When China wanted to broadcast that it was ready to open to the world, Deng Xiaoping, then its paramount leader, told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that Mao Zedong’s portrait would hang over Tiananmen Square forever — and that Beijing would welcome some elements of capitalism.
When Beijing wanted to send a message in 2001 about official accountability over the deaths of three dozen school children who had been illegally working in a fireworks factory, Zhu Rongji, the country’s economic czar, answered a question about the episode at a nationally televised news conference with the foreign media.
China has long had a fraught relationship with foreign reporters. The government censors international media outlets and frequently harasses journalists. Yet it has long recognized that the Western media fulfills an essential need. It can convey messages to the world, and sometimes to the Chinese public, more clearly and bluntly than local media. It also offers an unflinching window into what is happening in China, a country where even the leadership doesn’t always trust the information it gets.
On Tuesday, that understanding broke down in dramatic fashion.
The Chinese government said it would oust mainland-based American reporters working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The order, which a journalists’ association said would affect more than a dozen reporters, represented the Chinese Communist Party’s harshest attack on the foreign media in the modern era.
A diplomatic spat with the United States, which had slashed the number of visas it would grant to employees of Chinese state media outlets, was the principal reason. Still, the expulsions also serve as a sharp signal that Beijing feels it no longer needs the foreign media to reach the world.
The Communist Party has honed its domestic propaganda machine into an effective tool for the digital age. Its state-run media organs have built broadcast operations in the United States and around the world. On Twitter and other international platforms, its diplomats and state media relentlessly attack critics.
Like President Trump in the United States, populist leaders around world, including Beijing, have learned to use Twitter and other social media to bypass the traditional mainstream media and serve up their own messages on their own terms.
“[I] suspect that they had long waited for such an excuse to drive out these unwelcome elements of ‘peaceful evolution,’” Yinan He, a professor at Lehigh University, posted on Twitter, citing a term used in China that refers to a Western conspiracy to transform the country into a democracy — a shift that the government says would inevitably lead to chaos.
But China puts itself at risk by silencing outside voices. The expulsions signal that Beijing has accelerated its steps to further decouple from the United States politically, to silence dissent and to close itself off to the outside world — in other words, walking back the steps the country has taken over the decades to make itself a more open and prosperous society.
China needs voices inside and outside the country to point out problems. State media now argues that China has, within its own borders, tamed the coronavirus outbreak that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan and now threatens the world economy. But Chinese officials silenced those who tried to warn the country and the world about the outbreak, to disastrous results.
The Communist Party has a long history of opening up to the Western media when it needs to win over the outside world, and of becoming more hostile when it wants to close off the country.
Mao famously courted Edgar Snow and other Western journalists when the Communists fought a civil war for control of the country. Coverage from mainstream Western media outlets in the World War II era helped shift public opinion about the party both inside and outside the country.
After the Communist Party took power in 1949, it cut ties with the West, expelled foreign journalists and jailed Chinese people who had worked for foreign media outlets. When it decided to open up to the world again in the 1980s, it welcomed back The Times and others.
There have been many ups and downs in Beijing’s relationship with the Western media since. Under Mr. Jiang and Mr. Zhu, China charmed the global media to portray the country as an open economy worthy of joining the W.T.O., the global club of major trading countries.
Two months before the W.T.O. decided on China’s membership, Mr. Jiang told the Times’ publisher and editors in Beijing that he hoped the Western world could understand China better. When asked why the Times website was blocked in China, he answered: “If you ask my view of The New York Times, my answer is it is a very good paper.”
In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the event China considered its coming-out party as a global power, the government eased restrictions on foreign journalists covering the country.
But China was never an easy place to cover. After the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, Beijing expelled some foreign journalists.
China correspondents faced constant intimidation. Matthew Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent in China and now the hawkish deputy national security adviser to Mr. Trump, wrote about being arrested and forced to flush his notes down a toilet. He wrote about getting punched in the face in a Beijing Starbucks “by a government goon who was trying to keep me from investigating a Chinese company’s sale of nuclear fuel to other countries.”
The situation deteriorated after Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012. Mr. Xi demanded unstinting loyalty to the Communist Party from the Chinese news media and instructed them to enhance China’s ability to shape its own narrative in the world.
Always viewing the foreign media with suspicion, the Chinese government has intensified its hostile tactics against Western journalists. My colleague Paul Mozur wrote about how he was followed, tracked and stopped from covering what was happening to the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, a prevalent reporting experience in the region.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said that before the decision on Tuesday, Beijing had expelled nine foreign journalists since 2013. Since the beginning of 2019, at least 13 correspondents have been given truncated-term visas valid for six months or less. Since the beginning of 2020, three of those correspondents have been given one-month visas.
“By expelling journalists and keeping others in a state of visa uncertainty, China is overtly using its power in an attempt to influence overseas news coverage, by punishing those who publish information authorities see as unfavorable and wish to keep quiet,” the F.C.C.C. said.
The party now feels it has other ways to reach a global audience.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency’s English Twitter account has 12.6 million followers. The Communist Party’s official newspaper People’s Daily has seven million followers. The state broadcaster CGTN, an arm of the official broadcaster China Central Television, has 14 million followers.
In the past year, as the U.S.-China trade war intensified, China’s diplomats “discovered” Twitter as well. Instead of playing the role of professional diplomats, a growing number of them post undiplomatic comments there. In recent days, Trump administration officials have expressed displeasure at unfounded suggestions from state media and diplomats that the coronavirus originated in the United States.
It’s not clear how persuasive their tweets might be to the English-speaking world. But they are sure to please their bosses. They also please the many nationalistic Chinese people who read English and are eager to report about the assertive tweets by these diplomats back home.
Chinese officials have even adopted one of Mr. Trump’s favorite phrases — “fake news” — to dismiss any outside media criticism. Gauging Chinese opinion is difficult, but signs indicate that that argument has found a receptive audience in China, just as it has among Mr. Trump’s supporters in the United States.
“We reject ideological bias against China, reject fake news made in the name of press freedom, reject breaches of ethics in journalism,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, posted on her Twitter account.
It was liked more than 3,700 times by Wednesday evening.