have been allowed to stay in the US during a 90-day grace period which expired in November, Reuters quoted people familiar with the matter as saying.  

The US has revoked visas of more than 1,000 Chinese nationals under a 29 May presidential order to suspend entry from China of students and researchers deemed security risks, a US State Department spokesperson was quoted as saying by Reuters on Wednesday.

Foreign journalists in China with expired visas have also been given time till 6 November. These journalists were told by police officials after their discussions with foreign ministry officials that they would be given residence permits that are valid until 6 November, The New York Times’s report said.

CNN said its China correspondent was among those given a letter authorising him to continue reporting for the next two months instead of the usual one-year press card. The correspondent, according to AP, was told the move was unrelated to his reporting but was merely a reciprocal measure in response to the actions of the Trump administration toward Chinese media.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in his Monday press briefing that press card renewals for US media journalists are being processed. He accused the US of treating Chinese media in a “discriminatory manner” and said that the visa extension has not been granted to Chinese journalists by the US yet.

He also urged the US to extend the visas for all US-based Chinese journalists and warned that for China, all options are on the table. “If the US is bent on moving further down the wrong path, China is compelled to make necessary and legitimate reactions to firmly safeguard its rights and interests.”

Sun Yilei / reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a screen at the media center as he delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of the second China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai on November 5, 2019.

China-Australia relations

On Wednesday, China accused Australian agents of raiding the homes of four journalists working for Chinese state media. In his press briefing, Zhao Lijian said that in June, “Australian security and intelligence staff raided, searched and questioned four Australia-based journalists working for Xinhua News Agency, CNR and China News Service on the ground of possible violation of foreign interference laws, seizing their working computers and mobile phones, and even educational tablets and electronic toys for children.” The spokesperson added that Australia is yet to provide an explanation for the raids or return the seized items. 

This accusation by China came just a day after the last two journalists working for Australian media left China over security concerns and the Chinese foreign ministry announced that Australian citizen Cheng Lei had been detained on suspicion of national security crimes.

Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Bill Birtles wrote about how seven Chinese State Security police officers came to his house and told him that he was “involved” in a case and informed him an exit ban had been placed upon him.

“They added that I otherwise had ‘freedom of movement’ and that they would ring the following afternoon to organise a chat. And then they left,” he wrote. 

Birtles said he was asked if he had reported on the Hong Kong National Security Law and what “channels” he went through to get his information. ”

“But it was very superficial stuff — there was never any real effort to dig deeper and find out who my sources were.”  

Kelsey Munro, Senior Analyst, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told HuffPost India that it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t enjoy the scrutiny that comes from having independent foreign journalists — particularly from democratic countries — work in China.

Munro added that it’s a political gesture aimed at Canberra. “It’s the act of a thin-skinned bully, to use journalists doing their normal work as pawns in a bilateral dispute like this.”

The two Australian journalists were questioned by Chinese authorities about Cheng Lei before their departure, according to the Australian Financial Review (AFR). 

Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for Chinese state television, was detained last month. In Beijing’s first explanation for the move, Zhao Lijian said that Cheng Lei is “suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security, and compulsory measures have been taken and an investigation is underway by the relevant authority.”

“Now this case is being handled according to law and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters

“That Beijing is doing this in the midst of the pandemic just when we need more, not less, information about what is going on inside China from a global public health perspective, is deplorable,” Ollapally said.

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