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  • Skepticism Remains Over Official COVID-19 Count as Wuhan Ends Lockdown

  • U.S. Mulls Responses to Journalist Expulsions

  • Sensitive Words: “Let’s Go, America”

 


Photo: Wuhan Stay Strong! (Chinatown, NYC), by Nestor Galina

Wuhan Let’s Go!, by Nestor Galina (CC BY 2.0)


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Skepticism Remains Over Official COVID-19 Count as Wuhan Ends Lockdown

After punishing the first healthcare workers who voiced concerns about a mysterious new virus now known as the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 in December, authorities in Wuhan, Hubei province continued to act as if all was well for weeks before officially acknowledging the threat. As the outbreak became endemic in the region and country, authorities cracked down on unauthorized information, detained critical voices, and silenced a massive online call for free speech from scared and frustrated citizens. On January 23, Wuhan authorities announced the lockdown of the city, a move the WHO called “new to science,” and public health experts criticized for being risky. The lockdown would soon expand to much of the province and become the “largest quarantine in human history,” affecting over 50 million people. Days later the WHO declared COVID-19 a “global health emergency” (a possibility censors in China had targeted days earlier to limit negative economic forecasts).

The WHO classified the outbreak as a pandemic on March 11. As global infection rates rapidly climbed, state media reported Wuhan’s first day of zero new cases on March 19 (four more days would follow), a statistic Beijing would use to promote itself as a leader in the global fight against the pandemic. Many local residents and external analysts were skeptical about the official numbers for Wuhan–due both to earlier COVID-19 censorship and propaganda, and to the fact that under Beijing’s updated prevention guidelines, daily tallies did not include positive test results from asymptomatic and recovered patients. Since then, Wuhan’s official COVID-19 death count has hovered just above 2,500.

Last week, authorities announced that the “brutal but effective” lockdowns in Hubei would be eased and fully lifted by April 8, and that other regions of China would be easing relevant restrictions on residents and businesses. At NPR, Emily Feng and Amy Cheng report that as many as 10% of Wuhan residents who had tested positive and were pronounced recovered, have tested positive a second time, raising concerns as authorities begin to lift the local quarantine measures:

Some of those who retested positive appear to be asymptomatic carriers — those who carry the virus and are possibly infectious but do not exhibit any of the illness’s associated symptoms — suggesting that the outbreak in Wuhan is not close to being over.

[…] Two [of the four people who retested positive that NPR spoke to …] are front-line doctors who were sickened after treating patients in their Wuhan hospitals. The other two are Wuhan residents. They all requested anonymity when speaking with NPR because those who have challenged the government’s handling of the outbreak have been detained.

[…] To leave Wuhan, residents must first test negative for the coronavirus, according to municipal authorities. Such screenings will identify some remaining asymptomatic virus carriers. But the high rate of false negatives that Chinese doctors have cited means many with the virus could pass undetected.

[…] “In terms of those who retested positive, the official party line is that they have not been proven to be infectious. That is not the same as saying they are not infectious,” one of the Wuhan doctors who tested positive twice told NPR. He is now isolated and under medical observation. “If they really are not infectious,” the doctor said, “then there would be no need to take them back to the hospitals again.” [Source]

Exceptionally long lines to recover the ashes of dead family members now that lockdown measures are easing  have added to earlier skepticism over the official case counts. Bloomberg reports:

The families of those who succumbed to the virus in the central Chinese city, where the disease first emerged in December, were allowed to pick up their cremated ashes at eight local funeral homes starting this week. As they did, photos circulated on Chinese social media of thousands of urns being ferried in.

Outside one funeral home, trucks shipped in about 2,500 urns on both Wednesday and Thursday, according to Chinese media outlet Caixin. Another picture published by Caixin showed 3,500 urns stacked on the ground inside. It’s unclear how many of the urns had been filled.

People who answered the phone at six of the eight funeral homes in Wuhan said they either did not have data on how many urns were waiting to be collected, or were not authorized to disclose the numbers. Calls were not answered at the other two.

[…S]ome in China have been skeptical of the accuracy of the official tally, particularly given Wuhan’s overwhelmed medical system, authorities’ attempts to cover up the outbreak in its initial stages, and multiple revisions to the way official cases are counted. Residents on social media have demanded disciplinary action against top Wuhan officials. [Source]

In a Twitter thread, Bloomberg’s James Mayger notes that state media has reported that a top-level Party meeting has called for the better monitoring, tracking, and control of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients, and that other Chinese media have reported those numbers will be released soon. He concludes:

An English report from Caixin explains how the onslaught of death in Wuhan has complicated logistics for funeral homes and mourning observations, and notes other standing regulations facing the bereaved as the lockdown eases in Wuhan. Flynn Murphy and Bao Zhiming report:

Liu’s father was […] already hospitalized with brain cancer when the city’s Covid-19 crisis deepened in late January. To make room for a surge in patients, Liu’s father returned home, but his condition deteriorated as he became unable to access the care he needed. Despite being readmitted to the hospital in early March, he died within a few days.

“Although my dad didn’t die because of Covid-19, it killed him indirectly,” Liu told Caixin.

[…] Many of the bereaved regret that they weren’t able to give their loved ones proper sendoffs. Strict quarantine requirements prevented friends and relatives from being at their bedsides when they died. At the height of the city’s epidemic, some undertakers were so busy that deceased patients lay in their hospital beds for hours before being removed.

Even now, people are far from free to pay their respects however they want. On Thursday, as smoke billowed from the chimney of the Hankou Funeral Parlor’s crematorium, mourners sat on widely spaced plastic chairs to minimize human contact, while workers in full-body protective gear reunited them with the deceased. To prevent another surge in infections, city authorities plan to suspend in-person visits to grave sites through Qingming Festival, a traditional festival to honor the dead also known as Tomb Sweeping Day that this year falls on April 4. [Source]

At Radio Free Asia, Qiao Long, Lau Siu-fung, and Luisetta Mudie report that some online estimates of the city’s actual death toll are nearly 20 times higher than the government statistics. The report also includes other anecdotes leading to skepticism around the official Wuhan statistics:

[…] Such an estimate [based on 3,500 urns handed out daily for the 12 days before Tomb Sweeping festival] would mean that 42,000 urns would be given out during that time.

[…] Another popular estimate is based on the cremation capacity of the funeral homes, which run a total of 84 furnaces with a capacity over 24 hours of 1,560 urns city-wide, assuming that one cremation takes one hour.

This calculation results in an estimated 46,800 deaths.

[…] [The official number is 2,500 people,] “But during the epidemic, they transferred cremation workers from around China to Wuhan keep cremate bodies around the clock,” he said.

A resident surnamed Gao said the city’s seven crematoriums should have a capacity of around 2,000 bodies a day if they worked around the clock.

“Anyone looking at that figure will realize, anyone with any ability to think,” Gao said. “What are they talking about [2,535] people?”

“Seven crematoriums could get through more than that [in a single day].” [Source]

At The Atlantic, Kathy Gilsinan outlines Beijing’s recent statistics-based attempt to declare the worst over at home while internationally promoting itself as a global leader in COVID-19 response to warn that “China’s purported success against the virus, and its help to others in similar circumstances, may prove less than meets the eye“:

[…] For one thing, the Chinese model of mass roundups of citizens and extensive surveillance with no real public-health purpose is not, or shouldn’t be, exportable to democracies—and democracies like South Korea and Taiwan have, through their own successes against the virus, proved that authoritarianism is not the required ingredient. The crackdown may not even have succeeded as well as China wants to advertise. Nurses in Wuhan have told the Financial Times of “hidden infections” going unreported in China’s official statistics. “If China prematurely declares victory and they’re wrong, that could lead to a second wave of infections,” Doshi said. “It’s quite sobering to think what that would mean for the world’s pandemic response and the global economy.”

[…] Most immediately, it could mean that the coronavirus ground zero continues to generate and export more cases.

[…] The real short-term risk of China’s leadership exercise is that, should the country make the calculation to prize its economic health over public-safety concerns, other countries contending with the pandemic’s economic devastation may find themselves tempted to follow suit. Trump has already said he’d like to get the United States back to work by Easter, about three weeks from now—though China’s lockdown lasted months. As the crisis drags on, more and more leaders will find themselves facing gruesome calculations about the severe economic toll of keeping a low death toll. At that point, the China model may look even more tempting. [Source]

With lockdown restrictions lifting in Wuhan despite palpable safety concerns, the Financial Times’ Sun Yu reports on widespread citizen opposition to the easing of restrictions stemming from a lack of trust in the government:

The violence on Friday [on the Hubei/Jiangxi border against local authorities not following central orders to allow migrant workers to cross the border] and the sudden requirement for large amounts of additional documentation before people could move around the country underlined a growing distrust of authorities as Beijing struggled to restore credibility undermined by its cover-up of the pandemic that has killed more than 30,000 people worldwide.

[…] The present difficulties faced by migrant workers, said a Beijing-based sociologist, are rooted in fears that the virus remains prevalent, especially in Hubei, even though official statistics have been showing zero new cases of infection in the province for many days.

[…] Authorities are unlikely to be able to reassure Chinese citizens because authorities only test those with symptoms, which means official statistics are unable to capture asymptomatic virus carriers.

[…] “We have paid a steep price for believing in the government,” said the academic. “Now people would rather overreact than not act to protect against the virus.” [Source]

At Al Jazeera, Shawn Yuan reports that despite concerns of a second spike in infections in Wuhan, “there is a sense that the worst has past,” and relays three stories of life slowly returning to normal as the restrictions are eased. A video report from Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi shows customers returning to thoroughfares as businesses reopen, subject to virus screening. The AP also reports on life in Wuhan as restrictions lift.


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U.S. Mulls Responses to Journalist Expulsions

The New York Times’ Edward Wong and Julian E. Barnes report responses under consideration by the Trump administration to the expulsion of 13 American journalists from China, which were announced last week together with new registration requirements for some American media organizations. These, together with more recently apparent measures against U.S. news organizations’ Chinese staff, were the latest salvo in a sharply escalating exchange of blows between Washington and Beijing.

Some American intelligence officials have pushed for years to expel employees of Chinese media organizations who they say mainly file intelligence reports. The officials now see an opening to make a strong case after Beijing abruptly announced this month that it would expel almost all American citizens who report from mainland China for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

[…] “Propaganda outlets that report to the Chinese Communist Party are foreign agents, not ‘journalists,’” the State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said on Twitter on Thursday.

“Even General Secretary Xi says they ‘must speak for the Party,’” she added, referring to remarks that President Xi Jinping of China made in 2016 as he toured the headquarters of state-run media organizations. In recent days, Ms. Ortagus and Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, have engaged in an information duel on Twitter.

[…] The officials are now seeking a way to retaliate beyond continuing a cycle of retribution that harms people who practice actual journalism. Taking the fight to the intelligence services would do that, they say, as well as allowing the Americans to avoid criticism that they are clamping down on press freedoms.

One option that some officials have discussed that does not involve spies is limiting the reach and distribution of the Chinese outlets in the United States, whether those are television networks or newspapers. But that runs into the thorny issue of press freedoms. For years, the Chinese government has blocked online access to major foreign news websites and apps, and it often censors broadcasts by international television networks. [Source]

On Tuesday, the publishers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post issued an unprecedented open letter to the Chinese government, protesting the expulsions. The letter highlights the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Reporters Without Borders argued this week might not have reached its present global scale if not for China’s strict regime of media control.

In this moment of shared crisis, China has decided to expel American journalists from a number of news organizations, including the three we oversee, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times. This move — made in retaliation for recent expulsions by the United States government — is one that we would protest under any circumstances. But it is uniquely damaging and reckless as the world continues the struggle to control this disease, a struggle that will require the free flow of reliable news and information.

We strongly urge the Chinese government to reverse its decision to force the Americans working for our news organizations to leave the country and, more broadly, to ease the growing crackdown on independent news organizations that preceded this action. The media is collateral damage in a diplomatic dispute between the Chinese and U.S. governments, threatening to deprive the world of critical information at a perilous moment.

The earliest reports on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and its rapid spread were brought to the outside world by the journalists who work for us in China, as well as their colleagues for other leading news organizations. We have sent our reporters to live for extended periods in the center of the outbreak to document the toll of the disease and the struggle to treat those afflicted with it. We have prominently featured news and analysis about China’s remarkable progress in reducing the spread of the virus through containment and mitigation. Even now, with some of our journalists facing imminent expulsion, they are reporting on how China is mobilizing state resources to develop vaccines that could offer hope to billions of people there and around the world.

[…] Amid tensions between superpowers, journalism bolsters strong, confident societies by providing to leaders and citizens important information and awareness to inform their lives and decisions — even, perhaps especially, when it is challenging to governments. We believe it is unambiguously in the interests of the people of both countries, as well as their leaders, to let journalists do their work. [Source]

As The Times and others have reported, Chinese journalists have also carried out aggressive reporting on the outbreak, but operate under much tighter constraints, and their work is often quickly censored.

Unnoted in both the open letter and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ announcement of the new “countermeasures” last week were the sacking of several Chinese “news assistants” formally employed by the ministry. These “unsung heroes” do often equal work under even greater pressure for little public recognition. From Christian Shepherd at The Financial Times on Sunday:

At least five Chinese citizens working for the New York Times and Voice of America have been fired this week by the Beijing Service Bureau for Diplomatic Missions, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

Chinese law forbids its citizens from working as journalists for foreign media in the country and requires all contracts be held by the bureau, which is affiliated with the foreign ministry.

[…] The move strikes “at the heart and soul” of foreign media organisations operating in China, said Jane Perlez, a former Beijing bureau chief of the New York Times who is now at Harvard University.

“Without the researchers’ ability to find Chinese people who know what is going on — like tracking down doctors in Wuhan who spilled the beans on the coronavirus — our coverage would be much weaker,” she said. [Source]

Shen Lu also discussed the impact of the firings at the Columbia Journalism Review on Thursday, noting that two of six cases had involved staff for CNN, which was not among the formally targeted organizations.

An American journalist who was affected spoke on condition of anonymity about the larger repercussions of losing Chinese media workers. “It’s part of a broader campaign to dismantle foreign media in the country, and the effect is actually bigger than the expulsions,” he said. “The US media will, down the line one day, be able to replace its staff. But the entire Chinese staff system is on the breaking point. Who will want to still work for foreign media? That’s irreplaceable.”

[…] “A lot of the work behind the scenes is done by the Chinese staff, many of the interviews are done by Chinese staff, and even many stories are written by Chinese staff,” says Maria Repnikova, a political scientist at Georgia State University. She notes that even with the experience of long-term foreign correspondents, the loss of bilingual Chinese staff will have significant consequences for the quality of coverage. Many China correspondents, she says, especially those new to the country, may not have the language skills or the cultural and political knowledge to independently carry out reporting work.

[…] Chinese staff also often guide foreign correspondents toward necessary nuances in coverage. “I am afraid that by losing these Chinese assistants, some US journalists will rely more on their preexisting frames about China, many of which are more or less biased, or at least are cliché,” says Fang Kechang, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chinese colleagues, he says, bring “new perspectives in understanding China.” [Source]

Shen and Reuters’ Keith Zhai were among the voices highlighting the vulnerability of Chinese staff:

At Tuesday’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference, a Bloomberg reporter noted at least seven cases, and asked spokesperson Geng Shuang to explain their treatment. Geng replied simply that “relevant matters are handled in accordance with laws and regulations.” He was also asked about the publishers’ open letter:

I haven’t read this letter yet. But as I recall, we made it very clear on this podium that the measures taken by the Chinese side against relevant US media are all necessary countermeasures and legitimate self-defense in response to US unreasonable oppression of Chinese media in recent years. We are not the reason and the responsible party for the current situation. If any US media agencies, including those you mentioned, have any problems with it, they should raise the complaints to the US government.

As for whether China will reconsider the decision, I shall say the top priority for now is that the US should change its wrong course immediately and stop political oppression and unwarranted restriction against Chinese media. [Source]

The publishers appear to have anticipated Geng’s advice: The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi noted on Tuesday that “although it is addressed as ‘an open letter’ to China’s government, the statement from the newspaper publishers seems aimed at American officials, too.”

Reuters reported a further “frosty response” from the Foreign Ministry on Friday, with a statement on its website asking “faced with the escalating political suppression and discriminatory practices of the United States, do you expect China to be merely a ‘silent lamb’”?

The expulsions have unsurprisingly been a prominent theme of the ministry’s press conferences over the past week, with Geng’s responses leaning heavily on a set of preformulated stock phrases conveying points the ministry appeared particularly keen to communicate. These include near-identical statements that “China’s basic state policy of opening-up hasn’t changed and will remain unchanged”; “unreasonable oppression against Chinese media organizations in the US” (which appeared over a dozen times in either identical forms or close variations); “legitimate and justified self-defense”; and “what we oppose is ideological bias towards China, fake news in the name of press freedom, and violation of professional ethics.” (Geng put a topical spin on the first of these transgressions on March 22, urging the U.S. to “eliminate its political virus of ideological bias, and stop vilifying the CPC and Chinese media.”) He also repeated an earlier warning that “should the US choose to go further down the wrong path, it could expect more countermeasures from China.”

Similar themes appeared in a Global Times report translated last week at China Media Project by David Bandurski, who noted that its timing “suggeste[ed] the paper had prepared the report in advance of the MOFA announcement.”

[Shen Yi, an assistant professor in the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University] said that compared to past Chinese responses, this response shows greater confidence on China’s part, and shows greater bluntness and directness. “This tells us that US-China relations have already entered a new phase: China will no longer accept compromise. If the United States is willing to move in the opposite direction, this would be good, but if the United States obstructs China, it will certainly fight back.”

Li Haidong (李海东), a professor at the Institute for International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, said to the Global Times that China’s response does not seek to make new trouble, but rather hopes through these actions to warn the United States that its own actions are inappropriate, and to press the US to make amends. Only in this way can media dialogue between China and United States be smooth and normal. “This move is also a reminder to the United States that US-China exchanges cannot be made ideological, and cannot be viewed and handled with Cold War thinking.” [Source]

Both governments have sought to differentiate their own moves in the exchange from those of their counterparts. Geng summed up the U.S. actions which he claimed had begun the dispute, and to which China had regrettably become obliged to respond, during the March 24 press conference:

Dating back to December 2018, the US demanded certain Chinese media organizations in the US to register as “foreign agents”. In February 2020, it designated five Chinese media organizations in the US as “foreign missions”. On March 2, the US announced personnel cap on the above-mentioned five media organizations in the US, demanding 60 Chinese journalists to leave the US before March 13, which in effect expelled 60 Chinese journalists. Since 2018, the US has indefinitely delayed approval and even denied application of visa for 30 US-based Chinese journalists, and nine of them were unable to reenter the US after returning home on leave. [Source]

Geng had previously described China’s expulsions as more compassionately executed, on March 18:

[… T]he US asked 60 Chinese journalists to leave by March 13. We talked to the US many times for some flexibility and a grace period considering the epidemic and the fact that it was very hard to book airline tickets at that time. However, no leeway or flexibility was given. But China will be more reasonable and will handle their exit in a more humane way. [Source]

Much of the questioning at the MoFA press conferences explored the issue of reciprocity. From March 18, for example:

Q: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the media agencies they identified as foreign missions a few weeks back were part of Chinese propaganda outlets. These aren’t apples to apples, because the US media China’s countermeasures target are those criticized by US government and president and they’re not part of US government agencies. So I wonder in what sense are these countermeasures taken by China reciprocal? Since China accuses the US of unwarranted restrictions, then on what ground does China target these specific media agencies?

A: I need to stress that China is committed to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is the same when it comes to the media sector. Chinese media stick to the Constitution and laws when carrying out their work. Chinese media working in the US also honor the US laws and abide by the ethics of journalism.

The US should not judge other countries’ media according to their own standards and preferences based on ideological prejudice, let alone oppress Chinese media for unfounded reasons. Some US media, despite their misdeeds, have been backed up and emboldened by the US government. If we follow the logic of those in the US, then can we assume that these US media are actually working for the US government? What are their connection with the US government and interest groups?

[…] Q: Article 35 of the Constitution of the PRC guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. If journalists’ press credentials are being revoked because of actions of their government, is their press freedom still guaranteed?

A: Freedom of speech is fully guaranteed by our Constitution. As a journalist stationed in our country, I think you are well aware if journalists enjoy such freedom here. If foreign media and journalists do not have freedom of speech and the press in China, where do those large amounts of diversified, China-related articles in foreign media come from? Didn’t you write them? Don’t you enjoy the freedom?

As I said, our measures are entirely necessary countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations have experienced in the US. They are legitimate and justified self-defense in every sense. [Source]

Geng faced further questions on March 19:

Q: China announced reciprocal countermeasures on some American media organizations yesterday. First question, according to some US officials and analysts, American people can watch CGTN in the US; China Daily and People’s Daily overseas edition can get published freely in the country, and China Daily has cooperation with the three American newspapers subject to China’s countermeasures. By contrast, none of the American newspapers or TV shows are accessible to Chinese citizens here. That’s why they think it’s not really reciprocal. I wonder if you could respond to that? Second question, we learned that the credentials of many Chinese employees working in American media agencies have been revoked by a subsidiary of the foreign ministry. According to Chinese laws, foreign media in China’s mainland cannot hire Chinese employees directly; the employment must be through this subsidiary. This indicates that these Chinese employees are deprived of opportunities to work for the foreign media organizations. Given that the US measures only target Chinese employees in the US, can you give us any explanation for China’s move?

A: I’ll take your second question first. The Chinese competent authorities, including the subsidiary you mentioned, have been lawfully managing affairs related to Chinese employees of foreign media agencies in China.

Your first question was about reciprocity. Each country has its unique national conditions, public opinion environment, media ecology and related laws and regulations. Regarding this matter, all countries should respect each other’s domestic conditions and customary practices.

As we repeatedly stressed, we welcome foreign media and journalists, including those from the US, covering news in China according to law and regulation, and we provide convenience and support for them. What we oppose is ideological bias against China, fake news in the name of press freedom, and violation of professional ethics. As we keep saying, our fundamental state policy of opening-up hasn’t changed and will remain unchanged. We hope foreign media and correspondents can play a constructive role in enhancing mutual understanding between China and the world. [Source]

And on March 20:

Q: Recently the US repeatedly said that the five Chinese media outlets they targeted are propaganda institutions of the CPC under the control of the Chinese government and not truly independent media, while those US media agencies China has taken countermeasures against are true media. Accordingly, they believe there’s no reciprocity at all. What’s your comment?

A: Such statement by the US side laid bare their deep-seated ideological prejudice.

Beginning from the very first day when China and the US established diplomatic ties, the US knows clearly that China is a socialist country led by the CPC. From the very first day when Chinese media set branch offices in the US, the US is well aware of the nature of the Chinese media. Over four decades have passed, and the leadership of the CPC remains the defining nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the nature of Chinese media remains unchanged.

So why has the US been recently talking about the CPC in every utterance and trying to pit the CPC against the Chinese people? Why are they making an issue out of the nature of Chinese media and taking this as a pretext to oppress Chinese media agencies and seek massive expulsion of Chinese journalists in all but name?

Each country has its unique national conditions, thus different ways for the management and operation of media. What makes the US think it can judge other countries’ media based on the benchmark of its own ideology? What makes the US think it can arbitrarily pin labels on Chinese media to stigmatize and oppress them?

China has no intention to change the American political system, and we hope the US will also respect our political system. If the US believes in the superiority of its system and the triumph of western democracy and freedom as it claims, why is it so afraid of the CPC and Chinese media?

We hope the US will reflect upon its behaviors, eliminate its political virus of ideological bias, and stop vilifying the CPC and Chinese media. [Source]

Writing at Foreign Policy, PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel had little patience for Geng’s claims given China’s long-running pressure on domestic and foreign media, and its internal and external propaganda, censorship, and disinformation.

While provocative and ill-timed, the [designation of state media 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.

[…] 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. [Source]

Much of the other coverage has similarly noted the Trump administration’s “febrile relationship” with U.S. media, which inspired the satirical Onion headline “Trump Hits Back At China By Announcing U.S. Will Also Expel American Journalists.”

Nossel cited a recent annual survey on obstruction and harassment of journalists from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which the organization also highlighted in its own response to the expulsions:

Many observers have described the new expulsions as a long-desired extension of this policy, rather than the reluctant response to new U.S. oppression presented by the Foreign Ministry.

Aside from questions of reciprocity and proportionality, many other observers have made arguments similar to the publishers’, that “it is unambiguously in the interests of the people of both countries, as well as their leaders, to let journalists do their work.” From The New York Times’ Li Yuan last week, for example:

China has long had a fraught relationship with foreign reporters. The government censors international media outlets and frequently harasses journalists. Yet it has long recognized that the Western media fulfills an essential need. It can convey messages to the world, and sometimes to the Chinese public, more clearly and bluntly than local media. It also offers an unflinching window into what is happening in China, a country where even the leadership doesn’t always trust the information it gets.

On Tuesday, that understanding broke down in dramatic fashion.

[…] “[I] suspect that they had long waited for such an excuse to drive out these unwelcome elements of ‘peaceful evolution,’” Yinan He, a professor at Lehigh University, posted on Twitter, citing a term used in China that refers to a Western conspiracy to transform the country into a democracy — a shift that the government says would inevitably lead to chaos.

But China puts itself at risk by silencing outside voices. The expulsions signal that Beijing has accelerated its steps to further decouple from the United States politically, to silence dissent and to close itself off to the outside world — in other words, walking back the steps the country has taken over the decades to make itself a more open and prosperous society. [Source]

Former China correspondent Terril Yue Jones argued similarly at The Los Angeles Times on Monday:

The move is obviously bad for U.S. news consumers, who rely on these outlets for accurate reporting. But it also is bad for China. At a time when China is having some success combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the world needs to get news of that from trusted sources. Ultimately, the expulsion order could cast doubt on Beijing’s message that it has brought the coronavirus crisis under control.

[…] Both governments need to recognize that entering into a cycle of retaliation that results in fewer journalists covering crucial stories is bad for both countries. And for China, which frequently complains that it is misunderstood, cutting off foreign news reporting so drastically is a way to ensure that. [Source]

From John Pomfret at Foreign Affairs:

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.

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. [Source]

And from Joshua Rosenzweig at Amnesty International:

“This shameful assault on freedom of expression targets journalists who have uncovered the reality of numerous human rights violations in China, from Xinjiang to Hong Kong. These publications have also been among those providing in-depth investigations into Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak.

“This latest escalation of the tit-for-tat row between Beijing and Washington threatens to severely undercut the flow of accurate and independent information from China. At a time when the world needs to work together to combat the devastation wrought by the virus, the banishment of these journalists could potentially have grim public health consequences – globally and within China.

“It’s particularly disturbing that these journalists are also being summarily denied the right to work in Hong Kong and Macau – a decision that should be left to the respective governments. This appears to be yet another example of how the territories’ purported autonomy and freedoms under the ‘one country, two systems’ model are gradually being eroded.

“The Hong Kong government must urgently clarify the implications of this announcement for its autonomy under the Basic Law.” [Source]

At the MoFA press conferences, Geng Shuang has dismissed suggestions that this restriction erodes or transgresses One Country, Two Systems. From March 18:

Q: Why is it specially noted that relevant journalists will not be allowed to continue working as journalists in China’s Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions? Is it against the “one country, two systems” principle? If they do their job in these regions, will the central government demand the government of the Hong Kong and Macao SAR to take measures against them? Will they be deported?

A: In taking these countermeasures against the US, the Central Government is exercising its diplomatic authority in accordance with the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law. This is a professional, authoritative answer.

[…] Q: Aren’t you worried that by also expelling these journalists from Hong Kong, this will damage the world’s trust in “one country, two systems”?

A: Since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, the principles of “one country, two systems” and Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy have been faithfully implemented. The international community has a clear consensus on that and highly applauds that.

The Wall Street Journal’s Natasha Khan examined the issue:

Under the Basic Law, immigration, including the power to permit or prohibit working, are exclusively matters for the Hong Kong government, said Sharron Fast, a media-law lecturer and deputy director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre. But, she added, Beijing has the final authority in cases that also trigger national-security and foreign-affairs concerns.

[…] “As long as they meet the requirements for a work visa, they are free to do reporting in Hong Kong,” said Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “That the Foreign Ministry has effectively directly applied the order in Hong Kong makes a mockery of the pledge of giving the city powers to handle its internal affairs.”

[…] The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong expressed its alarm at China’s expulsion order. It called on the Hong Kong government to immediately clarify the situation, and said if the independent decision-making of the local Immigration Department on the employment of foreign nationals had changed, it would “represent a serious erosion of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle.”

[…] “I feel sorry that they won’t be able to report from Hong Kong, even though some of the reports are biased against the establishment,” said Regina Ip, an adviser to the current local administration and a pro-establishment lawmaker. “It is important that Hong Kong remains an international media center as part of ‘one country, two systems.’” [Source]

It had previously been noted that the expelled reporters were barred from moving to Hong Kong and Macao, but not Taiwan, over which Beijing also claims jurisdiction. Geng dismissed a question about this omission, claiming that “the details are all there in our statement. You may read it more carefully.” (CDT has done so, to no avail.)

The expulsions have widely been described as marking a new low in the deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations. The Economist commented that “the trading of blows over journalists has been straight from the cold-war playbook,” while Foreign Policy’s James Palmer noted that even during the Cold War, “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.” In their report on the expulsions last week, The New York Times’ Alexandra Stevenson and Austin Ramzy wrote:

The expulsions, not seen to such an extent in recent history, point to the governing Communist Party’s growing resolve to strike back in all aspects of what is quickly becoming a bare-knuckled competition with the United States. Over the past year, tensions have escalated over issues ranging from trade deficits to technological capacity and military dominance, with bruising effect on American and Chinese companies, business executives, and even university students and academics.

The dispute over media access underlines how this new era of great power rivalry has extended into the marketplace of ideas. It not only signals a more muscular approach to foreign policy in China but also accords with the party’s tightening grip over information under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader.

The expulsions “will definitely have a big influence” on relations between the two countries, said Zhan Jiang, a retired journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “We’ve never really seen anything like this in the past 40 years. This shows the relations between the two sides have fallen into a deadlock, with neither side retreating.” [Source]

Stevenson later commented on Twitter:

Other posts from newly and recently expelled journalists:


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Sensitive Words: “Let’s Go, America”

Following a week of bitter back-and-forth coronavirus blaming between Beijing and Washington that further strained highly tense Sino-U.S. relations, Trump tweeted on Thursday night:

The call took place as the U.S.’ official infection count surpassed China’s, and just after Xi delivered a speech to a video meeting of G-20 leaders, in which he called for international cooperation: “The virus knows no boundaries, and the pandemic is our common enemy. All countries must join hands and put up the strictest network for joint prevention and joint control.” China’s foreign ministry’s account of the conversation says Xi “stressed that since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Chinese side has acted in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” and expressed Beijing’s willingness to support the U.S. in its fight against the virus. “It is the sincere hope of the Chinese people that the US will contain the spread of COVID-19 at an early date and reduce its impact on the American people.”

While we wait to see if the call helped to thaw the diplomatic relationship or aid the global fight against the pandemic, CDT Chinese editors noticed that Weibo users attempting to post the cheer “Let’s go, America” (美国加油) met with the disclaimer “sorry, this content contains information that violates relevant laws or the ‘Weibo Community Convention. The action cannot be implemented.”

Screenshot source: @成涛漫画

@ChengTaoManHua: “Let’s go, America,” this phrase violates rules and regulations…. My Weibo account has already been wiped clean. Any other Twitterers that can test [the phrase]?

CDT Chinese editors have found other web-user tests confirming that as of March 27, 16:47 Beijing time, the posting restrictions were still in effect. Last June, days after a mass protest in Hong Kong against a proposed extradition bill broke out, the term “Let’s go, Hong Kong” (香港加油) became a sensitive search term on Weibo.

While both the Trump and Xi administrations are dealing with considerable public critique domestically for their responses to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Washington and Beijing have been trading shots aimed at highlighting how the the other’s actions are worthy of blame. In China, early cases in Wuhan were downplayed or ignored, information that turned out to be the warning bell for a global pandemic was labeled “rumor” and the doctors who shared it were punished, and when one of them died from the virus on February 7, censors worked hard to control relevant online news and discussion. Continued censorship of information about the early days of the outbreak has continued to be censored, inspiring netizens to invent new ways to preserve it. Chinese foreign ministry officials have promoted conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for military for manufacturing the virus as China’s external propaganda apparatus has cast Beijing as a global leader in the fight against the pandemic and a beneficial donor of humanitarian foreign aid.

Meanwhile in the U.S., President Trump has earned criticism for dangerously downplaying and misinforming about an illness that has now infected over 80,000 in the U.S., surpassing China’s official but widely doubted tally. CNN reports that he has coordinated his administration to “highlight China’s alleged ‘coverup’ and subsequent disinformation campaign.” The President’s insistence on calling the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 a “Chinese virus” has been widely viewed as a xenophobic dog whistle to distract from both his administration’s mismanagement of the crisis and progress towards its economic nationalist agenda.


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