From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.”
Today, in the middle of the pandemic, China has expelled journalists from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. One of those reporters, my colleague Paul Mozur, recounts his final days there.
It’s Thursday, April 16.
Paul Mozur, tell us about these text messages that you got a few weeks ago.
So it’s late, probably a bit after midnight. And I am in Shanghai, in my apartment, where I’ve lived for the past three years. And I’m doing that thing, where you’re trying to read in bed, but the phone keeps buzzing.
And I’ve told myself, this is the last time I’m going to check, and I look at the phone. And for the first time ever, when I’ve picked up my phone while I’m trying to sleep, it’s actually relevant. And so what I see is, one of my colleagues, in our sort of private chat group for covering the coronavirus, sends a message. And it’s a memo from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China. And the first bit, it’s all kind of stock language. It’s not too big of a deal. But then I get to point two, and I read point two, and I have to read it again. Because what it says, in this roundabout way, is basically that the entire staff of The New York Times, all of our reporters in China, have to leave the country in just a few weeks. We’ve effectively been expelled.
It’s not just us that’s been thrown out, it’s also a number of reporters with The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. So this is the greater part of the U.S. press corps in China being tossed.
So you’re on your phone in bed, looking at a memo that basically says your job in China is over?
Yes, our time is up.
As you’re looking at this, what are your colleagues and you saying to each other, as you’re digesting this information from the Chinese government?
You know, I think I’m the first to weigh in, and I say, let me be the first to say this expletive: [EXPLETIVE]
[EXPLETIVE] And then that kind of starts it off.
There’s some agreement about that. There’s various other kind of expressions of shock, and then —
— our Asia editor, Adrienne Carter, weighs in and says, we’re still trying to figure out what this means. We’re going to have some calls tomorrow. But it doesn’t look good.
I think we knew for a long time that it was possible our days were numbered. But even if you kind of know that the Chinese government isn’t happy with you, the idea of kind of closing a chapter of more than 13 years of your life spent focusing on a place, learning a language, being there is just impossible to kind of deal with instantly. It just felt totally surreal. So I kind of wandered out to my balcony, and it was a cool kind of — the fog was coming into Shanghai, and it was sort of just a dark night. And I just kind of spent the next hour or two just sort of outside and thinking. I was sort of a nostalgic mess, in a way.
Wow, so this is basically a large scale media purge. I wonder what explanation the Chinese government gives for this, because it feels like this violates decades of journalistic tradition, where the U.S. has reporters in China, and China has reporters in the U.S.
Yeah, ostensibly, it’s a tit-for-tat. A few weeks ago, the Trump administration put a cap on the number of Chinese journalists who work for state media that can be in the United States. And China calls this an effective expulsion of 60 Chinese media workers. So this is the response from the Chinese government to throw us out. But there’s a lot more to it than that. It becomes really clear, pretty quickly after, because a commentary goes up on state media and asks the question, why are these journalists being thrown out?
And it doesn’t bring up the United States. What it goes into is or coverage. And it says that we were overly critical and biased in attacking the Chinese government in how it responded to the coronavirus, that we were biased against China generally. And then it also brings up Xinjiang. And it says that the stories that we told over the past year about Uighurs being locked away in camps are exaggerated and false and just not the true narrative. And so I think at that point, you kind of see, yes, on the one hand, this is a tit-for-tat. But on the other hand, it’s about so much more.
So once you have more or less made peace with the fact that you’re going to be kicked out, what do you do?
Well, you do what you have to do when you have to leave very quickly. I start buying plane tickets. And you can’t think of a worse time to be thrown out of a country, because borders are closing all over, and any flight has some level of virus risk. And so —
— I get a flight ticket to the United States. I get one to Japan. I get went to Korea. I get three tickets. And then as borders are closing, I actually buy two more —
— more close to my date so I can get out quicker before these borders close. But then I realize I have a few days left, and I have a bit of this — well, this sort of dilemma, because I was supposed to go on a reporting trip the day I heard about this thing. And we canceled it. But in my experience in journalism has been you always go out when you can. And so I decided, OK, one last hurrah. Here we go.
And what is this reporting job?
Well, it’s supposed to be a pretty routine article. China, at this point, is getting back to normal. Life is starting to return to the rhythms that had been there pre-epidemic. So the idea is to find a sort of more middle-class town and go there and talk to people, and see how dazed they are, how excited they are to be out. That kind of thing. And so we choose the town of Hefei, which is a city about three or four hours away from Shanghai by train. And my colleague and I planned the trip, and we decide to go there for two days and see what life is like there.
- [indistinct chatter]
So we go to this mall to try to do some interviews.
The checkpoints are out. To get into the mall, you need to have your temperature taken by a guard. You need to write down your personal information.
And we start talking to a construction worker. And within a few minutes, a police officer comes in and sort of beckons him.
He basically disappears. And we ask him, what happened? He said, oh, the police officer said no assembly here because of the virus.
So we move on. And what becomes apparent is the police officer, he’s stripped off his jacket to go undercover. And he is following us, kind of diving into stores when we look back to see him, and kind of peeking from behind clothing racks to look at what we’re doing.
So we say, all right, well, let’s get out of here. So we hop in a car and we go across town to a pedestrian shopping street. We seem to have lost him. We’re like, OK.
So we’re walking down, and we hear this beat, the beat of pop music. And there’s this fantastic scene.
It’s the storefront of China Gold, which sells jewelry, and all of the staff are out in front doing these coordinated dance moves.
They’re trying to drum up business.
And they invite us in. They say, oh, yeah, we’re happy to talk. And so one guy says, you know, for all of our dancing, it’s not helping that much. People want to get out, but nobody has any money to spend. And we’re starting to kind of sit down and sort of set up to talk to him longer, and we look up — — and who’s coming in the store behind him but that same police officer?
And he goes in the back, has a word with the manager. And just a few minutes later, the guy kind of says, you know what? I’m sorry, I can’t talk.
Ah. So the police are clearly attempting to block your reporting.
Yeah, so I get a little frustrated. But you can’t get rid of these guys, and so they’re basically on us for the rest of the time. And it becomes almost impossible to talk to any regular person about what would be an overwhelmingly positive story.
Paul, I feel like being surveilled by the Chinese authorities is now a somewhat familiar feeling for you when you go on a reporting trip.
Yeah, I was thinking about it, and I think it’s maybe been a dozen times over the past year that I’ve had to deal with security. But the thing is, with something that’s sort of a more basic story like this, you don’t normally get this kind of attention. I mean, that’s the kind of thing you get in really, really sensitive stories, where they know you’re coming and they’ve prepared for you, and they really don’t want you to learn anything. So the idea that just talking to regular people feels so dangerous to them that they’re putting this kind of effort in, I mean, that’s different. And it’s extreme, for sure.
So what happens next?
Well, we go on walk across the park, and we end up at a McDonald’s. So we’re talking about leaving and how frustrated we are by what’s happened. And a man is kind of eating behind us. And he gets up, and as he’s walking out the door, he turns to me and he says, foreign trash.
We both kind of look up and we’re sort of shocked. And so we look at him, and he says, yeah, you foreign trash. What are you doing in my country? And then he turns to my Chinese colleague and he says, you [EXPLETIVE], what are you doing with him —
— you [EXPLETIVE]. And so she starts wanting to kind of defend me, and she’s very upset. And I have to basically tell her, don’t yell back. He’s menacingly hovering over us. It does feel like it could get physical very easily. And after a few minutes of kind of basically mumbling more nastiness at us, he leaves. Nobody says anything, and everybody goes back to eating. And we try to calm ourselves down.
And Paul, what did you make of that attack from this random stranger?
Well, I mean, as a foreigner, you stand out in China. And there’s a lot of good attention that brings, and there’s some negative attention over the years. But I think there had been a real uptick in xenophobia lately. Online, we’ve seen a lot more nastiness on the Chinese internet about foreigners. And a lot of foreigners are starting to talk about run-ins they’ve had. The reason we went to Hefei in the first place is it was one of the few places we could find a hotel that would accept a foreigner. I called about 30 hotels — and these are American chains, the Hilton and the Marriott — and none of them would accept a foreigner.
And so Hefei was partially because we found a Westin that would take us.
Paul, at this point, you’re describing a bunch of experiences that have happened to you in the past, but are happening a lot more intensely in this moment. Government surveillance, anti-Westernism, and of course, you’re about to be kicked out of the country by the government. So are you starting to suspect that this is all linked?
Yeah, I think it all feels a part of the same thing. And everything has been so extreme with the virus. There’s so much fear and there’s so much anger. There’s just so much that feels so heightened that it feels different. And it feels like we’re kind of at a point of change. And it’s not good. It’s not good for a foreigner in the country. But it’s also probably not good for the country itself. It feels like there’s a kind of rejection of what I had thought was an openness to the world in China.
We’ll be right back.
Paul, where do you think rejection of the outside world — this really heightened version of surveillance and xenophobia — where’s this coming from in this moment?
The Chinese government. And I think maybe one way that’s interesting to think about it is through the lens of the virus. So by all rights, the virus appears to start in Wuhan and kind of spreads out from there. But I don’t remember precisely when this was, but a Chinese scientist at some point comes out and says, well, we don’t know precisely where it came from. We don’t know precisely the first patient, or how the first person got infected. And then what happens is Chinese state media and Chinese officials seize on this to say, it seems like maybe it didn’t come from China at all — that it could come from somewhere else.
They’re saying that this virus didn’t come from Wuhan?
They aren’t that pointed about it at first. They just kind of inject this skepticism.
And so then what starts to happen is rumors start to spread. One thing you hear is that, oh, well, the U.S. has a really bad flu season. And the U.S. doesn’t even pay attention to it because the U.S. has a bad health care system. And so it could be that it was in the U.S. for a while and then it came over. And then there’s this sort of more pernicious rumor that a number of Chinese officials seem to endorse —
- archived recording
— pointed to this tweet from a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying, quote, it might be U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent. Make public your data. U.S. owe us an explanation.
— which is that the U.S. military brought it to Wuhan, because Wuhan had this military games last year.
- archived recording
The inflammatory tweet echoed a Canada-based conspiracy website’s unsubstantiated claims that America was the real source of the coronavirus, apparently linking it to the U.S. Army’s participation in the Military World Games.
And that during that, a U.S. military representative might have brought it and released it into the city. And these are not small things. This is loud enough that a lot of my Chinese friends are asking me, hey, what do you think about this? Could this be right?
And then what starts happening on state media is that you start hearing about cases being imported back into China from the world. They’re not specifying who’s bringing these things back. And oftentimes, it’s Chinese who live overseas or who are traveling overseas, who got infected and came back. But oftentimes, state media just describes this as foreign cases. And so if you’re seeing that every day, and you’re a regular Chinese person, you start to fear seeing a foreigner, because you assume those foreigners —
— they’re the ones who are bringing the cases back. So I don’t have to worry about anything but people coming from abroad. And who else comes from abroad but foreigners?
So the Chinese government’s tolerance for, and even promotion of, these conspiracy theories that the coronavirus didn’t start in China, but perhaps started in the West — in a place like America — that, in turn, is going to foment xenophobia. A fear, naturally, of Westerners, who Chinese people think will be carrying the virus.
Right. And not just Westerners, too, I mean, anybody who could be perceived as not being from China at this point.
- archived recording
Africans living in Guangzhou say that they’re being kicked out of their homes and face harassment as health workers step up testing for imported infections.
In southern China, where there’s a large African community, a large number of Africans are evicted from their homes out of fear. And hotels won’t have them, so they’re sleeping on the streets. African diplomats are trying to deal with this, but they’re shouted down. McDonald’s and other restaurants won’t let black people in. The United States issues an actual diplomatic warning to African-Americans, saying, avoid this area because of the xenophobia and racism. And so you just see this sort of snowballing effect of this fear growing and growing. All of the fear of the foreigners related to the virus starts to tie into nationalism and a national self-image, all of which has been carefully cultivated by the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government.
Paul, why would it be in China’s interest to basically promote this xenophobia right now?
So this is an old trick that the Chinese Communist Party has used in the past. Whenever there’s a fear that the legitimacy of their rule is threatened, if people start to point the fingers at top leaders, they need to find somebody else to blame. And the easiest is foreigners — foreign influence, and often, the United States.
So if we go back to last year, one of the biggest stories here was the Hong Kong protests.
And for month after month, the front of newspapers, on TV, we just saw fiery clashes, tear gas, police shooting protesters.
This is hugely embarrassing.
And so what does the Chinese Communist Party do? They blame the protests on the United States and on the West. They say the United States is fomenting this, and it’s an aggressive act against China. And so then, throughout the year as well, we did a lot of coverage of what was going on in Western China, in Xinjiang —
- archived recording
More than a million Uighurs, and others belonging to various Muslim minority groups, are believed to be detained in the Xinjiang region into a vast network of detention centers for what China calls re-education.
— where more than a million minority Uighurs have been held in camps. And for that, too, it gets tons of attention and —
— people talking about it all over the world. And so, again, they have to find an excuse. And they say, well, the foreign forces and the Western media are making this up. And they’re trying to blacken China and tar China. And so then, we get to this year, and out of nowhere comes this virus. And what becomes very clear is that there’s quite the cover-up at the beginning. And so, again, we’re relentless in our coverage. We put this —
— on the front page. We dissect meticulously how this happened and what happened. And again, the Chinese government sees this as uncompromisingly aggressive and just an embarrassment. And so, once again, how else can you kind of explain it all except to kind of turn the tables and blame foreign influences. And so we see this pattern, where we are a thorn in their side, and they ultimately blame us. And under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, there’s been this idea that China is now a superpower, and that the world needs to take China into account. They need to listen to what China has to say. China will be at the table, and they should respect China. And I think, over and over again, we see in Xi Jinping’s China that there’s less and less room for anything that challenges that idea. And so, now, we’re at a place where one more group of people who would challenge this idea are gone.
Meaning the foreign media?
Yeah, what the Chinese government wants to tell is a story of triumph. They’ve emerged from the virus as the rest of the world is under siege and under lockdown. And the story they want to tell is that the reason they were able to beat the virus is the superiority of the Chinese system. This sort of enlightened authoritarianism that is able to technocratically manage every variable and fix everything and make things right. And when they look around the world, they can point and say, look at all of these democracies. They’re suffering terribly. More people are dying. More people are sick. They’re in crisis and we’ve gotten through this. We succeeded. That means we are the new superpower. We are the sort of country in ascendancy and everybody must pay their respects now.
Right. And of course, the one thing that could get in the way of that — that idealized version of that story, that China conquered this virus and did better with it than the West — are a bunch of Western reporters poking around, finding examples of failure, or finding the reemergence of the virus. I mean, that just is incompatible with that story.
Paul, correct me if I’m wrong. At this point, there’s still an order telling you that you need to leave China. This unsuccessful reporting trip has come to an end. So where are you in your process of being expelled?
So this is sort of the end of March. And the thing is the virus is spreading around the world and countries are closing their borders to foreigners. So if I want to go anywhere outside of the United States and be in the same time zone and continue to cover China, I need to leave quicker. And so I actually end up leaving just a few days later, much faster than I thought I would. And so I pack up my stuff — [INDISTINCT CLATTER] — I walk out the door —
- paul mozur
Taking one last look.
I leave my apartment —
— and I head for the airport for a final flight out of a country that has held my imagination and just captured my attention and just been so incredibly interesting that it’s been impossible to leave for 15 years.
- [plane taking off]
I get on a flight and leave it for what will probably be the final time in a long time. And I find myself a few hours later —
- flight attendant
Ladies and gentlemen, we have landed at Narita Airport. [INAUDIBLE] with our time difference between Shanghai and —
— in Japan. And I get through just before the borders are closing to Americans —
- flight attendant
It’s been our pleasure to serve you on this flight. Thank you for flying with [INAUDIBLE], your China flight —
— and start a two-week quarantine and a new life outside of China.
I mean, I can’t imagine that it’s easy or even really possible to cover China from outside of China, right?
Yeah, it’s a different sort of thing. I think one of the really important things about having journalists in China is that for all of the propaganda and all of the intimidation, Chinese people still want to talk. They love telling stories. They love talking about what their experiences are. And one of our best ways to just find out what was happening is to go to places and talk to regular people. And now that avenue is cut off to us. And so we’re going to be reliant on filings and government documents. And we’re just going to have a vaguer picture, a far less precise picture of what’s going on in the place.
Right, at a moment when it would seem like the eyes and ears of journalists would be as essential as ever. So how are you feeling about this?
You know, it feels like it couldn’t be at a worse time, because now is the most important and most interesting moment to be in China, because China is as powerful and as large as it’s ever been. And it’s on this steep path of authoritarianism. Xi Jinping will not step down the way previous presidents did. He will continue to push this triumphalism. And where that goes and what it means for Chinese people and for the world is probably, in my mind, the most important story. To not be able to be there to see it just feels like an irreparable loss. And it makes me feel, I guess, grateful for the time I had there.
Do you think, Paul, that when this is all over — this pandemic — and perhaps China reaches a point where this triumphalism has been achieved, that things might return to the way that they were before all of this? For journalists like you, and for the relationship between China and the West?
I really do think we’ve crossed a point in the U.S.-China relationship that will be difficult to come back from. I think both countries have made it clear the way they view the world is at odds.
And it’s unfortunate, because the one way we could get back to where there is more understanding is to have exchanges and to have people on the ground, trying to explain China to the United States and the United States to China.
And that’s not happening.
Yeah, that’s not happening. And I don’t see it getting better anytime soon.
Paul, thank you very much. I know you don’t really want to be in the position that you’re in, but we wish you the very best of luck.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. U.S. retail sales, which include purchases in stores and online, as well as in restaurants and bars, experienced their largest monthly decline in three decades in March, as lockdowns changed consumer behavior. The depth of the decline, nearly 9 percent, according to the Commerce Department, is significant because the retail industry accounts for 1 out of every 10 American jobs. April’s retail sales may be even worse, because state lockdowns have only intensified since March. And —
- archived recording (elizabeth warren)
Among all of the other candidates I competed with in the Democratic primary, there’s no one I’ve agreed with 100 percent of the time over the years. But one thing I appreciate about Joe Biden is he will always tell you where he stands.
In a video released on Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren became the latest former rival to endorse Joe Biden for president, as the Democratic Party moves to coalesce around his candidacy.
- archived recording (elizabeth warren)
When you disagree, he’ll listen. And not just listen, but really hear you and treat you with respect, no matter where you’re coming from.
In the past week, both Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama have also endorsed Biden.
That’s it for The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro, see you tomorrow.