How China's Covid-19 information war with US could be costing lives

China/USA flags(Credit: Shutterstock)

Critical information about China’s battle with coronavirus could be lost because of the nation’s decision to expel several US journalists, Beijing experts and media campaigners have warned.

The Chinese government last week announced the effective expulsion of all US citizens – thought to number at least 13 – working as journalists for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed this was in retaliation to new limits imposed on Chinese media companies by Washington, restricting the number of journalists they are allowed to have in the US. 

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But experts and media freedom advocates spoken to by Press Gazette suggest this is merely an excuse.

They believe the move fits into the Chinese government’s attempts to gain greater control over news and information about the country – and in particular its apparent success in fighting coronavirus.

“This is a moment of particular importance for finding out whether the outbreak has actually been controlled or not,” said Susan Jakes, the editor of ChinaFile, a magazine that covers US-China relations.

Jakes, who broke news of the Chinese government’s cover-up of the 2003 SARS epidemic, believes it is important for the world to discover whether information China is reporting about its improving coronavirus situation is accurate.

“Many of the people that have been expelled were some of the best-positioned foreign reporters to find that out and report it,” she added. 

“So it’s really a tremendous loss for the public outside of China and for Chinese people.”

Politicians and officials in the governments of both the US and China have clashed several times over coronavirus in recent weeks.

‘The US has blundered into this…’

US President Donald Trump has caused anger in Beijing by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”. And a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman has been condemned for promoting on Twitter the conspiracy theory that the virus was brought to China by the US military. 

Journalists have also been drawn into the tension.

Before last week’s sweeping expulsion announcement, China’s Foreign Ministry had already revoked the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters in response to a comment piece in the newspaper headlined: “China is the real sick man of Asia.”

Experts believe the subsequent US crackdown on Chinese media visas provided Beijing with the perfect excuse to take further action and ban more journalists.

Steven Butler, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said: “The US has blundered into this by revoking many visas for Chinese correspondents right in the middle of this crisis.

“It’s given the Chinese a convenient cover under which to expel these journalists who they probably didn’t want there to begin with.

“Coverage of coronavirus is part of it. The Chinese are launching a global campaign to make themselves look like the saviour of the world as far as coronavirus control is concerned. And they’ve been alternately hinting that it was planted by the US army, or it came from Italy. 

“Having a lot of foreign journalists running around undercuts their ability to control the narrative. And when they expel journalists, it puts tremendous pressure on the journalists remaining to be careful not to offend the Chinese.”

‘We only have China’s word for what they’re doing…’

China was forced to deal with the outbreak of Covid-19 in late 2019, before the disease had been detected in much of the world. The World Health Organisation has praised the country’s approach to tackling the virus.

China has reported much improvement in Wuhan, the city that was previously considered the epicentre of the disease, and is beginning to lift lockdown restrictions.

But Butler, a former Southeast Asia correspondent for the Financial Times, believes it is difficult to trust information coming from the country, given its attitude towards independent journalism.

“We only have China’s word that they’ve dealt with it successfully,” he said. “And frankly I think you have to be sceptical of any information that is generated by the Chinese government.

“If more foreign journalists were there, or Chinese journalists were unleashed, and there was more reporting, we’d have a better understanding… It would be very interesting if journalists were able to freely interview the Chinese scientists, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.”

He added: “We still don’t know very much about this virus. We’re gaining a lot of information. But if there were free access to information from China, I think it would be of enormous benefit to the whole world – charting the course of the epidemic and how it might be controlled.

“We only have China’s word for what they’re doing, and it’s not enough, frankly.”

Expulsion of US journalists from China a ‘major loss’

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of human rights and free expression group PEN America, said China’s efforts to “control information” have “deeply intensified” because of the coronavirus outbreak. 

She said: “The Beijing government has always had a fervent desire to control the story, and clamp down on dissenting views, and shape their image carefully to sustain their power.

“I think as this has been shaken during [the coronavirus] crisis, that impulse to tighten the hold has only become more acute.”

Nossel added that the expulsion of journalists from respected US newspapers is a “major loss” as the world seeks to understand more about how China has dealt with Covid-19.

“Right now, covering the story – uncovering the truth and facts about how the virus spread, what was done to control it, and what the human consequences were – is extremely important in terms of how we get the pandemic into containment around the world and how we prepare for future public health crises of this nature.

“But the stakes are actually broader than that. It really has to do with China’s rise to global pre-eminence as a major power.

“The idea of having a nation and government that plays such an influential role on the global stage and yet does not accept the scrutiny that has always gone along with that – and is bent on shielding itself from criticism and penetrating coverage – I think that poses all kinds of global risk.

“With great power comes great responsibility. And it’s the role of the media to hold those with power responsible. If they can’t do that, that power easily gets out of control.”

Reporting Covid-19 outbreak different from SARS

Nossel also believes any US opposition to the crackdown on its newspapers in China is undermined by President Donald Trump’s treatment of the media in his own country.

Susan Jakes, of ChinaFile, believes it is “pretty clear that the Chinese government has been trying to wrest control of the coronavirus outbreak ever since it began”.

She hopes that stronger Chinese reporting and the prevalence of social media will mean there is not a repeat of the SARS cover-up that she exposed in 2003. 

“One of the things that really made the early days of the reporting on Wuhan distinctive, and quite different from [SARS], is that there was this very active cross-pollination between the foreign press and the Chinese press. 

“Chinese journalists living overseas were spotting things on Chinese social media and quickly pulling them over and putting them on US social media before they were censored… The internet was not particularly robust in 2003 and there wasn’t really any social media. 

“So I guess I’m somewhat hopeful that some of those information streams that are much more informal will continue to exist, and will continue to surface critical information if there is any kind of a cover-up – or if information is being suppressed.”

But she added: “There is so much that we need to know about what’s going on in China right now. And the foreign media was already operating under an atmosphere of pretty severe constraint to begin with. So it really is a huge blow to have these reporters removed.”

Picture: Shutterstock

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