When China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters recently, it was an unprecedented move and it was not even over a story they had written.
Walter Russell Mead's opinion piece, "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia," touched several sore spots for the Chinese Communist Party. It alluded to China's "century of humiliation," when Western powers had humbled it. It criticized the CCP's "less than impressive" management of the coronavirus crisis. And it widened that criticism to encompass "malfeasance" in China's state-led financial markets.
Maintaining respect in world affairs is imperative from Beijing's perspective and this piece cut at that respect. However, as credible journalists step out of bounds, criticizing the ruling elite, government policies and President Xi Jinping himself, we can expect more acts of censorship and expulsion.
The Mead piece was likely a handy excuse. The three expelled WSJ journalists, Chao Deng, Josh Chin and Philip Wen, had produced coverage on the situation of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and on the handling of the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, the announcement of the expulsion came one day after the U.S. listed five Chinese media outlets as operatives of the state.
The coronavirus outbreak, which has so far infected 80,000 in 34 countries and killed 2,700, has highlighted the practical effects of censorship of local and international media. Beijing's penchant for secrecy, critics say, worsened the situation both during the SARS and coronavirus crises because the true scale of the outbreak was kept secret, delaying containment actions and hastening the spread.
No doubt economic performance will become equally sensitive to the CCP as the coronavirus crisis makes a dent in China's gross domestic product growth. Credible media will report on these matters, but those subject to the CCP will not.
Given the predictable behavior of the Chinese regime under all-powerful Xi, restrictions on the press and freedom of expression will increase alongside Beijing's sense of vulnerability. In February 2016, he visited media outlets to call for strict adherence to party policies. Press freedom monitors point to 120 journalists and bloggers in detention in 2019. Many were accused of spreading anti-state or false news.
In recent years, China has reprimanded journalists or failed to renew their credentials for specific lines of coverage, like reporting on the wealth of CCP leaders and their families or the detention and surveillance of Uighurs and other minorities. It has also punished them for failing to cancel events with Hong Kong activists.
China now ranks 177th out of 180 on the global World Press Freedom Index.
The international community and media organizations need to strongly condemn these Chinese actions and speak up in support of front line media workers. After all, China does not hesitate to attack the press in other countries for perceived anti-China stories, like the Mead piece, or use bullying language when responding to Sweden's support for writers facing persecution.
Condemnation by the international community, media organizations and journalists worldwide is not merely to express solidarity. Unlike in democracies, where corrective processes exist, China's model portends a radically different position for journalists: the press is there not to be a counterweight but rather to disseminate state propaganda.
For example, its international network, China Global Television Network, or CGTN, expands the reach of CCP propaganda. China also often compels its own diplomats to attack journalists and media organizations in other countries for perceived anti-China stories.
Given China's actions, the international community, governments, media organizations, civil society, need to go beyond the usual media statements against China's censorship of journalists. They need to take actions that effectively and realistically prevent such future behavior by China as well as inoculate against China's malign influence.
For instance, current condemnations should be raised to severe objections through formal statements of censure. International mechanisms such as the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review should be used for a formal record of dialogue on China's human rights abuses.
Countries should take preparatory action against China's authoritarian rhetoric, too, starting media literacy campaigns to build resilience. Finally, as part of a broader trend of decoupling, companies should become less reliant on China for investments, markets, production sites and sales.
It is incumbent upon journalists and political leaders everywhere to combat this Chinese model, the absorption of which bodes ill for democracy. Condemnation will signal a strong rejection of Beijing's model and its "new world media order" which it is exporting to the rest of us.
James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan are Directors of the Asia Centre, a not-for-profit organization that works on creating human rights impact in the region. They are conveners of Asia Centre's freedom of expression project.