Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

The expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters from Beijing at such a crucial time is no coincidence.

The question is, what will it take for Canberra to respond in kind and stand up to Chinese press censorship?

The reporters — former Fairfax staffer Philip Wen and Americans Josh Chin and Chao Wang — were given five days to leave after Beijing took offence at a WSJ article titled “China is the real sick man of Asia”.

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That the expelled journalists had nothing to do with the article — an opinion piece by a US academic about China being “humbled” by the coronavirus crisis — has raised the issue of reciprocity.

Just how will the US and its allies respond to Beijing accelerating its crackdown on foreign media?

This is the first direct expulsion since 1968, and the first multiple expulsion in living memory. Typically, Beijing simply revokes press credentials or does not renew visas of reporters it considers troublesome. That tactic has claimed multiple journalists over the past several years.  

The line has hardened since Xi Jinping took the reins as leader in 2012. The aim is to create uncertainty amongst the foreign press corps which numbers several hundred media representatives.

The endgame for Beijing is to force self-censorship, to browbeat the foreign media into pulling punches as they report on China, particularly on its senior leaders and their families who have traditionally been the absolute no-go area.

The crackdown started in February 2011. At that time messages circulated Chinese on social media about marches for a so-called “jasmine revolution” in the wake of the Arab Spring.

As it turned out, the main event of the supposed jasmine revolution was a non-event. Protesters were massively outnumbered by onlookers, including journalists, senior diplomats, police and plain-clothes operatives.

Several journalists were assaulted by secret police. The non-revolution prompted action by authorities. Every member of the foreign press corps was called into the immigration office for an interview recorded on video.

I happened to be one of the first (likely by dint of my publication, The Australian, or my nationality). It was very uncomfortable and the choice of location made it clear what might be at stake.

In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, authorities had almost completely relaxed restrictions for foreign media travelling around China. The sole exception was Tibet and the Tibetan areas of Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, home to about half the ethnic Tibetan population.

Parts of Xinjiang have also been systemically designated forbidden territory since sectarian riots in 2009. On a December 2009 trip, two colleagues and I were given a round-the-clock guard for five days “for our protection” as we moved around Kashgar, home to hundreds of thousands of increasingly persecuted Muslim Uighurs.  

Journalists reporting there and in other ethnically sensitive areas are now monitored, detained and generally obstructed even in allegedly “open” areas.

There has also been an escalating trend of detaining journalists for no reason in provincial areas; they are often roughed-up, with equipment confiscated or smashed.

The emergence of the coronavirus COVID-19 has created a new set of problems for journalists. It has become clear that censorship and a crackdown on free speech on Chinese social media — including censoring several medical professionals, one of whom has since died of the disease — played a role in ensuring the disease spread much faster and wider than it should have.

Beijing is responding by doubling down on its latest attack on freedom of speech. And as usual it’s not just foreign press being made to suffer. Academics such as Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun, who criticised Xi over the coronavirus crisis in an essay, have been put under house arrest, had social media sites shuttered and access to the internet blocked.

Activist and legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who was freed in 2017 after a four-year jail term, was detained at the weekend after more than two months on the run for slamming Xi’s mishandling of the epidemic and other crises. At least two Chinese journalists reporting from the virus front line have disappeared.

In the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing war with the truth, foreign journalists are being punted out — and Chinese citizens are paying with their lives.

And yet Western countries, including Australia, have opened their doors to scores of Chinese media, taking the high road on press freedom. Will Australia act? And what will the US do, beyond its current push against Chinese state-run media?

I put a series of questions to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It had not responded at time of publication.

Michael Sainsbury was a correspondent in Beijing for The Australian and then the Daily Mail from 2009-2013 and served as Secretary of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China during 2012-2013

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