The strange case of the expulsion of three Chinese journalists from India; Beijing’s initial anger then back-down, throws some light on the intricacies that govern the relationship between the two countries.
It also brings into focus the double role Chinese journalists play as news and information gathers serving the communist State.
New Delhi Bureau Chief for the Xinhua News Agency, Wu Qiang and Mumbai-based reporters Tang Lu and She Yonggang were ordered to leave after being told their current visas would not be renewed.
While the Ministry of External Affairs remained tight-lipped over the reason for the expulsion, media sources claimed the trio had used false identities to access Government Departments.
Beijing’s initial reaction was swift and predictable, warning of “serious consequences” and claiming India had acted in retaliation for China’s blocking of its bid to join the international Nuclear Suppliers Group.
A post in Sina Weibo speculated that the journalists had reported too many scandals and negative events in India, although anyone who has lived here knows the local media need no assistance in that area.
Then, 24 hours later, came a complete about-face. Chinese Embassy officials stressed the need to ‘normalise’ Sino-Indian relations, while Xinhua admitted that two of the journalists had committed ‘transgressions’ by secretly visiting Tibetan exile communities in Karnataka.
And in a fine display of semantics, an External Affairs official said the journalists had not been ‘expelled’ and were simply going home as their visas had expired. “Xinhua is welcome to post new correspondents to Delhi,” the official said.
But why this back-down from a country that it notoriously sensitive about losing face? One suggestion is that China is feeling increasingly isolated after the International Court ruled against its claims in the South China Sea and had no wish to open another quarrel with India over such a trivial incident.
Less likely is a speculation on the uncertainties in China-US relations that could occur should the mercurial Donald Trump become president with his much publicised liking for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Whatever the reasons the incident is a reminder that Chinese journalists operating overseas are often just another arm of the country’s security services, involving themselves in biased coverage and even espionage.
An example of this occurred a few years ago when journalist Mark Bourrie, who was working for Xinhua in Canada, resigned after being told to gather information on the Dalai Lama’s visit to the country, then turn over all his notes without writing any reports.
The status of Chinese journalists was made crystal clear in February when, on a tour of State media outlets, President Xi Jinping said they must give “absolute loyalty” to the Communist Party.