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A Shanghai resident in front of a newspaper stand
'The exodus gives China the opportunity to widely circulate state-run media'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Imaginechina/Z. Junxiang

Why are foreign journalists fleeing China?

William Yang Taipei
April 1, 2021

The Committee to Protect Journalists has said the increasing departures of journalists shows China "has a lot to hide." Beijing's toughening crackdown might force international audiences to consume Chinese state-media.


At least 20 journalists have been expelled or forced to leave China since last year, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China has said.

The club says Beijing deploys "intimidation" tactics as part of efforts to obstruct the work of foreign reporters.

Louisa Lim, an award-winning journalist and a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, says there is more to the narrative "than just journalists being kicked out."

"Fundamentally, China's Communist Party sees foreign journalism as an ideological tool which the West is using to infiltrate their ideology," she told DW.

Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the recent string of foreign journalists being expelled from China reveals Beijing's hardening stance on free press.

"It’s very disreputable for China, and it also shows that they have a lot to hide," Butler told DW.

Activists are also bearing the brunt of Beijing's toughening crackdown on opposition.

Australian journalists flee China fearing arrest

'Pattern of harassment and intimidation'

In one of the latest reports of foreign press intimidation, the BBC revealed Wednesday that one of its correspondents in China had relocated to Taiwan.

Journalist John Sudworth said he and his team faced surveillance, threats of legal action, and obstruction and intimidation wherever they tried to film.

"We left in a hurry, followed by plainclothes police all the way to the airport through the check-in," Sudworth said in an interview with the BBC. "The true grim reality for reporters here being made clear all the way to the very end."

In response to Sudworth's departure, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said authorities had not been given prior notice.

"Only in recent days when we were faced with the task of renewing Sudworth's press card did we learn that Sudworth left without saying goodbye. After he left the country, he didn't, by any means, inform the relevant departments nor provide any reason why," Hua told a news conference in Beijing. "We don’t know why he left because he didn't say goodbye."

Sudworth's departure comes after Beijing blocked BBC World News from broadcasting in China.

The Chinese government has repeatedly accused the British broadcaster of producing "false and fabricated" reports about the country, especially after the BBC aired an interview with a Uyghur woman who claimed Beijing is carrying out rape, sexual abuse and torture against Uyghur women in Xinjiang’s so-called re-education camps.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China issued a statement on Wednesday that described the harassment of Sudworth and his colleagues as "part of a larger pattern of harassment and intimidation that obstructs the work of foreign correspondents in China."

Rise of Chinese state-media

Media worldwide can expect a decline in investigative reporting from China as more journalists leave the country, says Lim.

The journalist says the exodus gives China the opportunity to widely circulate state-run media, as foreign news organizations will have a smaller spectrum of content to choose from.

"If they (foreign media outlets) don’t have a correspondent who is able to film in China, they are more likely to use materials from China’s state-run broadcaster CGTN," Lim said.

But the whole process is "counterproductive" as China still needs foreign journalists to help keep the rest of the outside world up to date with its activities, she added.  

"When they get rid of the experienced journalists, China becomes even more of a black box and I think that could be counterproductive for China," she said.

According to Butler, an expulsion of foreign reporters is also counterproductive for China because it not only "has a lot to hide," but it "also has a lot to boast about."

"We lose both of these things now," he said.

Calls for negotiations

Correspondents in China must be more vigilant than before, Butler warned.

"I think foreign journalists in China need to be ultra-aware of their surroundings and potential security implications of what they are doing. They need to take extra steps to ensure their digital security as well," he said.

Ultimately, foreign governments need to hold talks with Beijing and broaden negotiations on tradeto include press freedom and "cultural access," he said.

"The most likely way to succeed in this…is that at some point, the West needs to reassess the broad relationship with China and put media coverage on the table as part of the broader negotiations," he said.

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