After 24 years reporting in China, Chris Buckley — a highly regarded and experienced foreign journalist — has been forced to leave the country he has devoted his career to amid a worsening crackdown on foreign media.
- Nineteen foreign journalists have been forced out of China in the past year
- The New York Times’ Chris Buckley is back in Sydney after his visa wasn’t renewed
- Buckley spent 76 days in Wuhan trying to cover the coronavirus outbreak
The Australian reporter for the New York Times left Beijing with his wife on Friday bound for Sydney after China’s Government refused to renew his press card when it expired in mid-February while he was reporting in Wuhan.
He is the 19th foreign journalist expelled or forced to leave China in the past 12 months, and the second Australian.
Even as he prepared to leave the country, the Government made its presence felt.
At least four men followed and filmed Buckley as the ABC met him for an interview on his final day in China near the New York Times office in central Beijing.
One of the men retreated into a coffee shop as Buckley attempted to talk to him.
Reporting from the cradle of coronavirus
Buckley risked his health by travelling to the city believed to be the epicentre of the viral outbreak on the day it was locked down in January.
He was then told to stop reporting on the unfolding crisis when his press card expired the following month.
“It was a very frustrating time being in Wuhan, seeing all the dramatic developments with the lockdown and then the city beginning to overcome the epidemic but being prevented from reporting on it,” he told the ABC.
Due to increasingly tight lockdown rules in Wuhan, Buckley was forced to ride share bicycles around the empty city for interviews.
“On one of those days, I did about 24 kilometres on a rather small share bike,” he said.
A ‘stronger’ China clears out foreign journalists
With China and the US locked in an increasingly bitter battle for global influence and trading barbs about the origins of COVID-19, the number of foreign reporters on the ground in China is now the lowest for many years.
Buckley’s departure comes after another Australian working for US media, Phillip Wen of the Wall Street Journal, was expelled in February along with two colleagues.
A further 14 American journalists working at the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post were expelled in March.
Some Chinese staff working for US media have also been forced to quit their jobs by the division of China’s Foreign Ministry that employs and manages them on behalf of international media organisations.
“These trends have deepened under [President] Xi Jinping and I think they’re likely to continue for a while,” he said.
Unlike Wen, who was officially expelled over a guest opinion column headline deemed racist by China’s Government, Buckley has been told he can reapply in future to come back.
He was asked to leave China in 2012 and spent three years in Hong Kong before he was allowed to return.
“This time does feel different because China’s changed so much,” he said.
“The Chinese Government feels that it’s stronger, it’s more assertive and it’s less likely to heed messages or pressure from outside to let journalists back in,” he said.
‘Chris is respected as the gold standard’
Along with a Hong Kong-based colleague, Austin Ramzy, Buckley published one of the biggest scoops in decades last November when they revealed more than 400 pages of Chinese Government internal documents.
They detailed a ruthless campaign of coercion in China’s far-west Xinjiang region based on ideas from internal speeches by Mr Xi himself.
The policies culminated with hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Uyghurs and Kazakhs being separated from their families and interned in re-education centres, some of which still operate to this day despite pervasive efforts of Chinese authorities to thwart reporting.
“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Chris is respected as the gold standard for reporting not just on China, but also Chinese elite politics,” said Richard McGregor, a Senior Fellow with the Lowy Institute and former journalist.
“His insights come from old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, a painstaking reading of Chinese language sources and decades of experience — all skills that will not be easily replaced,” he said.
When asked why Buckley was being forced to leave the country, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “The laws and regulations are the laws and regulations.”
Buckley was stuck in Wuhan when his visa expired and therefore unable to apply for a renewal in Beijing.
Hu Xijin is an influential editor of a nationalistic Communist Party-run tabloid called the Global Times, which has previously attacked New York Times reporting.
“As someone in the media, I feel regret that he can no longer continue to work in China,” he told the ABC.
“But I believe this isn’t just a problem of the Chinese side. I hope China and the US can have more mutual respect and can jointly create better working conditions for each other’s journalists.”
China’s escalating media war with the US
Beijing’s move to expel 14 American journalists in March was tit-for-tat in a rapidly escalating information war between the US and China.
The abrupt expulsions came after the White House announced it would not renew 60 work visas for Chinese state media employees in the US, in a bid to limit visas to a similar number granted by Beijing to American reporters.
It came after an earlier effort to designate Chinese government media outlets in the US as “diplomatic entities”.
Tom Mitchell, the Financial Times Beijing bureau chief, said that the White House’s efforts for reciprocity unintentionally forced top investigative reporters from China.
“US traded queens for pawns. Bad chess move,” he wrote on Twitter.
Aside from the 19 foreign journalists recently forced to leave, dozens are stuck outside the country waiting for visas.
At least four Australian journalists working for different media outlets have been waiting for months.
“The Chinese Government has been very energetic and supportive of sending more Chinese journalists abroad because I think they want Chinese people to understand the rest of the world better,” said Buckley.