I received a text message from my wife saying she’d been detained by police in China.
We’re both American correspondents in Beijing, and we’ve become accustomed to this sort of harassment. In late 2015, she was reporting a story that nearly anywhere else in the world would be pretty innocuous — the downsizing of steel mills in an industrial town not far from the capital. But in China, almost nothing the foreign media does is considered harmless. While she was interviewing a laid-off steelworker, the man’s mother complained to the police, who rounded up my wife and her colleagues and whisked them off to a nearby station. The officers demanded to know who she had spoken to; my wife protested she had violated no regulations.
This is life for foreign correspondents in China. Like many of our colleagues around the world, reporting from war zones and authoritarian states, we’ve always put ourselves at risk simply doing our jobs. Now that risk is being increased — by our own president. Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit American journalists at home is rendering us more vulnerable to abuses by governments abroad.
My wife’s story ended as well as it could have. At the same time she was detained, I was in South Korea, stuck in Seoul’s traffic, while she was texting me updates. At one point, the texts suddenly stopped and I furiously sent message after message asking her to respond. I got nothing. Then I called. Her mobile phone rang and rang with no answer. About an hour and a half went by with no word and then I frantically began trying to contact her editor. Finally, a text appeared: After several hours, the police let her and her crew go.
Crisis was, in that instance, averted, but in a country that pays only lip service to rule of law, where human-rights abuses are commonplace and where many citizens have been conditioned to distrust foreign reporters, anything can happen. (Just days ago, a BBC correspondent and his camera crew were assaulted by a group of unidentified men while reporting in central China and, after authorities arrived, reportedly forced to apologize and sign a “confession” to diffuse the situation.)
Now that an American president is routinely launching anti-media tirades, Beijing is taking advantage. Cribbing from President Trump, the People’s Daily, run by the Communist Party, tweeted last week that recent stories in foreign media accusing police of torturing a detained lawyer were “FAKE NEWS.”
For Chinese officials, this approach is nothing new. In 2012, after the New York Times reported on the fortune amassed by China’s then-premier, a foreign ministry spokesman blasted the story, saying it “smears China’s name and has ulterior motives.” Since we print stories that deviate from official propaganda, they consider us enemies of the people, as Trump calls us. The upshot: the websites of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Reuters and Bloomberg are all blocked from Chinese readers by the Great Firewall. We’re constantly hampered by onerous and time-consuming visa procedures. I spent close to a year separated from my wife after she relocated to Beijing because the government took that long to grant me a proper accreditation to live in the country. Occasionally, journalists are expelled, including Melissa Chan, an American working for Al Jazeera, in 2012.
My wife, who is especially conspicuous as a TV correspondent with a camera crew, is confronted by police or other security officials with regularity. A survey released last year by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found that 57 percent of respondents “had been subjected to some form of interference, harassment or violence while attempting to report in China.”
In the past, the U.S. government has been a source of support and protection for American correspondents. One reason my wife went silent while at that police station was because she was on the phone with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, informing officials there about her detention. The Chinese government tolerates us here, in part, since it has been fearful of State Department disapproval. The problems American journalists face in the country have been a talking point for senior U.S. officials with their Chinese counterparts. No less a figure than Vice President Joe Biden, for instance, warned China’s top leaders about ousting American reporters during a 2013 Beijing visit. “Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy,” Biden publicly lectured in a speech.
Trump, though, hasn’t advocated those values at home — he’s done the opposite — which makes it nearly impossible for his administration to effectively promote them abroad. Since he now routinely derides negative coverage as “fake news” and belittles “dishonest” reporters as conspiratorial liars, Washington’s moral standing to back American journalists criticizing foreign regimes has been considerably eroded. How, exactly, can the U.S. government protest expulsions of American reporters from China when the White House itself is selectively barring them from its own press briefings?
The president is undermining the core mission of U.S. media around the world. American journalists regularly invite danger by defending civil liberties, exposing wrongdoing and upholding American values overseas. With his attempt to destroy our credibility, he’s granting tacit permission to the corrupt, the dictatorial and the violent to dismiss our stories as false and take their revenge on the journalists who produce them.
Perhaps some Americans are willing to sacrifice our basic values in exchange for Trump’s nebulous promise to “make America great again.” But I’m not, even if my own government is devoid of the will or desire to support long-held American values that, until now, didn’t seem to be up for debate. My colleagues and I could perform our jobs with greater confidence with a president who upheld the Constitution and the principles enshrined within it. Until that happens, I’ll have more reason to worry next time my wife doesn’t respond to a text.