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A Chinese flag waves in front of the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, Oct. 29, 2015.Jason Lee/Reuters

In October, 2007, a U.S. diplomat met with Liu Jianchao, a senior Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry official, to lobby for a visa on behalf of Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson.

Mr. Johnson, a native of Montreal, had published a book on the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong after a stint in China in the 1990s, and Beijing was wary of letting him return, Mr. Liu said, adding that the case had “nothing to do with China’s policy towards the United States or towards the Wall Street Journal” and was solely based on Mr. Johnson’s actions, according to a leaked U.S. government cable.

Two years later, Mr. Johnson was finally allowed back into China and lived there until March, 2020, when he was among a dozen or so reporters for U.S. outlets who were kicked out of the country. This time the reason for his expulsion had completely flipped: it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with Beijing’s relations with Washington.

In recent weeks, Indian reporters have found themselves in the same situation, with the sole remaining journalist for Indian media expected to leave China by the end of the month, when his visa expires. Three others have been forced out of the country since April, after Beijing said employees for Chinese state media had been unable to get new visas in India.

Similarly, Mr. Johnson was among 13 American reporters kicked out of China after the Trump administration limited to 100 the number of employees Chinese state media could have in the U.S., effectively expelling about 60 reporters, whom the White House made clear it regarded as propagandists at best and potential spies at worst.

Three years later, those U.S. journalists have not returned, and in most cases their employers have struggled to get visas to replace them, drastically reducing the size of the China bureaus for three of the largest foreign newspapers covering the country: the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Other media have it even worse. Since two Australian journalists left China in September, 2020 – after a five-day diplomatic standoff in which Chinese police tried to question them in a national security case – there have been no reporters working for Australia media in the country. Canada is in the same situation, with both The Globe and Mail and the CBC unable to obtain visas to replace outgoing correspondents in recent years. Last year, the CBC shut its Beijing bureau after four decades, saying its hand had “been forced.”

(The Globe continues to maintain a bureau in Beijing but has no correspondent based there; instead, it covers China from Hong Kong.)

China has never been an easy place to do journalism, and all foreign reporters in the country live with the threat of potential expulsion. In the past, journalists have been kicked out in apparent retaliation for reporting on human-rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, extrajudicial detention centres known as black jails and the wealth of Chinese leaders and their families.

But in recent cases, journalists have been denied access not because of their work but because of their passports or the countries in which their employers are based. More than ever before, foreign journalism in China has become entwined with diplomacy, with visas dependent on Beijing’s relations with a given country – particularly its willingness to host Chinese state media.

Speaking Monday, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the country’s journalists in India “have been accorded unfair and discriminatory arrangements.” He added that Beijing hoped “India will continue to issue visas for Chinese journalists and remove the unreasonable restrictions.”

Politicians in India and the U.S. often defend targeting Chinese state media by pointing to the fact they are directly controlled by Beijing and have a history of alleged spying. The fact that restricting visas for political reasons is antithetical to their stated support for press freedom is often overlooked, as is the potential blowback for reporters working in China.

For its part, Beijing does not distinguish between its state-run outlets and the independent media that produce the bulk of foreign journalism on China. (This is not just a public stand: Western diplomats often tell of being pressured to stop or retract unflattering reports by journalists they have no control over.) Tit-for-tat expulsions are now the norm, even if as in the case of the U.S., Chinese state media continued to maintain large operations despite Trump era reductions.

It is China that is hurt most by this situation however, as fewer reporters in the country results in a narrower picture, one more easily skewed by hawks back home. In the most recent case, the Chinese state media narrative will not change as a result of losing a few reporters in India, but those Indian journalists ejected from Beijing might have challenged New Delhi’s framing of events or helped Indians better understand a neighbour with whom they are in increasingly direct conflict.

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