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Increasingly powerful, Xi's China thinks it no longer needs Washington – or its foreign reporters | Richard McGregor | World news


Beijing’s decision to throw out correspondents from America’s most influential newspapers is, on one level, just part of a muscular tit-for-tat between the US and China over how to manage journalists stationed in each country.

In an announcement that caught the newspapers by surprise, the Foreign Ministry said US journalists at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post whose press cards ran out this year would be expelled.

Beijing was retaliating, the ministry said, for Washington’s decision earlier this year to cut the number of Chinese journalists working for state media outlets in the US and force them to register as government entities.

But the expulsions are much more than the tit-for-tat actions that have characterised the crumbling superpower relationship over the past two years, over everything from tariffs to military exercises and now the media.

Rather, they are a sign of an increasingly assertive China, confident that it is gaining the upper hand in the contest with the US that will define geopolitics in coming decades.

A month ago, with hundreds of millions of Chinese in residential lockdown, the opposite seemed true. The ruling Communist party looked to be on its knees, battling a wave of internal and foreign criticism over its handling of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China.

Barely a few weeks later, with homegrown infections trailing off, Beijing is revelling in the chaos in the US and the Trump administration’s serial missteps in handling the spread of the disease.

It has responded to this reversal of fortunes with alarming speed and a brazenness that few governments could match, donating masks and other medical equipment to first-world European countries, accompanied by maximum publicity about China’s selfless generosity.

Chinese diplomats have also promoted conspiracy theories on Twitter about the origin of the virus, suggesting it had been planted by the US military rather than coming from the live animal markets of Wuhan.

The party’s messages are all aimed at restoring its battered image in the eyes of its people. Not only did their brutal lockdown tactics work, they say, but also foreigners are now drawing on the China playbook on how to beat the virus.

“This is, of course, a standard framing,” according to the Australia-based Chinese newsletter, Neican. “Everything in China is going well, people are happy, while everywhere outside China is chaotic.”

The party was furious at foreign coverage of the virus lockdown, but that alone does not explain why the correspondents from the three US papers are being ejected. By and large, the party has tolerated foreign reporters for decades, as a necessary evil to allow it to get on with Washington and to sell its economy to foreign investors.

But Xi Jinping’s China no longer needs them. The country is rich and powerful compared to a few decades ago and is happy to use foreign reporters as a plaything in great power politics instead.

Not only that, senior leaders bear a deep grudge against the papers, especially the New York Times, over their detailed exposés of the personal wealth of Politburo leaders and their families.

The New York Times chronicled the wealth of former Premier Wen Jiabao’s family in 2012. Bloomberg reporters in China and Hong Kong followed later with an explosive report on Xi’s family’s holdings.

The Wall Street Journal’s writings on Xi and his family have also angered the leadership, as have their opinion pages.

What has puzzled many about this controversy is not that the US and China are at loggerheads over the press. That has long been the case. However, many have wondered why Washington gave Beijing the opportunity to take their revenge, by targeting Chinese reporters in the US.

The work of Chinese state reporters overseas adds little to what is already known about the countries they are reporting on. Foreign reporters in China however, especially those at the well-resourced big US dailies, are vital at getting under the skin of a habitually secretive and opaque regime.

Many of their journalists have spent decades learning the language and building up expertise and contacts. In one fell swoop, their vast intellectual capital has been banished, not just from China, but from Hong Kong as well.

While no one will notice that there are fewer Chinese state journalists working overseas, the absence of detailed reporting on China from the three US outlets will be palpable.

The ruling party and its leaders have long wanted to avoid the scrutiny of the foreign press. As they emerged from the worst of Covid-19, Chinese leaders were confident enough to do something they have long wanted to do, to throw a large number of reporters out.

The proximate cause of the expulsions was retaliation, but make no mistake, the underlying driver is Beijing’s perception of its own growing might.

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