A man reads a newspaper in Hong Kong, March 2017
Dagmar Schwelle / laif/ Redux

China’s expulsion of more than a dozen American journalists is being heralded as another step toward a new Cold War. Chinese officials are crowing about sovereignty; the expulsions, by their telling, are merely a proportionate response to moves by the Trump administration to limit to 100 the number of Chinese citizens who can work in the United States for five state-run Chinese news organizations. But the comparison doesn’t hold up: Beijing is effectively clearing out the three best independent news organizations in China, while its media companies in the United States are widely understood to be outlets for propaganda and will continue to spout the party line.

What’s particularly ironic, however, is that while readers in the United States are going to be hurt by China’s decision to purge Americans from the bureaus of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, the biggest losers in this “game,” as a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry called it, will be China and its people. For now, Chinese officials may be content to denounce the “ideological prejudice” of the American media. But China is going to miss those reporters when they’re gone.

American reporters have played a key role in telling China’s story and encouraging it to modernize, not just over the past 50 years but over the past 150. Their stories have often threatened top Chinese officials and, since 1949, the elite of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But over the past few decades in particular, China has thrived when it has proved responsive to stories that policymakers might otherwise have ignored, and suffered, often catastrophically, when those developments have been suppressed. Given the tight constraints on Chinese reporters, the foreign press corps has been integral to bringing stories to light. Think of the reporting that has been done by the Times and the Journal on China’s environmental problems. That has been to the clear benefit of the Chinese people. It has also, in a way, been to the benefit of China’s leaders, since their success has depended on their ability to be responsive to national needs and popular demands—needs and demands that they often would have missed without the efforts of American reporters.

The novel coronavirus outbreak, like the 2003 SARS outbreak before it, provides an especially stark example of how foreign reporting spurs needed government action. In 2003, a doctor at Beijing’s 301 Hospital provided a Time magazine reporter, Susan Jakes, with a signed statement accusing Chinese authorities of covering up the seriousness of SARS, and only then did China’s government act to deal with it. When the coronavirus outbreak began in December, communist authorities initially attempted to silence frontline doctors, preventing them from raising the alarm. Think what could have happened if they had been successful? Western reporters, led by the Times, the Post, and the Journal, helped break the information logjam and held the Chinese government to account. Reporting by the Post’s Anna Fifield early in the pandemic exposed undercounting of the death toll that helped embolden Chinese media to follow suit. And Chris Buckley of the Times set the standard for first-person accounts from the locked-down city of Wuhan. (Buckley is an Australian, but his last byline in the Times was on February 14.)

FORGET TANK MAN

As far back as the late nineteenth century, American journalists were at the forefront of China’s quest for modernization. In 1867, Young John Allen, a Methodist missionary from Georgia, founded a Chinese-language monthly called The Globe in Shanghai. From The Globe’s pages, Chinese readers first learned about democracy, socialism, economics, and world affairs. The Globe also led the ultimately successful fight to ban foot-binding.

In the 1930s, China’s communists chose an American reporter, a Missourian named Edgar Snow, in their epic public relations battle against Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Snow was crucial to a communist campaign to transform party leader Mao Zedong from a bandit king into, as Snow put it, a “rather Lincolnesque figure” who “may possibly become a very great man.” It was no coincidence that Mao sat for more interviews with Snow for his blockbuster Red Star Over China than he did for any Chinese writer.

In the 1930s, American reporters led the campaign to get the United States to support China against the depredations of imperial Japan. Japanese agents even tried to have the Shanghai-based newspaper publisher John Benjamin Powell expelled from China—and when that didn’t work, they tried to blow him up with a hand grenade. (After the United States declared war on Japan, they locked him in an internment cap, took away his shoes, and amputated all his toes after gangrene set in.) And later, during the Cold War, U.S. journalists such as William Worthy of the Baltimore Afro-American risked jail time in the United States to report from China; the editorial pages of American newspapers advocated for the U.S. government to officially recognize the communist government in Beijing.

In the 1930s, American reporters led the campaign to get the United States to support China against the depredations of imperial Japan.

After President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972, the CCP continued to benefit from U.S. reporting. In fact, most major announcements by the party were done in front of a Western reporter who was often American. From China’s decision to join the World Trade Organization to the fallout of internal CCP struggles, American reporters were often the first to broadcast this information to the world.

American reporters have been pesky, but the service they provided, especially to Chinese people, has been invaluable. Think back over the last several decades about key stories involving China, and practically each time there was an American reporter if not at the center, at least close by. The Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989? Jeff Widener, an Associated Press photojournalist from Long Beach, California, took the iconic picture of “the tank man,” a lone protester who, following the June 4 crackdown, stopped a line of People’s Liberation Army tanks. The CCP may not have liked the picture, but no image from the calamity better captured its pathos than the futile standoff between man and war machine. Widener’s picture was the starting point of thousands of conversations with Chinese students who came to the United States, often to study science but ultimately learning much, much more.

Then there’s the CCP’s much-vaunted crackdown on corruption under President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Groundbreaking work by the American New York Times journalists Michael Forsythe and David Barboza on the fortunes of the families of China’s high and mighty set a new standard for financial forensic journalism. No doubt the details of their reports mortified the CCP writ large, but every individual Chinese official with whom I have spoken has privately acknowledged that these reports constituted a necessary, bracing tonic to a sclerotic political system. That would never have come about had these reporters not been in China.

FIT TO PRINT

I saw how useful American reporters could be to China numerous times when I reported there in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but one story will suffice. In 2000, I was part of a team of reporters from The Washington Post who exposed ethically questionable research activities by Harvard University’s School of Public Health in central China. The stories revealed that in the mid-1990s, Harvard researchers had gone to China’s countryside, offered Chinese farmers health checkups that were never provided, and drawn blood in an effort to find a biotech breakthrough to treat asthma. The researchers neither explained the purpose of the research nor got the necessary consent.

After one reporting trip, before the story had been published, an official from the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called me in to ask why I had traveled to Anhui Province. She was worried I had gone there to gather evidence on forced abortions as part of a story on China’s one-child policy. When I told her I was working on the Harvard case, she tipped her head and said: “You mean you’re writing something on behalf of the Chinese people?” (In fact, I told her, “most of the reporting we do in China is on behalf of the Chinese people.”) China’s official Xinhua News Agency followed the Post’s report with stories of its own. And in 2002, Harvard President Larry Summers, during a speech at Beijing University, issued a public apology for the actions of Harvard researchers. 

This gets at another key role played by foreign media in China. For decades, foreign reporters have served as a pipeline for information that normally would not make it into the Chinese system. Each day, the Communist Party publishes a compendium of reports about China in foreign publications. This compendium is classified, and it is also treasured by those high ranking enough to gain access to it. A declassified version of this compendium, Cankao Xiaoxi, has the largest circulation of any newspaper in China.

In a closed system such as China’s, these reports constitute a key source of news and perspective. In an environment where all the news must fit into a narrative set by the Ministry of Propaganda, alternative facts are in scant supply and thus uniquely valuable. That’s what foreign reporters provide the Chinese government; this service will suffer when Beijing nixes the American contribution to that effort.

INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

Under Xi, the Chinese political system is becoming ever more closed—making the service provided by the foreign press corps even more valuable. Xi’s minions have squeezed many avenues of information in their efforts to turn China into an increasingly totalitarian society. They have tightened controls on nongovernmental organizations, thrown human rights lawyers in jail, and replaced the editors of once crusading Chinese newspapers such as Southern Weekend with party hacks. Under such pressure, it is even more difficult for CCP officials to report bad news to Beijing.

In November, The New York Times published a series of stories based on leaked CCP documents concerning the mass incarceration of more than one million Uighurs in northwestern China. The source of the leak is almost as fascinating as the content: “a member of the Chinese political establishment.” That suggests greater discontent inside the party apparatus over the crackdown than was previously known. Wouldn’t China’s leadership want to know that? To be sure, it’s an inconvenient truth, but it’s an important one. And the chances that someone will report and write a similar story become smaller with every foreign journalist expelled.

  • JOHN POMFRET is the author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom and former Beijing Bureau Chief of The Washington Post.
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