BBC Reporter Moves to Taiwan After Harassment in China

After a months-long campaign to discredit the BBC for its reporting on Xinjiang, the BBC reports that China correspondent John Sudworth has relocated to Taiwan along with his wife, RTÉ News China correspondent Yvonne Murray:

He and his family were followed to the airport and into the check-in area by plainclothes police officers. His wife, Yvonne Murray, reports on China for the Irish public broadcaster RTÉ.

Sudworth says he and his team faced surveillance, threats of legal action, obstruction and intimidation wherever they tried to film.

[…] “Only in recent days when we were faced with the task of renewing Sudworth’s press card did we learn that Sudworth left without saying goodbye. After he left the country, he didn’t by any means inform the relevant departments nor provide any reason why,” Hua Chunying told a news conference in Beijing. [Source]

Last year, 18 journalists were expelled from China and two, Cheng Lei and Haze Fan, were arrested and charged with national security crimes. Australian journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith were evacuated from China in connection with Cheng Lei’s case. Sudworth had reported extensively on family separations, forced labor allegations, and international corporations’ operations in Xinjiang.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China issued a lengthy statement on Sudworth’s departure:

In an interview with Irish television broadcaster RTÉ, Yvonne Murray shared the circumstances behind her family’s hasty departure from China:

Speaking on RTÉ’s News At One, Ms Murray said: “We left in a hurry as the pressure and threats from the Chinese government, which have been going on for some time, became too much.

“The authorities took issue with my husband’s reporting. He works for the BBC and has reported extensively on the incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang, as well as the origins of the virus in China.”

[…] “Two of our children were born in China, they all speak fluent Chinese, so for them it is home and it’s particularly distressing for them facing the reality that they might never be able to go back, as long as the Chinese state is so determined to target and punish journalists for simply doing their job.

[…] “The secret police who followed us as we left – while a sad departing memory – can’t erase all the other happy memories.” [Source]

The couples departure did not end the Chinese government’s attacks. The Chinese Embassy in Ireland posted a series of agitated tweets accusing Murray and Sudworth of defamation:

The Global Times also published an anonymously sourced diatribe against Sudworth’s reporting:

BBC’s Beijing correspondent John Sudworth, who became infamous in China for his many biased stories distorting China’s Xinjiang policies and COVID-19 responses, has left the Chinese mainland and is now believed to be hiding in Taiwan island after Xinjiang individuals said they plan to sue BBC for fake news, sources told the Global Times.

[…] As a reporter from an established Western media outlet, Sudworth unscrupulously spreads rumors and slanders against China and thought there is no way for the Chinese to get him as a foreign journalist, but he forgot that China is a country under the rule of law and there is a cost for spreading rumors, observers said.

[…] However, no matter where he flees to and in what capacity he reports on China, as long as he continues to adhere to ideological bias and continues to churn out false news to attack and smear China, he will not be able to escape righteous condemnation, they said. [Source]

The British and Chinese government have clashed multiple times over press freedom in the early months of 2021. In February, Ofcom, the U.K. media regulator, suspended Chinese state broadcaster CGTN’s license because the Chinese station had aired forced confessions. Beijing responded by taking BBC off the air. In response, British Ambassador Caroline Wilson wrote a WeChat essay criticizing China’s lack of press freedoms. According to Bloomberg News, the Chinese government replied, “Wilson’s article showed ‘patronizing arrogance.’ It said her actions were ‘inconsistent with the status of diplomats’ and cited Chinese public anger over its publication.”

Chinese reporters often face even greater dangers for their work. Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who reported from Wuhan during the early days of the pandemic, was sentenced to four years in prison in December 2020. This makes the reported release of Chen Qiushi, a lawyer-turned-journalist who also reported from Wuhan, a rare bright spot for press freedom in China. According to his friend, MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong, Chen is living with his parents in Qingdao, yet still under house arrest. At The South China Morning Post, Mimi Lau:

In a video posted to YouTube on Monday, Xu Xiaodong said: “Qiushi is now in Qingdao with his parents … I cannot reveal how I know it but I have seen a video [about him recently]. His health has improved under his parents’ care – much better than the time when he was taken away.”

[…] In his latest video, Xu said Chen could now access the internet and watch the news, but had yet to regain his freedom and was not allowed to communicate with the outside world. “He can stroll near his [parents’] home, go jogging and buy some basic daily necessities within a designated area,” Xu said.

[…] Based on his own analysis, Xu said he was hopeful Chen would be released from surveillance in the autumn. According to Xu, the authorities had given no indication they intended to press charges against him or strip him of his lawyer’s licence.

“After being taken away from Wuhan, he was brought to Tianjin for investigation. I regretted how authorities in Tianjin handled [Chen] but I’m grateful for the physical care extended by Qingdao authorities to him,” Xu said. “So far, there is not a single official document about charges to be laid against him,” he added. [Source]

The campaign against Sudworth had notable parallels to that against Tzu-i Chuang, a famous Taiwanese food writer and the wife of the former U.S. consul general in Chengdu. When China ordered the consulate closed in the summer of 2020, Chuang posted a farewell that included an unfortunate analogy to Jews fleeing the Nazis. She has since apologized. Chinese internet trolls seized on the post and, primed by state media outlets, mercilessly hounded her for months. By Liza Lin at The Wall Street Journal:

[…] Communist Party-run news outlets like the Global Times and Hubei Daily, alongside the party-run Communist Youth League, amplified the controversy with at least six posts and news articles about Ms. Chuang’s post in the week after the consulate was asked to shut, said Doublethink, which gets the bulk of its funding from nongovernment organizations that promote democratic institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundations. Nationalistic social-media influencers with millions of followers then piled on.

[…] After the trolls tracked down her residence in Maryland, Ms. Chuang said she stopped leaving her house, afraid of being recognized. At one point, she said, she contemplated suicide.

[…] China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a reply to the Journal that it didn’t know of Ms. Chuang’s situation, and that the State Department’s comments were groundless. China has a free internet, its users can freely express their opinions, and Chinese media is unbiased, truthful and accurate, the ministry said. [Source]


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