China’s expulsion of American journalists also affects Chinese staff—and the future of reporting in China

March 26, 2020
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, March 18, 2020. AP Photo/Andy Wong

Last week, in an escalating tit for tat with the United States, China announced the expulsion of more than a dozen American journalists working for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. The top editors of the three papers immediately issued statements condemning China’s decision, and on March 24 they followed up by publishing a jointly written open letter to the Chinese government, calling the expulsions “uniquely damaging and reckless” in a time of global pandemic, “a struggle that will require the free flow of reliable news and information.”

American journalists weren’t the only ones affected, however. What has been left out of the news coverage and international condemnation of Beijing’s action are the job losses of at least six Chinese nationals employed at US news outlets: two Times news researchers, one Journal researcher, one Voice of America news assistant, and two CNN staffers. The Chinese government revoked their press credentials and forced them to sign an agreement that “voluntarily” terminated their employment. On March 19, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the Chinese staffers have been “managed per Chinese laws and regulations.”

The workers haven’t spoken publicly about being forced out; Chinese authorities warned them about their future job prospects if they didn’t comply or if they spoke to the press, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. 

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The forced resignations have sent a distressing signal to the approximately two hundred Chinese nationals who work for foreign media bureaus in China. They worry their jobs could be on the line. There doesn’t appear to be a logic to whom the Chinese authorities targeted; while four of the six individuals worked for the outlets designated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as foreign missions (in addition to the Times, the Post, and the Journal, Voice of America and Time magazine were listed), two were employees of CNN, which the ministry didn’t target. 

“It’s not like you say, ‘Okay, I have all these pieces of evidence that suggest that my risk level is 90 percent’ or 10 percent or whatever,” says Yuan Yang, a Beijing correspondent for the Financial Times. “We just don’t know, because it seems to be so inexplicable. What is frontline US media? What is second-line US media? After the US, what other countries might be next?”

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An American journalist who was affected spoke on condition of anonymity about the larger repercussions of losing Chinese media workers. “It’s part of a broader campaign to dismantle foreign media in the country, and the effect is actually bigger than the expulsions,” he said. “The US media will, down the line one day, be able to replace its staff. But the entire Chinese staff system is on the breaking point. Who will want to still work for foreign media? That’s irreplaceable.”

These staffers can’t officially call themselves journalists. The Chinese government bars its citizens from working under that title for foreign media outlets. Instead, they are hired only as assistants, researchers, or for other “auxiliary work,” and must register with an agency under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though these workers are on the payrolls of the news bureaus, the agency is technically their employer. 

Despite these restrictions, many do work in the full capacity of journalists. “A lot of the work behind the scenes is done by the Chinese staff, many of the interviews are done by Chinese staff, and even many stories are written by Chinese staff,” says Maria Repnikova, a political scientist at Georgia State University. She notes that even with the experience of long-term foreign correspondents, the loss of bilingual Chinese staff will have significant consequences for the quality of coverage. Many China correspondents, she says, especially those new to the country, may not have the language skills or the cultural and political knowledge to independently carry out reporting work.

“Without [Chinese staff], international news organizations will not be able to operate their China coverage,” says Keith Zhai, a Reuters special correspondent covering Chinese politics. “You can write about China from Washington, DC, or Sydney, but you are likely to report based on inaccurate information.”

Chinese staff also often guide foreign correspondents toward necessary nuances in coverage. “I am afraid that by losing these Chinese assistants, some US journalists will rely more on their preexisting frames about China, many of which are more or less biased, or at least are cliché,” says Fang Kechang, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chinese colleagues, he says, bring “new perspectives in understanding China.” 

As an example, Fang says, international journalists commonly cast Chinese sources in one of two roles in their stories: the obedient masses brainwashed by the Communist Party, and the brave dissidents fighting against the government’s authoritarian control.

Though their importance to foreign bureaus is widely acknowledged, many Chinese employees are paid just a fraction of what foreign correspondents in China earn. And because of risks to their safety, their work is under-credited, or sometimes anonymous. Sources and family members accuse them of being traitors; within their own companies, they feel like they are second-class citizens.

Zhai worries that operations in China for all international media companies could take “a step backward” if US news outlets don’t stand up for their Chinese staff this time. A CNN spokesperson told me that the company is working to help the affected staff and to ensure that its China coverage “is not compromised. Voice of America stated that it is committed to aiding its news assistant “in every way available.” The Wall Street Journal declined to comment, and the New York Times did not respond to a request for comment. 

In the 1980s and ’90s, Zhai says, foreign media bureaus couldn’t freely hire Chinese citizens; they were assigned researchers by the government. 

“This could just be the beginning,” he warned.

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Shen Lu is a journalist based in Boston covering the Chinese diaspora, culture, and technology.