Beijing Photo by Tomislav Domes is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Earlier this month, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a new restriction that would set a 90-day limit on visas for US-based Chinese journalists. Although visas can be extended, each renewal application would put journalists at risk of being denied each time—never mind the added bureaucratic overhead. This restriction will apply not only to journalists working for state-backed media organizations, but nearly every Chinese journalist working for foreign agencies including Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera, and Initium Media. This restriction puts US-based Chinese journalists in constant fear: they will be forced to plan their lives in 90-day increments, never knowing when they’ll be forced to leave the country.
As tensions between the US and China have escalated to new heights in the past three months, the two governments have taken out their political frustrations on journalists in both countries. In February, China ejected three Wall Street Journal journalists after the publication ran an op-ed titled “China is the real sick man of Asia” (which the three ejected journalists had nothing to do with). This provoked President Trump to respond by reclassifying five Chinese state media outlets as “foreign mission”—a designation typically reserved for offices that are established by foreign nations to represent their interest, such as embassies. In retaliation, China expelled 13 more US journalists from their borders.
The most recent response from the US government to limit visas for journalists is a turning point in this tit-for-tat battle. It is the first time that the US government has significantly tightened its grip across a sweeping category of journalists in the country. But despite its dire implications for US-based Chinese journalists and what this means for the country’s (supposed) commitment to free speech, the fallout of this new restriction has been largely overlooked in the mainstream media.
For as long as I can remember, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has kept foreign journalists on a short leash so that they can control how China gets covered internationally. This was especially apparent after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, when the government ejected foreign journalists from international media organizations like the Associated Press. Understandably, this was a major blow to the free flow of information; the removal of these foreign journalists meant cutting off access to China.
Three decades later, the CCP’s penchant for punishing foreign journalists remains consistent. And with it, so has the ensuing international outrage. After the most recent pandemic-induced retaliation by the Chinese government that had resulted in the expulsion of 15 journalists, media outlets, professional associations for journalists, and advocacy organizations responded hastily by issuing statements to decry the disruption of press freedom by the Chinese government. On May 8th, when the New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley, who has spent 24 years of his life reporting on China, was booted from the country, his departure led to international outcry from admirers and peers.
Such views build upon the racist stereotype that Chinese people are incapable of dissenting opinions, and deny Chinese journalists of their own political agency.
In stark contrast, US-based Chinese journalists who are similarly victims of this war on media have received little attention from the international community. After the announcement of the 90-day visa restriction that could result in a mass exodus of Chinese journalists in the US, not a single media outlet has spoken up to condemn this retaliatory attack on US-based Chinese journalists. On Twitter, commentators have even celebrated these new restrictions under the assumption that Chinese journalists only echo CCP propaganda or are Chinese state agents. Such views build upon the racist stereotype that Chinese people are incapable of dissenting opinions, and deny Chinese journalists of their own political agency.
Between the increasingly hostile media landscapes in both the US and China, Chinese journalists working in the US have nowhere to go.
In March this year, after Beijing expelled the group of Western journalists, they also revoked work permits for Chinese nationals working as assistants for these organizations. (Because Chinese nationals are not technically allowed to work as reporters for foreign media outlets, they are relegated to ‘assistants’ and denied byline opportunities, even though they often do the same work as reporters.) This attack on Chinese assistants from the Mainland is a death sentence to their career, because unlike their foreign colleagues, they can’t easily move to their company’s Taiwan or Hong Kong branches. As a result, many of these Chinese assistants are left with nowhere to turn to.
Without viable options for remaining in China, many of these assistants have no choice but to pursue their career in places like the US. Yet despite having worked tirelessly behind-the-scenes as assistants in foreign media outlets in China, many who come to the US still get criticized for toeing the CCP line, simply for being Chinese.
Many who come to the US still get criticized for toeing the CCP line, simply for being Chinese.
With the CCP’s crackdown on journalists in recent years (China was the biggest jailer of journalists in 2019), Chinese journalists working in the US are also forced to make massive sacrifices. To protect their own identities, they often have to remove their bylines from important stories, turn down highly visible interview opportunities, and limit their social media presence. Even before the new visa restrictions, these limitations have meant that Chinese journalists couldn’t develop their careers on equal footing to their American counterparts; most struggle to move beyond junior or mid-career positions.
This tit-for-tat retaliation among journalists between the US and China has also affected Chinese-passing Asian journalists in the US, and has furthered the racist idea that all Asians (Chinese national or not) could be covert agents of the CCP. Indeed with Chinese racism and hate crimes skyrocketing in the US, Chinese and Asian journalists stand on the frontlines when it comes to the receiving end of racism and xenophobia. As a “purity-test” of sorts, President Trump has even asked an Asian journalist, “Who are you working for?”
Another group to pay attention to are American journalists of Chinese descent working within China’s borders. Like Chinese nationals who work as journalists, they have also become targets of misinformation and xenophobia within China’s borders. This has caused an increase of online doxing and harassment, not to mention physical threats when they are in the field reporting.
Without protecting Chinese and American journalists alike in addition to the principles of press freedom, we all stand to lose the very watchdogs that keep both governments accountable.
In a media landscape that constantly denies Chinese journalists of their own political agency, it comes as no surprise that the US Department of Homeland Security’s new restrictions have only amounted to a deafening silence among the international community. Chinese journalists are stuck in a paradox: their work is invisible when they want to be seen, yet their race is inescapable when they need it hidden.
At the end of the day, the public of both countries deserve a free and diverse media. But as the US and China take out their political tension on journalists, they risk putting global press freedom on a race to the bottom. Without protecting Chinese and American journalists alike in addition to the principles of press freedom, we all stand to lose the very watchdogs that keep both governments accountable.