How the expulsion of American journalists from China becomes collateral damage under the US-China dispute

Award-winning China correspondent Ian Johnson was expelled from China in March 2020. In an interview, Johnson said under the growing confrontation between the US and China, China’s expulsion of American journalists becomes collateral damage.

Question: What were the first few thoughts that went through your mind when you were informed about the cancellation of your visa?

Ian Johnson: I learned about my expulsion from China when I was in London and it was through an email. I was really shocked and I thought if I were to be expelled from China, it might be because of something I wrote that might have angered the Chinese government. But to be expelled in this fashion seems slightly ridiculous. I was just part of the bilateral dispute and it really has nothing personally to do with me. However, it did end up turning my life upside down.

It feels like you are caught between these two giants who are going through this power struggle conflict and you are just collateral damage. I felt a bit powerless.

Question: In an op-ed that you published a few weeks ago in the New York Times, you explained in detail how you assess the causes of the expulsion of American correspondents by Beijing. You also highlighted the differences in Washington’s way of engaging with China. What do you think is the biggest difference in the US strategy against China in 2020 versus a decade ago?

Ian Johnson: It’s hard to separate what comes first and what causes what. I do think that China’s policy has become more assertive in some areas. In the South China Sea, Beijing is asserting its claims to territory and now they really have the military power to assert these claims.

They are also asserting control over places like Xinjiang and Tibet. These regions have always been part of the PRC’s territory, but I think in the past, there were just not many ways that the state could push control. Now they feel much more confident so they are pushing ahead with these things.

I think overall, the consensus in Washington was already changing against engagement. I think you have this long term shift going on, even during the Obama administration. There was the pivot to Asia, since the US was so consumed with the Middle East after 911. It has kind of put Asia on the side and China stepped into the power vacuum.

The issue with the Trump administration is the whole amateurish foreign policy. It was at times naive and at other times, it was reckless and careless. You saw this with North Korea where Trump said we can deal with this guy and we will just get into the same room. Initially, it was the same with Xi Jinping, as he claimed that “I like Xi Jinping and he is a great guy.”

As Bolton’s Memoir suggested, he was basically telling Xi Jinping that “do whatever you want with Xinjiang and Hong Kong. I don’t care. Just give me a trade deal.” This is a very cynical and naive mercantilist view of the world which assumes that all you have to do is to get people into the room, shake their hands hard enough and they will agree with your point of view.

At the same time, you have people in the administration who see the world in very black and white terms, and they see the US and China inextricably on some collision course. They want to contain China before it gets out of control.

When the initial backslapping trade deal was penned out, Washington just switched to this super negative view of China. Since then, they have tried almost every far right anti-China fantasies about what you can do to stand up to China. They blame China for everything. They close the consulate, and arrest people without having a strategic vision of what they are trying to achieve. For me, that was also frustrating because it would be one thing if we were being expelled as part of this inevitable confrontation that would help change things.

But it’s just part of this pointless strategy that they have about blind confrontation.

DW: More than a dozen American journalists from some of the more resourceful news organizations have been expelled from China. How do you think this will affect the world’s understanding about China?

Ian Johnson: The biggest thing is there will be a lot less in-depth reporting on China. Now, there is a lot of spin and a lot of people tweeting things as well as coming up with ways of analyzing things related to China. However, there is not that much real boots on the ground investigative reporting that involves people going out on the street and actually talking to people.

Without that, we lack facts in dealing with China. We end up with just more and more people who are commenting on China from New York, Washington, London, and Berlin etc. Most media organizations only have one or two correspondents in China, and they are mostly driven by news editors. There is so much news and correspondents often just end up spending all the time doing news.

You need to have those extra reporters who you can send off to do investigations. I think those are exactly the people who are leaving China. In other words, China used a very measured way to target American journalists. While the US expelled dozens of Chinese journalists, China achieved a lot more with its expulsion of American journalists.

Take the closure of consulates as an example, you close down one consulate, it doesn’t affect China’s operation in the US that much because the US is an open society and it’s very easy to figure out what’s going on in the US. But if you close down the US Consulate in Chengdu, you are losing a big window into China, especially a consulate that’s in charge of places like Tibet.

There is also a very vibrant civil society scene in Chengdu, because many writers would often contact people at the consulate. There were certain types of contacts that were made out of Chengdu, and those are irreplaceable. Again, they are shooting themselves in the foot, and it doesn’t make any sense.

DW: How do you think journalists can continue to cover China if their access to the country is shrinking at a rapid pace?

Ian Johnson: It will obviously be more challenging. We will need more Chinese language skills and people who can read Chinese really well. I think we will need more Chinese sources and look at different media as well as academic journals. It will require even more trustful engagement with Chinese sources than in the past. Journalists will become a little bit like sociologists, who just have quantitative methods but not qualitative methods. You can use data but you are not going to be able to do that many on the ground interviews.

This interview was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.