Foreign correspondents don’t need to be in Beijing to report on China

For the first time since 1973, the Australian media has no foreign correspondents in China—a consequence of the Chinese government’s decision to drown out all critical voices, foreign or domestic. Allowing the deterioration of media freedom in China to translate into a poorer understanding of Chinese politics is a goal of the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping. But, for journalists and media organisations, this remains an entirely avoidable outcome.

You don’t need to be in China to understand Chinese politics. Chinese government and military websites offer a treasure trove of information for anyone armed with Mandarin and a willingness to dig. Mike Forsyth, whose reporting on the wealth of Xi’s family meant that he could no longer get a visa for China, has continued publishing hard-hitting pieces in the New York Times on the nexus between Chinese politics and money. ASPI, for its part, employs a cadre of Mandarin-speaking analysts who have produced numerous reports and databases looking at institutions engaged in defence research, forced labour and gulags in Xinjiang, and censorship on Chinese social media.

On-the-ground reporting has certainly improved our understanding of China. For young correspondents or scholars, time in China offers an opportunity to improve their Mandarin and provides unique insights into how the CCP operates. That said, Bill Birtles, Mike Smith, Phillip Wen and Chris Buckley haven’t lost their Mandarin skills or their knowledge of Chinese domestic politics. Nor have the scores of other foreign reporters who have been forced to leave China. The task for media organisations will be to find new ways of redeploying the expertise of these journalists to ensure that the world’s understanding of China won’t suffer.

There are numerous ways to achieve this goal. Media outlets like the ABC or the Australian Financial Review could move journalists who worked in China to desks reporting on Beijing’s diplomacy or on the CCP’s overseas influence activities.

With its strengthened united front apparatus and taste for ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy under Xi, the Chinese government’s presence overseas is just as important to report on as developments within China. Birtles and Smith, with years of experience within China, are well qualified to explain Beijing’s diplomacy or the activities of its united front in a culturally knowledgeable and analytically incisive way.

Media organisations could consider moving their China bureaus elsewhere. The obvious candidate would have been Hong Kong, but the new national security law makes the risk of arbitrary detention there nearly as high as it is on the mainland.

With Hong Kong’s press freedom in tatters, the New York Times has temporarily moved part of its Hong Kong bureau to Seoul, and the Washington Post has shifted one of its China correspondents to Seoul and the other elsewhere in Asia. Though South Korea might have an interesting relationship with China, the two countries are profoundly different—linguistically, culturally, politically and historically. Aside from South Korea’s tradition of press freedom and its one-hour time difference from Beijing, it’s hard to see what value there is in housing a China bureau in Seoul.

The most obvious location for any new China bureau would be Taipei. Like Korea, Taiwan boasts a free press, an independent judiciary and a vibrant democracy. Taiwan, more importantly, is a Mandarin-speaking nation with close cultural links to mainland China. The linguistic and cultural skills needed to report on China successfully are also needed to report on Taiwan effectively. Financial Times reporter Kathrin Hille, for instance, files insightful stories from Taipei on the CCP, the People’s Liberation Army and Taiwanese domestic politics.

As Hille’s example demonstrates, stationing correspondents in Taipei would have the dual benefit of allowing reporters to continue filing stories on China while improving the world’s understanding of Taiwan—a country on the front lines of Beijing’s push for global influence. It would also play a small but useful role in combating Beijing’s attempts to squeeze Taiwan’s international space.

Media executives might argue that moving a China bureau to Taiwan would make it impossible for their journalists to re-enter China, due to Chinese government policy. There’s some truth in that, but it’s worth questioning the notion that foreign media will be able to return to China in a way that makes valuable reporting realistic while Xi remains president.

Since taking office in 2012, Xi has strengthened the CCP’s grip on just about every part of Chinese life and suffocated all forms of civil society. That trend is unlikely to change. And, with presidential term limits no longer in place, Xi is free to continue purging Chinese society of ‘hostile foreign forces’ such as the foreign media until he either dies or is purged himself. Betting on either event taking place in the near to medium term seems like a long shot for foreign media organisations planning their future China operations.

Given that worthwhile reporting on China from within China doesn’t seem tenable for the foreseeable future, journalists, scholars and analysts might do well to relearn some of the old skills of China watching.

As former CIA analyst Alice Miller noted in her final piece for China Leadership Monitor, the intercultural exchanges that came with Washington’s diplomatic recognition of Beijing provided new avenues of research on current trends in Chinese politics and foreign policy. This on-the-ground style of reporting and scholarship has offered the world much insight into how the CCP interacts with the society it governs.

But, as Miller notes later in the same piece, this relatively new style of reporting has ‘come at the opportunity cost of declining interest in elite politics and an unwillingness to expend the tedious labors required to study it’. With Xi tightening the screws on Beijing’s political and propaganda apparatus, now is a perfect time for journalists and scholars to relearn the skills of reading the tea leaves in People’s Daily editorials or assessing personnel movements in the CCP and PLA.

The world’s understanding of China doesn’t have to suffer just because Xi has decided to force foreign journalists out. The proliferation of Chinese government information online, along with satellite imagery and a host of other datasets, has allowed journalists, scholars and analysts to explain aspects of Chinese politics that were once exclusively available to government intelligence analysts. Xi’s crackdown on dissent has also increased the analytic value of Beijing’s traditional propaganda outlets.

Students of Chinese politics have long shown a willingness to adapt their analytic skills as events in China demand. The media can do that too.