China’s move to expel U.S. journalists from the country last week comes at a time of great need for accurate information about COVID-19. The move is part of a broader Chinese effort to control the global narrative about the pandemic and is especially dangerous right now—as cracking down on foreign media further undermines trust in China’s ability to respond to the pandemic with transparency.

Workers unload shipments of medical gowns at a hospital in Wuhan, China on Jan. 24, 2020. (Chris Buckley/The New York Times)
Workers unload shipments of medical gowns at a hospital in Wuhan, China on Jan. 24, 2020. (Chris Buckley/The New York Times)

The escalation started last month, when Beijing expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in response to a headline that called China the “sick man of Asia.” The Trump administration responded by imposing new limits on the number of Chinese nationals working for Chinese state media outlets in the U.S., reducing the number from 160 to 100. Then, last week, China announced it was revoking the press credentials of more than a dozen American foreign correspondents at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, effectively gutting the U.S. press corps in the mainland. Since then, several Chinese staff working for U.S. media outlets have also been forced out of their jobs. 

Protecting China’s Preferred COVID-19 Narrative

First of all, we need to be clear—the U.S. and Chinese actions are not equivalent. The U.S. restrictions affected Chinese media outlets such as Xinhua and CGTN, which are under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. China has argued its moves to revoke U.S. press credentials in response were “entirely necessary and reciprocal countermeasures” and “legitimate and justified self-defense in every sense.” But restrictions on independent media, which can play an important role in holding governments accountable, and on state-run media, which cannot challenge government actions, do not lie on the same plane.

It should also be clear that China’s move to expel journalists is not separate from Beijing’s efforts to influence the global narrative surrounding COVID-19. Now that China appears to have brought the domestic outbreak under control, Beijing has sought to showcase the successes of its approach and cast itself as a leader in the global response. To this end, the Chinese government has mounted a campaign to supply much-needed testing kits, masks, and ventilators to countries in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and has sent its medical experts and hosted teleconferences to meet with other countries’ health experts. With fewer foreign journalists working for foreign, independent media in China, there will be fewer journalists to report stories that deviate from this message.

Let’s not forget that China is still cracking down on voices critical of the government’s management of the crisis. China was slow to divulge information about the outbreak in early weeks and silenced those who did. The most prominent whistleblower, Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, was officially reprimanded for sharing information with other doctors about possible novel coronavirus cases in December, and later died of COVID-19. An official probe last week exonerated Li and recommended the reprimand be withdrawn. And earlier this month, a political commentator and real estate tycoon disappeared after circulating an essay criticizing the government for not dealing with the crisis more openly and quickly. With fewer foreign journalists in China, it will be harder for the world to see these stories, undermining trust in how China deals with the virus going forward.

The Need for International Reporting on China

Independent reporting on how COVID-19 is affecting China still matters even though China appears to have weathered the peak of the crisis. Last week, China appeared to hit a milestone when its national health commission reported no new locally transmitted cases for the first time since the outbreak, though concerns remain about possible unreported cases, particularly asymptomatic ones. But China remains worried about people who contracted the virus elsewhere coming into the country, and has instituted strict screenings and quarantine for those arriving from abroad. As China lifts the lockdowns that curbed infections and daily life begins to return to normal, concerns about the risk of a potential second wave could grow, particularly as the virus spreads among China’s neighbors. Even after the outbreak winds down, there will continue to be surveillance and privacy concerns about the cell phone tracking app and other technology used to monitor those with the virus. The expulsion of U.S. journalists casts lingering doubt on information disclosed by China about how the country is preventing new infections or rolling back the strict controls that were put in place. 

And in Washington, the expulsion of journalists has deepened the U.S.-China diplomatic rift at a time when constructive cooperation is needed most. It also coincides with the U.S. evacuating much of its diplomatic staff from China, limiting many levels of communications just as tensions at the top run high. To be sure, U.S. officials risked retaliation against U.S. reporters when they imposed the limits on Chinese state media, and a global pandemic is no time to be playing a blame game. But China’s restrictions on foreign journalists do nothing to help address the crisis.

A global crisis is when trust in information matters the most. There are many civil liberties and personal freedoms that may need to be sacrificed or limited to grapple with a public health crisis—but press freedoms that help guarantee access to information should not be among them. Allowing media to report on the full picture of China’s COVID-19 experience can help other countries weigh the costs and benefits of the measures they are considering. Ultimately, expelling reporters from the country that was the source of—and is still grappling with—COVID-19 is not conducive to the trust that’s needed to move forward.

Related Publications

Tensions Rise as Washington Rejects Beijing’s Maritime Claims

Tensions Rise as Washington Rejects Beijing’s Maritime Claims

Thursday, July 23, 2020

By: Brian Harding; Vikram J. Singh

Based on what Beijing calls “historic rights,” China claims vast swaths of the South China Sea, including waters and features also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. With no reference to international law, China’s “nine-dash-line” encompasses 80 percent of the South China Sea reaching as far south as more than 1,000 nautical miles from the China’s coast, within 50 nautical miles of Malaysia. Within these waters lie features occupied by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan, including three artificial islands that China built in 2012 and has since developed into military bases.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

A Rising China Has Pacific Islands in Its Sights

A Rising China Has Pacific Islands in Its Sights

Thursday, July 23, 2020

By: Ashish Kumar Sen

As part of its bid to expand its influence across the world, China is emerging as an important diplomatic and economic partner for the small and far-flung Pacific Islands countries, but its engagement comes with challenges. As the economies of the Pacific Islands countries reel in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese loans and aid are likely to become even more important in the coming months. China’s growing footprint in the region also brings a strategic challenge to the United States’ doorstep at a time when the U.S.-China relationship is under considerable strain.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Beijing Builds Global Support for Draconian Hong Kong Law

Beijing Builds Global Support for Draconian Hong Kong Law

Thursday, July 16, 2020

By: Jennifer Staats ; Rachel Vandenbrink

China’s new national security legislation went into effect in Hong Kong late on June 30, giving Beijing new tools to control public discourse in the city, eliminating freedom of speech, mandating digital surveillance, and granting China extraterritorial powers to enforce the new law. In response, the United States has revoked Hong Kong’ special economic status and joined other democracies in condemning the law. Yet, a number of other countries have voiced their support for the legislation. By building a coalition of support for the new national security law, Beijing is not only tightening its grip on Hong Kong, but also trying to delegitimize critiques of China’s own domestic policies or system of government and strengthen global opposition to democratic values and the notion of universal human rights.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications