China Criticizes Foreign Media’s Use of Locals in Covid Coverage


China blasted foreign media organizations’ use of Chinese staff to report on issues such as Covid-19 and Xinjiang, in an apparent escalation of Beijing’s efforts to restrict critical coverage of the world’s second-largest economy. 

The official Xinhua News Agency criticized “Western media” for recruiting Chinese nationals “as pawns to propagate their China-bashing rhetoric” in a commentary Tuesday, without naming the media outlets or providing specific examples. The piece cited their involvement in coverage on the origins of the first known Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan and criticism of Beijing’s rigid “Covid Zero” policies. 

“Manipulating these journalists to misrepresent China and stir up ideological bias against the country has once again revealed that so-called ‘press freedom’ touted by the Western media is just a handy tool to advance a narrow political agenda,” the commentary said.

China restricts its nationals to serving as news assistants for overseas media and bars them from independent reporting. Such staffers have come under increased pressure since the pandemic, with the South China Morning Post reporting in March 2020 that authorities had revoked the work permits of Chinese nationals affiliated with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Voice of America.

That same year, China expelled 18 journalists working for American news organizations in what they said was retaliation for similar action by the Trump administration in the U.S. There were some 127 journalists known to be jailed in China as of December, and at least 10 citizen journalists were arrested in 2020 for publishing details about the Covid crisis in Wuhan, according to Reporters Without Borders. 

The fresh attack on critical media coverage comes as China deals with its worst Covid-19 outbreak since Wuhan, with tens of millions of people including residents of the southern tech hub of Shenzhen facing lockdowns. China has portrayed its unrivaled success in containing outbreaks as a personal achievement of President Xi Jinping, who is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term at a Communist Party congress later this year. 

The Xinhua allegations of a “smear campaign” involving Chinese media staffers is consistent with longstanding party practice of blaming “hostile foreign forces” or “black hands” for domestic problems. China’s own state media and social networks are heavily censored and dominated by nationalist, pro-government voices. 

In recent days, Chinese diplomats have faced repeated questions from foreign news media over China’s refusal to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fueling public perceptions that Beijing supported the move. China has expressed support for Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” in Eastern Europe and the country’s diplomats and state media have promoted conspiracy theories about U.S.-backed biological laboratories in Ukraine. 

The Xinhua piece Tuesday also cited foreign media’s coverage of the crackdown on the predominately Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, which has prompted the U.S. to accuse China of “genocide” and ban goods from the region. China denies using forced labor or other human rights violations, arguing that it is attempting to reduce poverty and prevent terrorism. 

The commentary said Chinese reporters had “cobbled together ‘evidence’” to support such allegations, which it rejected as “fabrications.” “The same ploy has also been manipulated to slander China as an irresponsible player on the international stage,” the piece said.