Fewer journalists in China bad news for everyone else, reporters say

Foreign and local journalists report at a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, China, April 26, 2023. [AP Photo]

With visa challenges and security issues forcing more foreign journalists to report from outside China, international audiences are missing out.

In recent years, journalists have decamped from cities such as Beijing or Shanghai to Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore.

When VOA spoke with five reporters who currently cover China from outside its borders, they said that reporting from afar has made them feel more disconnected from the country. In turn, that risks skewing and stymieing how the international community understands China.

“It does restrict your view on what’s happening in China in different ways,” said Chris Buckley, who reports from Taiwan for the New York Times. “I don’t think, in the end, there’s any substitute for actually being in China to report on what’s happening.”

After reporting from China for decades, Buckley had to leave in 2020 when the government declined to renew his visa.

He was one of several journalists that year who were either expelled or found their visa renewals declined or rejected as China and the U.S. engaged in a visa tit-for-tat, and Washington capped the number of visas for staff at China’s state-run outlets in the U.S.

Washington and Beijing agreed in 2021 to relax visa restrictions, but obtaining a visa to report in China remains an issue as U.S.-China negotiations on the matter have stalled, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

Taiwan — which itself is a region of growing interest — has become a popular new base.

“There have been several waves of foreign correspondents coming to Taipei in recent years, driven by the difficulty and risks of working in China,” Thompson Chau, president of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club, told VOA.

But even with only about 100 miles between China and Taiwan, the island “is increasingly disconnected from China,” one reporter who is based in Taiwan said.

“We’re getting a much more sanitized version of reporting,” the journalist, who worked inside China for several years, said. She requested anonymity because her employer did not authorize her to talk to the media.

With access limited, journalists say they have to find creative ways to do their jobs. And some reporters, like Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian of Axios, have never been able to secure a long-term journalist visa.

Besides two reporting trips to China in 2015 and 2016, Allen-Ebrahimian has always covered the country from outside.

The French news agency Agence France-Presse once offered Allen-Ebrahimian a position as a correspondent in Beijing, but the Chinese government denied her visa request in 2019.

“I always had to be very innovative to find new ways to actually break news about what was happening there,” Allen-Ebrahimian, now based in Taiwan after several years in Washington, told VOA.

In an emailed statement to VOA, the spokesperson for China’s Washington embassy rejected the notion that Beijing restricts journalists from working in China.

“China always welcomes foreign media and journalists to report in China in accordance with laws and regulations, and provides them with convenience and assistance,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson, said. “Anyone can say anything, anywhere, as long as it is not illegal.”

China ranks among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Silence from sources

Among the challenges in covering the country from afar is the difficulty in finding sources — many of whom are already wary of foreign media — who are willing to talk.

“You’re just a strange, disembodied voice on the phone. Why should anyone risk talking to you,” one reporter told VOA. The journalist, who was among the American reporters expelled from China in 2020, requested anonymity because his employer did not authorize him to talk to the media.

It is also nearly impossible to get a sense of what life is like in China or anywhere if the reporter isn’t there experiencing it firsthand, the journalists said.

Christian Shepherd, who covers China for the Washington Post from Taiwan, said he would have loved to report on how the once-obscure city of Zibo became China’s go-to barbecue destination earlier this year.

“It’s not really worth it if we can’t be there,” he told VOA.

The distance means all the sounds and smells — all the color that makes China distinct — are mere memories.

Yaqiu Wang, who researches China at Human Rights Watch, said having reporters in China, despite the challenges, is crucial.

“People get surveilled, harassed when they’re in China, but they still want to be in China, even with all the headaches, because that’s how you get the best stories,” she said.

Distance also bears steep implications for the kind of reporting that is and is not possible — and, in turn, the image of China that audiences around the world are exposed to.

“The articles that you see are going to be disproportionately more skewed toward the defense stories, the national security stories, the ‘Chinese government is authoritarian and bad’ stories,” Allen-Ebrahimian said.

“It dehumanizes China. It turns China into a concept rather than the home of a lot of valuable people,” Allen-Ebrahimian added.

The anonymous reporter who was expelled from China added, “I don’t think there’s any question that the international community’s grasp of what’s happening in China is badly diminished.”

The irony, reporters and analysts said, is that better access and more human-interest stories would probably help China’s global reputation.

In 2013, President Xi Jinping introduced the concept of “telling China’s story well” through the country’s state-controlled propaganda outlets.

But attempts to influence foreign media by blocking reporters have backfired, reporters and analysts said.

“It’s absolutely not in [China’s] best interest,” Wang said. Since Beijing regularly complains that the West doesn’t understand China, she said, “then let foreign correspondents go into China and interview regular Chinese people.”

Some reporters like Shepherd are optimistic that they will be able to return.

Others are less hopeful. “I certainly do not see that happening within Xi Jinping’s lifetime,” Allen-Ebrahimian said. “But I could be wrong, and I would like to be wrong.”