The future of foreign reporting in China is being brought into question as the Chinese government aims to consolidate its control on media.
Beijing recently pulled the plug on Britain’s BBC World News amid China’s strained diplomatic ties with several nations in the West.
China’s move came after the BBC published a series of accounts by women from the Uighur ethnic minority, who spoke of rape, abuse and torture in the so-called re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang region. Beijing rebutted the reporting as false. Britain had also revoked the license of China’s state-owned CGTN television network.
In a statement reported by the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency, China’s broadcaster regulator, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), said that the BBC violated regulations in its China-related reports and that its broadcast application would not be renewed.
Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese state-affiliated media the Global Times, tweeted that the reports were “all false” and that the BBC “has become a bastion of the Western public opinion war against China.”
The expulsion and blocking of foreign media add to an increasingly difficult reporting environment. At least 17 journalists were expelled from China in 2020, according to a September statement by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC).
Several had their media credentials revoked after the U.S. government designated Chinese outlets in America as foreign missions. And other news outlets were ordered to provide detailed statements on their staff and finances.
Sari Arho Havren, a China analyst based in Brussels, said Beijing wants to promote a “new world media order” and with domestic and state media firmly controlled, foreign media are the next target.
“News that contradicts Beijing's official line is then labelled by the propaganda machinery as fake news and lies and counter-narratives have been quickly released,” Havren told VOA.
“[The BBC ban] demonstrates how foreign media operating in China is increasingly treated as domestic media, meaning that the reporting from China that is not in line with the official party line will become increasingly sensitive and risky,” Havren said. “Tit-for-tat measures will likely also increase, as well as China investing heavily in buying China-friendly media coverage abroad, and expanding hybrid influencing into foreign media.”
China in recent years has sought to use media to encourage investment and promote a more positive image. Research by Freedom House shows Beijing has expanded state media operations and used paid supplements in overseas media, among other methods.
Havren, who previously lived and worked in Hong Kong and China, said that despite transparent attempts to reshape the media landscape, Beijing is finding success.
“Chinese media pushes ahead with Beijing's propaganda both at home and rather freely also abroad,” Havren said. “With all the resources that China is putting into molding the China-friendly media order, China is in my opinion succeeding in influencing the global narrative. Even though it often happens clumsily, but slowly we can see it also succeeding.”
Beijing’s tactics of punishment and retaliation against media that goes against China is “increasingly placed upon foreign media as well,” the analyst said.
When China retaliated against the BBC, Hong Kong quickly followed suit, with public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) announcing it would suspend BBC content.
The former British colony lives under a “one country two systems” agreement after it was returned to China from Britain in 1997. But after anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing implemented a national security law to stabilize the unrest.
Since then, Hong Kong has seen itself more aligned with customs in Beijing, raising concerns among civil society over rights including press freedom.
Obstacles to coverage
China’s aim to clampdown on news covering sensitive issues within the country, both domestically and overseas, is nothing new. Beijing feels Western media unfairly targets and exaggerates local affairs within the country, often retaliating by labelling reports as fake news.
In its World Press Freedom Index, the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders currently ranks Hong Kong 80 and China 177 out of 180, where 1 is the freest.
The Foreign Correspondent Club of China also publishes an annual working conditions report, on difficulties for international journalists within the country and challenges from limited access.
One such obstacle is the hiring of Chinese nationals as news assistants.
Often aspiring journalists themselves, these news assistants can be hired as researchers, translators or producers but are prohibited from independent reporting. Despite directly working with foreign media, assistants are employed via the Chinese state. It is the only position Chinese nationals can take within a foreign news bureau based in China.
But the assistant’s role has garnered more scrutiny by authorities in recent years. Now, when they are hired or are due to renew their contracts, assistants must sign a “pledge” reminding them of their restricted role and their allegiance to the state.
It is also becoming long-winded to fill a position, and potential employees are becoming increasingly skeptical of taking the job, VOA was told.
A news assistant for Bloomberg, Haze Fan, was detained in China in December on suspicions of endangering national security. Fan, who is still in detention, previously worked as an assistant for U.S. news channels including CNBC and CBS News.
A Beijing-based foreign reporter, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that locals are also becoming more cautious about speaking with anyone labeled foreign media.
“Less and less people want to talk to us. They are always afraid. We have nine out of ten who have pre-booked, canceled at the last minute,” the reporter, who has covered China for over two years, said.
Reports of tight surveillance and harassment are not uncommon. The reporter told VOA they believed Chinese authorities broke into their residence when they were of the country.
“Someone had been in my house. The window was open, and the wardrobe door was open, so they clearly wanted me to know they had been there, that’s how I interpreted it,” the journalist said.
The reporter admitted they had heard other journalists discussing similar incidents, but “living here, I have to live on [Beijing’s] terms.”
Despite the caution, the journalist says reporting on China is more important than ever, adding, “This is where the interesting story is.”