U.S.-China tensions have long been simmering since the trade war started in 2018, with the two countries clashing over technology, trade and more. Prior to this year, members of the media were largely left out of this dispute. However, things changed for Chinese journalists in the U.S. and American journalists in China in February, when the U.S. Department of State classified a number of Chinese state-run media outlets as “foreign missions.” The State Department reasoned that it was finally time to level the uneven playing field; while Chinese media had free rein in the United States, American journalists in China were often harassed and intimidated.
As foreign missions, Chinese media outlets would be subjected to strict regulations that apply to foreign consulates — such as reporting any real estate holdings — as the United States view these outlets as part of China’s “propaganda apparatus”. Just one day later, China expelled three American Wall Street Journal journalists for a WSJ opinion piece headlined “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” which Chinese officials deemed racist.
A cascade of tit-for-tat retaliation followed. In March, the United States capped the number of Chinese citizens allowed to work for certain Chinese news outlets in the country. China responded by expelling more American journalists from China who work for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Things continued to drag on over the summer, where the U.S. imposed 90-day visa limits for Chinese journalists and labeled more Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions;” China hit back by requiring American news media organizations in their country to submit extensive information about their operations.
Although China has never had an easy relationship with foreign journalists, rescinding reporters’ visas outright and canceling multiple visas from the same outlet is a largely unprecedented move. This deterioration of media relations comes at a critical time, too. In a rare joint open letter by WSJ, The Post and Times, the trio of print media giants labeled China’s move as “uniquely damaging and reckless” as the world struggles with COVID-19, a struggle that they wrote requires the free flow of trustworthy news and information. For example, during the first outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China reporting by American and foreign correspondents helped the world know what was going on at ground zero, even in the face of China’s lack of transparency.
Of course, the escalation is not only about journalism; affected journalists in both countries have often been dubbed as “diplomatic pawns.” By imposing regulations on Chinese media outlets, Washington displays its firm stance against China’s perceived intelligence operations in the United States, brushing aside its earlier hesitations over meddling with the freedom of the press. To show an international and domestic audience that it can’t be bullied, China retaliated swiftly. What has followed is a classic scenario of the security dilemma, mirroring both countries’ aggression throughout their ongoing trade dispute.
There is no winner in this media stand-off, only who stands to lose more. Before the normalization of U.S.-China relations just four decades ago, limited contact and propaganda spawned cultural misunderstandings on both sides. Even after that initial introduction period, the magnitude of a free press and internet censorship in China has made it difficult to gain insight into the country. Though essential for their domestic policy of social control, China’s censorship makes it harder for the country to open up to a world that, at times, struggles to understand it.
On the other hand, while reciprocity is a hallmark of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy, it’s important to consider the long-term damage of this media war. America’s visa restrictions hurt Chinese journalists working for credible international media outlets, whose insights lend nuance in reporting on China that Americans might not be capable of providing — in the grand scheme of world politics, individual Chinese voices often go unheard. A lack of cultural understanding on both sides would only accelerate this great decoupling.
The United States’ national security concerns regarding “propaganda outlets disguised as news agencies” are understandable, especially in the wider context of dismal U.S.-China relations and heightened competition. But what about China’s other channels of influence, such as social media? Most Americans recognize that state media is backed by China, but it’s harder to trace the tens of thousands of fake Twitter accounts hacked or created to spread Chinese propaganda. Instead, the United States’ foray into the press arena gave China grounds to mock the apparent hypocrisy: the U.S. cares about freedom of the press, yet its move seems contradictory. It’s also the perfect excuse for China to tighten its control on the foreign press, re-shaping an international narrative that it has long viewed as anti-China.
Over the past month, China has shifted its focus to another Western country, harassing journalists in an all-too-similar scenario. After Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, relations between the two countries have deteriorated. China arrested an Australian citizen who worked as a high-profile anchor at Chinese state television and then forced out the last journalists working for Australian media in the country. Australia hasn’t been passive either, as Beijing accused it of raiding the homes of Chinese journalists in the country in June.
In the West, journalism is regarded as an independent fourth estate to hold the government accountable, while in China it’s often manipulated as a mouthpiece for the government. But, despite the different understanding, only in recent times has China made such moves on journalists from multiple media outlets, and now multiple countries. The Australian episode shows that it’s no longer just a U.S.-China issue. China is shifting to an unusually hardline diplomatic stance as it strives to project an image of strength.
On November 6, the Trump administration will have to decide whether or not it would renew visas for many Chinese journalists in the United States. The date coincides with the expiry date for the residence permits of a number of foreign journalists in China. It should be painfully clear by now that expelling journalists does nobody any good, given how essential information and news is: thus, let’s hope that both China and the United States can work together to form a more productive media relationship. The two can negotiate journalist visa quotas, for instance, setting an example of an easing of hostilities for the rest of the world.
If the United States and China truly want to avoid escalating conflict, they ought not burn these critical bridges.