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When China Reporters Can’t Report from China

Shortly after midnight on March 18, a phone call awoke Steven Lee Myers in his Beijing apartment. The call was followed by a flurry of messages: WhatsApp, text, email. Friends and colleagues were asking him questions: What is going on? What does this mean? What are we going to do?

Myers had been appointed The New York Times’ Beijing bureau chief just three months prior. Now, dazed and half-asleep, he was learning that the Chinese government would require American journalists with soon-to-expire press credentials at three American newspapers—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post—to hand in their press credentials and prepare for deportation from the country. The organizations had 10 days to comply.

The New York Times had dispatched a seasoned journalist, Chris Buckley, to Wuhan to cover the ongoing coronavirus outbreak there. The bureau’s profile of Li Wenliang, the Chinese “whistleblower” who first alerted the world to the danger of the virus, had appeared on the paper’s front page. Elsie Chen, one of the paper’s news researchers, had conducted an interview with the doctor shortly before he died.

Myers was overwhelmed by the information he was receiving. He stayed awake deep into the Beijing night, contemplating how the bureau would adapt.

“The main sensation was like having the legs knocked out of a table,” Myers told me. “Suddenly it’s not stable anymore.”

For decades, U.S. journalists in China and Chinese journalists in the U.S. have operated at the intersection of an awkward partnership between the world’s eminent superpower and its rising Asian competitor, endeavoring to provide an incisive window, however narrow, into the lives of citizens lived halfway across the globe. In the mid-2010s, that project came under increased pressure from an authoritarian regime sensitive to perceived interference. By the late 2010s, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China noted that working conditions for journalists in China had “markedly deteriorated.” With the American election of Donald Trump in November 2016, journalists in America faced heightened harassment, too.

2020 may be remembered as the year when the fragile edifice of U.S.-China journalism, one leg upon which the U.S.-China table has traditionally rested, came crumbling down. In February, the expulsion of three China-based Wall Street Journal reporters led to American retaliatory personnel caps on Chinese government-owned news organizations. That led to March’s expulsion of Times, Post, and Journal reporters. From 10 China-based reporters with New York Times press credentials, the Times has now been reduced to two. The Journal has four. The Post has one. As U.S.-China ties deteriorate, what was once unthinkable is now distinctly possible: a future where U.S.-China journalism is conducted primarily, if not entirely, remotely. What will that mean for journalists, readers, and the relationship itself?

For Myers, these questions are no longer theoretical. These days, he’s based in Seoul, South Korea. In his case, leaving China has meant delaying stories—stories he had been excited to report—because they are not practicable from abroad. Myers cited the example of fishing on the Yangtze River.

“They banned commercial fishing on the Yangtze, which people have been doing for 5,000 years. I wanted to do a story on how that would change the social network,” said Myers. “I can’t do that story sitting here.”

Investigative stories, too, may require on-the-ground reconnaissance. The Times’ Mike Forsythe, based in New York, recently documented in a Twitter thread how ancestral tombstones aid reporters in establishing family relations of the country’s Communist elite. (His China-based colleague, Sui-Lee Wee, visited the tomb.) Emily Feng, now NPR’s China correspondent, began her investigation of separated Uighur children via a visit to an abandoned school in Hebei province. With fewer journalists in China, these stories are harder to tell.

The Times has sought creative workarounds. In mid-July, the paper published a profile of Xingcheng, a county-level city in Liaoning province famous for its swimwear production. The story, which ran with no dateline, featured eye-popping images of Xingcheng’s beaches and bathing suits taken by a freelance photographer. The story’s author, Raymond Zhong, quotes a swimwear factory worker, Yao Haifu, and describes his “broad, boyish face” with a “curly pat of hair.”

It was a classic Times story—character-driven, colorful, examining the U.S.-China relationship from an unexpected angle. And yet, the story was written remotely. Zhong was expelled from China in March.

“I’m not going to pretend it’s an ideal situation,” said Myers. “We are making an effort to [. . .] figure out ways around the limitations we have by not being on the ground.”

How to find journalistic “color,” that vivid detail which brings a story to life, is among the greatest challenges of remote reporting. Josh Chin, The Wall Street Journal’s deputy China bureau chief, said that the bureau’s choice of stories and attention to detail has not changed significantly. It’s the “type” of detail that has changed.

“We can still do nuance, but it’s harder for us to bring in that street-level color that humanizes the story,” said Chin. “We used to travel to report a lot of our stories. Inevitably we’ve had to pare that back.”

The expulsions have also deprived papers of some of their most experienced reporters. In addition to Myers and Chin, other expelled journalists include The New York Times’ Chris Buckley, who has a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies, and Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning 20-year China resident whose visa had been sponsored by the Times. While talented newer reporters command their own strengths—including bringing much-needed diversity to the predominantly white male veteran reporting corps—the expelled reporters’ accumulated experience may be hard to replace.

“My whole career, my whole MO, has been based on getting to know people long-term,” said Johnson, “If I can’t do that, I’ll have to figure out something else to do.”

Johnson is now working on a Ph.D., alongside a book.

Necessarily, reporters have turned to phone reporting to supplant meat-and-potatoes in-person conversations. Each of the half dozen reporters interviewed for this story agreed that speaking with sources by phone was among the best of imperfect options. Unfortunately, getting Chinese sources to talk has been harder and harder in recent years, says Yufan Huang, a former New York Times researcher in Beijing.

“Maybe if you try 10 people, one of them will be willing to talk to you,” Huang said, citing widespread skepticism of foreign media organizations. Remote reporting will exacerbate the challenge. “If you go in person, people will be nice enough to answer your question even if they don’t like America.”

In authoritarian regimes, reaching people remotely can also mean risking harm to the interviewee. When interviewing in person, says Janine Zacharia, a lecturer in Journalism at Stanford University, it is easier to assess risks via one’s surroundings or context clues. Calling from thousands of miles away is different.

“I’d be very nervous interviewing a Uighur family from here in California,” Zacharia said. “I’m not really aware of how safe it is for that person to be communicating.”

To safeguard sources, journalists might insist on more secure means of communication, like Signal or Telegram. But that brings challenges of its own.

“Most Chinese sources won’t trust those things,” said Huang, “and even if they do, they won’t go through that kind of trouble [of downloading the app] to talk to you. Most of the time Chinese sources are not Edward Snowden, trying to leak. They are just normal people who maybe want to talk with friends.”

American newspapers typically hire Chinese-speaking researchers like Huang to supplement their reporting capacity in-country. China’s government allows such staff to assist foreign reporters in their work, and while they sometimes write bylined stories of their own, many foreign media outlets assume China’s government frowns upon such original reporting, particularly when it touches on topics deemed politically “sensitive.” News organizations face a tradeoff: If they rely more heavily on researchers, who are usually Chinese nationals and remain in-country, they can write better-reported stories. But if they fall afoul of government regulations on researchers’ conduct, they risk endangering the researchers or antagonizing the Chinese government even further, jeopardizing their chances of receiving future visas for their journalists.

“We follow the law on researchers very closely,” said Myers.

The U.S. government’s recent imposition of “caps” on Chinese journalists in the U.S.—expulsions in all but name—will also influence Chinese coverage of America, says Fang Kecheng, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But not much, he says. Many Chinese readers get their news from a mix of state and private media; the former takes directives from the Publicity Department, while the latter is comprised of WeChat or Weibo-native aggregators like College Daily(北美留学生日报), Zhanhao (占豪), or Here in UK (英国那些事). Many of these accounts bear only a passing resemblance to traditional journalism. Instead, Fang says, many of these so-called “self-media” (自媒体) gravitate toward politically safe content that will reliably generate revenue. In China, the intersection of “safe” and “clickbait” has typically meant nationalistic pablum.

“This is a business model for them. They don’t really care about the factual value of the content,” said Fang. “Self-media is more tabloid than tabloid.”

Of greater harm to Chinese audiences is the diminution of foreign media’s capacity to report on Chinese domestic grievances. Chinese media outlets remain abundantly capable of reporting on domestic political and social controversy, as evidenced by the proliferation of first-rate domestic coverage in the wake of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. However, they are often forbidden by the Chinese government from doing so.

As a result, many Chinese citizens who are unfairly treated by the government turn to foreign media for a platform. When the Times’ China corps shrinks from 10 to two, people like this lose “basically their only chance to get their stories out,” notes Fang. “It’s a huge loss for them.”

Still, technological advances mean that burying stories is no longer as simple as revoking a journalist’s press card. In recent years, academics and journalists have turned to big data to unearth realities the Party would prefer to obscure. Adrian Zenz, now a senior fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, first discovered evidence of Xinjiang’s concentration camps via analysis of public construction tenders. Researchers followed up those insights with before-and-after comparisons of Google Earth images. Today, some advocate for machine learning as a window into the Communist Party’s inner workings.

Weifeng Zhong, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, believes there is merit in that approach. He is one of the key developers of the Policy Change Index (PCI), an open-source machine learning project that uses historical datasets to detect Chinese government policy changes. By comparing current People’s Daily articles with articles that have appeared in the past, Zhong hopes to flag unusual stories that might indicate a policy shift. In and of itself, the model isn’t enough to generate journalistic insight, he says. However, Zhong thinks it can “help journalists to screen out what articles are worth reading.”

“I am optimistic that even from afar, one can get a lot from the messages coming out of China,” said Zhong. The challenge is to “take the step from inference [. . .] to what are the Party’s intentions.”

Filling in that data with plot, characters, and images is the challenge of remote reporting. It’s a challenge Zacharia emphasizes in her course on foreign correspondence. How do reporters make distant lives relevant to a domestic reader? How can characters leap from the page when the reporter hasn’t met them in person?

Zacharia recommends going back to “the fundamentals.” Calling sources. Finding on-the-ground help. Creating “compelling single-character stories.” She notes that during a pandemic, reporting on distant warzones can resemble reporting on a New York hospital: thousands of people are dying, but you can’t get into the hospital. Finding individual stories within the numbers, she says, remains crucial.

In doing so, we should remain humble, adds Johnson.

“You can’t possibly capture the nuances of any place in the world, but especially a country that is more closed, as China is, by looking at social media and making phone calls,” he says.

Accessing emotive stories from afar can be hard emotionally as well as logistically. Emily Feng, NPR’s China correspondent, laments the “extractive” sensation of interviewing from a distance. Reporting from Beijing on Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak, for instance.

“You never look them in the eye, you can’t see how they felt,” Feng said, about speaking with people who had lost relatives to the coronavirus. “You just kind of run away with the worst moment of their lives.”

Feng is one of the lucky ones. Her organization, NPR, was selected for an audit in July, requiring the submission of personnel, finance, and operational figures. The audit was smooth; her visa remains valid. She took my phone call from her apartment in Beijing.

The high-level effect of remote reporting, says Arne Westad, Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University, may be the empowerment of government at the expense of journalism. With fewer reporters in each other’s countries, journalists can’t reality-check government pronouncements. The Wall Street Journal must rely more heavily on documents, for instance; The New York Times sends fewer reporters to investigate.

“We are more hostage to what’s being told to us on an official level in both countries, China and here,” said Westad, referring to the United States.

For China’s remaining American journalists, life has both changed and remained the same since the expulsion of their colleagues. Feng, who is currently NPR’s only correspondent in country, demurred when asked whether this year’s expulsions has influenced her coverage. “It’s just more work,” she said.

Why?

“I feel more pressure to make the most of my time here, to do as much in-depth, on-the-ground reporting as possible,” she said. “I feel like being here is a privilege, and now other people don’t have that privilege.”

It was morning in Beijing. She had to run, she said. She had stories to write.