From the New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. It’s the Daily. ”
Today, in the middle of the pandemic, China expelled journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times. One of these journalists, my colleague Paul Mozur, recounts his last days there.
It’s Thursday, April 16.
Paul Mozur, tell us about the text messages you received a few weeks ago.
It is therefore late, probably a little after midnight. And I am in Shanghai, in my apartment, where I have lived for three years. And I do this thing, where you try to read in bed, but the phone keeps buzzing.
And I said to myself, this is the last time I’m going to check, and I’m looking at the phone. And for the first time, when I picked up my phone while I was trying to sleep, it was actually relevant. So what I’m seeing is that one of my colleagues in our sort of private discussion group to cover the coronavirus is sending a message. And this is a note from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China. And the first is all kinds of everyday language. That’s not important. But then I come to point two, and I read point two, and I have to read it again. Because what he is saying, in this roundabout way, is essentially that all the staff of the New York Times, all of our journalists in China, have to leave the country in a matter of weeks. We were indeed expelled.
It was not only us who were kicked out, it was also a number of journalists from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Most of the American press in China is therefore thrown away.
So you’re on the phone in bed, looking at a memo that says your work in China is finished?
Yes, our time is up.
As you watch this, what do you and your colleagues say to you as you digest this information from the Chinese government?
You know, I think I am the first to weigh, and I say, let me be the first to say this: [EXPLETIVE]
[EXPLETIVE] And then this kind of thing starts.
There is some agreement on this. There are different other types of shock expressions, then –
– our editor for Asia, Adrienne Carter, intervenes and says that we are still trying to understand what this means. We will have calls tomorrow. But it doesn’t look good.
I think we have known for a long time that our days could be numbered. But even if you somehow know that the Chinese government is not happy with you, the idea of closing a chapter of more than 13 years of your life devoted to a place, to learn a language, to be there is all just impossible to sort of deal with instantly. It was just totally surreal. So I walked around on my balcony, and it was sort of – the fog was coming to Shanghai, and it was sort of a dark night. And I just spent an hour or two just going out and thinking. I was sort of a nostalgic mess, sort of.
Wow, so this is basically a large-scale media purge. I wonder what explanation the Chinese government gives for this, because it seems to be in violation of decades of journalistic tradition, where the United States has journalists in China and China has journalists in the United States.
Yep, conspicuously, it’s a tit-for-tat. A few weeks ago, the Trump administration capped the number of Chinese journalists working for state media who may be in the United States. And China calls this the effective expulsion of 60 Chinese media workers. So that’s the Chinese government’s response to expel us. But there is much more than that. It becomes very clear, soon after, because a comment rises in the state media and asks the question: why are these journalists expelled?
And that doesn’t mention the United States. This is the cover. And that said that we were too critical and biased in attacking the Chinese government in its response to the coronavirus, that we were biased against China in general. And then it also brings up Xinjiang. And it says that the stories we have told over the past year about Uighurs locked up in camps are exaggerated and untrue and just not the real story. And so I think at that point, you sort of see, yes, on the one hand, it’s a tit-for-tat. But on the other hand, it’s much more.
So once you’ve more or less made peace with the fact that you’re going to be deported, what do you do?
Well, you do what you have to do when you have to leave very quickly. I’m starting to buy plane tickets. And you can’t imagine a worse time to be kicked out of a country, because borders close everywhere and any flight poses a certain risk of virus. And so –
– I’m getting a plane ticket to the United States. I get one in Japan. I went to Korea. I receive three tickets. And then, as the borders close, I buy two more –
– closer to my date so that I can get out faster before these borders close. But then I realize I have a few days left, and I have a little bit of that – well, that kind of dilemma, because I was supposed to go on a story trip the day I heard about it of this thing. And we canceled it. But from my journalism experience, you always go out when you can. And so I decided, OK, one last hurray. Here we go.
And what is this reporting work?
Well, this is supposed to be a fairly routine article. At this point, China returns to normal. Life begins to resume the rhythms that existed before the epidemic. So the idea is to find some sort of more bourgeois city and go out there and talk to people, and see how dazed they are, how excited they are to go out. That sort of thing. And so we choose the city of Hefei, which is a city about three or four hours by train from Shanghai. 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 are going to this mall to try to do some interviews.
The checkpoints are out. To enter the shopping center, you must have your temperature taken by a security guard. You must write down your personal information.
And we start talking to a construction worker. And in a few minutes, a policeman enters and signs him somehow.
It basically disappears. And we ask him, what happened? He said, oh, the police officer said there was no meeting here because of the virus.
So we continue. And what becomes obvious is the policeman, he took off his jacket to hide. And it follows us, sort of diving into the stores when we look back to see it, and peeking behind the clothes racks to watch what we do.
So we say, all right, let’s get out of here. So we jump in a car and we cross the city for a pedestrian shopping street. We seem to have lost it. We’re like, OK.
So we are walking down and we hear this rhythm, the rhythm of pop music. And there is this fantastic scene.
This is the storefront of China Gold, which sells jewelry, and all the staff are in front to make these coordinated dance moves.
They are trying to stimulate business.
And they invite us. They say, oh, yes, we are happy to talk. And so a guy said, you know, for all of our dancing, it doesn’t help much. People want to go out, but nobody has money to spend. And we start to sit down and settle down to talk to him longer, and we look up – – and who comes into the store behind him but that same policeman?
And he goes in the back, has a word with the manager. And just a few minutes later, the guy sort of says, you know what? I’m sorry, I can’t speak.
Ah. The police are therefore clearly trying to block your reports.
Yeah, so I’m 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 speak to an ordinary person about what would be an extremely positive story.
Paul, I feel like I’m being watched by the Chinese authorities is now a somewhat familiar feeling for you when you go on a reportage trip.
Yes, I was thinking about it, and I think it may have been a dozen times in the past year that I have had to deal with security. But the point is, with something that is sort of a more basic story like this, you don’t normally get that kind of attention. I mean, this is the kind of thing you get in really, very sensitive stories, where they know you are coming and they prepared for you, and they really don’t want you to learn anything. So the idea that talking to ordinary people seems so dangerous to them that they put in that kind of effort, I mean, is different. And it’s extreme, for sure.
What happens next?
Well, we continue to cross the park and find ourselves in a McDonald’s. So we’re talking about leaving and how frustrated we are with what happened. And a man somehow eats behind us. And he gets up, and as he comes out the door, he turns to me and says, foreign garbage.
We both raise our heads and are somewhat shocked. And so we look at it, and it says, yes, 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 to want to defend me, and she is very upset. And basically I have to tell her, don’t yell. It hovers over us threateningly. It looks like he could become very easy physically. And after a few minutes of basically more mean muttering towards us, he leaves. Nobody says anything and everyone starts eating again. And we try to calm down.
And Paul, what did you think of this attack on this random stranger?
Well, I mean, as a foreigner, you stand out in China. And there is a lot of good attention that brings, and there is some negative attention over the years. But I think there has been a real increase in xenophobia in recent times. Online, we have seen much more wickedness on the Chinese Internet about foreigners. And many foreigners are starting to talk about the break-ins they’ve had. The reason we went to Hefei in the first place is that it was one of the few places where we could find a hotel that would accept a stranger. I called about 30 hotels – American chains, the Hilton and the Marriott – and none of them would accept a stranger.
And so Hefei was partly because we found a Westin who would take us.
Paul, at this point, you describe a lot of experiences that have happened to you in the past, but that are happening much more intensely right now. Government surveillance, anti-Westernism, and of course, you are about to be kicked out of the country by the government. So are you starting to suspect that this is all related?
Yeah, I think it’s all part of the same thing. And everything has been so extreme with the virus. There is so much fear and anger. There are so many things that seem so exaggerated that it seems different. And it feels like we’re sort of at a point of change. And it’s not good. It’s not good for a stranger in the country. But it’s probably not good for the country itself either. I feel like there is a kind of rejection of what I thought was an opening to the world in China.
We come back right away.
Paul, where do you think the rejection of the outside world – this really heightened version of surveillance and xenophobia – where is it coming from right now?
The Chinese government. And I think this may be an interesting way to think through the lens of the virus. So by all rights, the virus seems to start in Wuhan and spread from there. But I don’t remember exactly when it was, but a Chinese scientist at one point came out and said, well, we don’t know exactly where it came from. We do not know precisely the first patient, nor how the first person was infected. And then what’s going on is the Chinese state media and Chinese officials grasp this to say, it looks like it doesn’t come from China at all – that it could come from elsewhere.
They say this virus did not come from Wuhan?
They didn’t say it at the start. They simply inject this skepticism.
And then what starts to happen is that rumors start to spread. One thing you hear is that, oh, well, the United States has a really bad flu season. And the United States doesn’t even pay attention to it because the United States has a bad health care system. And so it could have been in the United States for a while, then it came. And then there’s this kind of more pernicious rumor that a number of Chinese officials seem to endorse –
- archived recording
– said the tweet from a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, saying, citing, that it may have been the US military that brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent. Make your data public. The United States owes us an explanation.
– which is that the US military brought him to Wuhan, because Wuhan had these military games last year.
- archived recording
The inflammatory tweet echoes unsubstantiated claims from a Canadian conspiracy website that America was the real source of the coronavirus, apparently linking it to the US military’s participation in the World Military Games.
And that during that, an American military representative could have brought him and released him in the city. And these are not small things. It’s strong enough for many of my Chinese friends to ask me, hey, what do you think? Could it be true?
And then what starts to happen on state media is that you start to hear about cases imported into China from the world. They do not specify who reports these things. And it is often the Chinese who live abroad or who travel abroad, who were infected and returned. But often the state media portrays this as foreign cases. And so if you see this every day, and you’re an ordinary Chinese, you start to be afraid of seeing a stranger, because you assume that these strangers –
– they are the ones who report the cases. So I don’t have to worry about anything other than people from abroad. And who else comes from abroad than foreigners?
Thus, the Chinese government’s tolerance for, or even promotion of, these conspiracy theories that the coronavirus did not start in China, but may have started in the West – in a place like America – which, at its turn, will foment xenophobia. A fear, of course, Westerners, who, according to the Chinese, will be carriers of the virus.
Right. And not just Westerners, too, I mean, anyone who might be perceived as not being from China at this point.
- archived recording
Africans living in Guangzhou say they are being evicted from their homes and are at risk of harassment as health workers step up testing for imported infections.
In southern China, where there is a large African community, large numbers of Africans are being evicted from their homes out of fear. And hotels won’t have them, so they sleep on the street. African diplomats are trying to deal with this, but they are shouted. McDonald’s and other restaurants won’t let black people in. The United States is issuing a genuine diplomatic warning to African-Americans, saying: avoid this area because of xenophobia and racism. And so you just see this kind of snowball effect of this fear growing more and more. All the fear of strangers linked to the virus is starting to bind to nationalism and a national self-image, all of which have been carefully cultivated by the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government.
Paul, why would it be in China’s interest to promote this xenophobia now?
So this is an old trick that the Chinese Communist Party has used in the past. Whenever there is concern that the legitimacy of their government is in jeopardy, if people start pointing fingers at the top leaders, they must find someone else to blame. And the simplest is foreigners – foreign influence and often the United States.
So if we go back to last year, one of the biggest stories here has been the Hong Kong protests.
And for months, in front of the newspapers, on television, we have just seen fiery clashes, tear gas, police shooting at demonstrators.
It’s extremely embarrassing.
So what is the Chinese Communist Party doing? They blame the protests in the United States and the West. They say the United States is fomenting this, and it is an aggressive act against China. And so, throughout the year as well, we did a lot of reporting on what was going on in western China, in Xinjiang –
- archived recording
More than one million Uighurs and others from various Muslim minority groups are believed to be detained in the Xinjiang region in a vast network of detention centers for what China calls re-education.
– where over a million minority Uighurs have been detained in camps. And for that too, he gets tons of attention and –
– people talk about it all over the world. And so, again, they have to find an excuse. And they say, well, foreign forces and the Western media are inventing this. And they’re trying to blacken China and the tar. And so, we come to this year, and out of nowhere comes this virus. And what becomes very clear is that there is enough concealment at the start. And so, again, we are relentless in our coverage. We put this –
– on the first page. We meticulously dissect how it happened and what happened. And again, the Chinese government sees this as uncompromising aggression and just annoyance. And so, again, how can you explain it all, except to flip 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 was this idea that China is now a superpower, and that the world has to take China into account. They must listen to what China has to say. China will be at the table and it should respect China. And I think, over and over again, we see in Xi Jinping’s China that there is less and less room for anything that challenges this idea. And so, now we are in a place where another group of people who would challenge this idea has disappeared.
Do you mean foreign media?
Yes, what the Chinese government wants to tell is a story of triumph. They got out of the virus while the rest of the world is under siege and lockdown. And the story they want to tell is that the reason they were able to defeat the virus is the superiority of the Chinese system. This kind of enlightened authoritarianism that is able to manage each variable technocratically and fix everything and do things right. And when they look around the world, they can point and say, look at all of these democracies. They are suffering terribly. More people are dying. More people are sick. They are in crisis and we have succeeded. We have succeeded. It means that we are the new superpower. We are the kind of country on the rise and everyone should pay tribute now.
Right. And of course, the only thing that could hinder this – this idealized version of this story, that China has conquered this virus and made it better than the West – is a group of Western journalists who are snooping around, finding examples of failure, or find the reemergence of the virus. I mean, it’s just incompatible with this story.
Paul, correct me if I’m wrong. At this point, there is always an order telling you to leave China. This fruitless reporting trip has ended. So where are you in your eviction process?
So it’s sort of the end of March. And the fact is that the virus is spreading all over the world and that countries are closing their borders to foreigners. So if I want to go anywhere outside the United States and be in the same time zone and continue to cover China, I have to leave faster. And so I ended up leaving a few days later, much faster than I thought. And so I pack my things – [INDISTINCT CLATTER] – I’m going out the door –
- paul mozur
One last look.
I leave my apartment –
– and I’m headed to the airport for a last flight out of a country that caught my imagination and that just captured my attention and was so incredibly interesting that it was impossible to leave for 15 years.
- [plane taking off]
I take the plane and leave it for what will probably be the last time in a long time. And I find myself a few hours later –
- Flight attendant
Ladies and gentlemen, we landed at Narita Airport. [INAUDIBLE] with our time difference between Shanghai and –
– in Japan. And I pass just before the borders are closed to the Americans –
- Flight attendant
It was our pleasure to serve you on this flight. Thank you for flying with [INAUDIBLE], your flight to China –
– and start a fortnight of two weeks and a new life outside of China.
I mean, I can’t imagine it being easy or even really possible to cover China from outside of China, right?
Yes, that’s another thing. I think one of the really important things about having journalists in China is that for all the propaganda and intimidation, the Chinese always want to speak. They love to tell stories. They like to talk about their experiences. And one of our best ways to find out what’s going on is to go to places and talk to ordinary people. And now this avenue is closed for us. And so we are going to depend on government filings and documents. And we’re just going to have a more vague picture, a much less precise picture of what’s going on there.
Okay, at a time when it seems that the eyes and ears of journalists are still essential. So how do you feel about it?
You know, it looks like it couldn’t be worse, because now is the most important and interesting time to be in China, because China is as powerful and as big as it has never been. And it’s on this steep path of authoritarianism. Xi Jinping will not give up on the way previous presidents did it. He will continue to push this triumphalism. And where it is going and what it means to the Chinese people and to the world is probably, in my opinion, the most important story. Not being able to be there to see it looks like an irreparable loss. And it makes me feel, I guess, grateful for the time I spent there.
Do you think, Paul, that when it is all over – this pandemic – and maybe China will reach a point where this triumphalism has been achieved, that things could return to the way they were before all this? For journalists like you and for relations between China and the West?
I really think that we have crossed a point in the American-Chinese relationship from which it will be difficult to return. I think the two countries have clearly explained their way of seeing the world disagrees.
And this is unfortunate, because the only way to go 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 States -United with China.
And it doesn’t happen.
Yeah, it doesn’t happen. And I don’t see it improving anytime soon.
Paul, thank you very much. I know you don’t really want to be in the position you are in, but we wish you luck.
We come back right away.
Here’s what else you need to know today. Retail sales in the United States, which includes purchases in stores and online, as well as restaurants and bars, experienced their largest monthly decline in three decades in March, as closures changed consumer behavior . The depth of the decline, almost 9 percent, according to the Commerce Department, is important because the retail trade accounts for 1 in 10 jobs in the United States. Retail sales in April may be even worse, as state closures have only intensified since March. And –
- archived recording (elizabeth warren)
Among all the other candidates with whom I participated in the Democratic primary, there is nobody with whom I agree 100% over the years. But one thing I like about Joe Biden is that he will always tell you where he is.
In a video released Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren became the last former rival to endorse Joe Biden for president as the Democratic Party nears her candidacy.
- archived recording (elizabeth warren)
When you disagree, he listens. And not just listen, but really hear you and treat you with respect, no matter where you come from.
Last week, Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama also approved Biden.
That’s all for The Daily. “I’m Michael Barbaro, see you tomorrow.