World

US and China in tit-for-tat media expulsions. Vanuatu reviewing “cash for passports” scheme. Russians back to work despite growing virus toll. India’s slum dwellers starving in lockdown. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Media wars press home US–China conflict

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang speaks to the press in Beijing on March 18, when China announced it would expel at least 13 American journalists from the country.
Credit: Greg Baker / AFP

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

China: Last week, Chris Buckley, a correspondent in Beijing for The New York Times, boarded a one-way flight from China, where he has lived and worked for 24 years. The Australian-born journalist, who reported last year on leaked documents exposing the mistreatment of Uygur Muslims, was the latest foreign journalist forced to leave China.

“Goodbye China – for now,” Buckley said in a tweet from the airport. “I am filled with sadness at leaving.”

Buckley is one of 19 journalists who have been expelled or whose visas have not been renewed in the past year. His departure comes amid tit-for-tat moves by the United States and China against each other’s media outlets.

On Monday, Washington began enforcing tighter visa rules for Chinese journalists based in the US, who will now be given 90-day visas and will then need to apply for renewals. This was to “enhance reciprocity”, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Beijing threatened to take countermeasures, accusing Washington of “ideological prejudice”.

These skirmishes began in February when the US said it would treat five Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions”, or arms of the government. At the same time, China expelled three journalists from The Wall Street Journal after it ran an opinion piece – by an American academic – titled “China is the real sick man of Asia”. Washington then expelled 60 Chinese journalists, limiting China’s media outlets to basing 100 reporters in the US, down from 160. China then imposed restrictions on five American outlets, and revoked press credentials for about 13 journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

This battle comes amid growing tensions between the US and China, exacerbated by their recent recriminations over the origins of Covid-19. But most observers believe that the US is incurring the greater loss from the media expulsions. Richard McGregor, of the Lowy Institute, noted on Twitter: “The US threw out fake journalists whose work makes no difference; and China got to throw out real journalists whose work was invaluable. Who thinks this was a good trade?”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Vanuatu: In 2016, Vanuatu began allowing foreign nationals to buy citizenship for about $US150,000 as part of a lucrative “cash for passports” scheme. Applicants can become passport-holding Ni-Vanuatu within weeks of applying.

Last year, the scheme generated $A76 million, or about a third of the country’s total revenue.

But Vanuatu’s new prime minister, Bob Loughman, who was elected in April, last week ordered a review of the scheme. This followed growing international pressure, particularly from the European Union, which has expressed concern about the potential use of the scheme for money laundering and tax evasion.

Some prominent figures in Vanuatu, including the president, Tallis Obed Moses, have criticised the scheme, saying it is demeaning and undermines the status of non-fee-paying citizens.

Loughman said he wanted the scheme to be more transparent, but apparently plans to keep it. Vanuatu’s opposition urged him to adopt recommendations in a recent review by the previous government. Its various proposals included conducting additional checks of applicants, increasing fees by $US7000 or scrapping the scheme.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Russia: From a windowless office in his residence outside Moscow, President Vladimir Putin announced on Monday that Russia would end its “non-working” period, just as the country’s daily cases of Covid-19 infections reached a new high. Russia now has overtaken Italy, Spain and Britain to become the country with the second-largest outbreak behind the United States.

Monthly data on nationwide deaths indicate that the death toll from Covid-19 may be almost three times higher than official figures state. Russia’s prime minister, construction minister and culture minister have all contracted the coronavirus.

Putin initially dismissed concerns about the outbreak, insisting in mid-April the situation was “under control”. Despite his tendency to assert control during crises, he has at times appeared uninterested in the details of the Covid-19 response. This week, he said regional officials could decide whether to ease or tighten restrictions.

The crisis marks a serious challenge for Putin. The lockdown has crippled the economy, which faces a separate blow from a collapse in oil prices. The declining oil revenue has forced the government to provide only limited support for people during the restrictions.

Since the outbreak, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped to 59 per cent, their lowest level in more than 20 years. He has also been unable to hold a vote on proposed constitutional changes that would allow him to rule until 2036. The vote was due to be held in April but has been delayed until later this year.

SPOTLIGHT: INDIA’S SLUMS

On March 25, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the world’s largest lockdown, and one of the strictest, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 across the country’s tightly packed urban areas, particularly its slums.

An estimated 100 million people live in the country’s slums, which tend to be overcrowded, cramped and unhygienic. Social distancing is impossible.

The lockdown, which is being gradually eased, has failed to keep the virus out of the slums. But it has led to a new threat, as many residents have lost their jobs and now face destitution and hunger.

In Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai with an estimated one million people in an area spanning just 2.4 square kilometres, many residents have been winding back to one meal a day. Some have no food at all.

Ejaz Ahmed Chowdhary, a 40-year-old who lives in Dharavi in a single room with six family members, told The Washington Post this week that the family had run out of money and were relying on money borrowed from a friend. His phone repair shop is closed.

“We have been forced to beg,” he said.

Police, officials and aid groups have been distributing thousands of meals a day, but this has not been enough to feed Dharavi’s population. The communal toilets are disinfected every day, and medical workers enter the slum to screen people with symptoms. But, as of Wednesday, there had been more than 1000 confirmed cases and 40 deaths.

On Tuesday, Modi announced a new $US260 billion package to assist workers and businesses. He suggested the lockdown would be further eased next week but restrictions would be in place for a “long period”. “But we cannot allow our lives to revolve around corona, corona, corona,” he said.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Media wars press home US–China conflict".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.