It was a reminder of the sad reality of reporting in China to the bottom.

As my family hurried to the airport, late and having hurriedly packed their bags at the last minute, the plainclothes police observed us outside our home, and then followed us to the airport and through the final check-in.

True to form to the end, China’s propaganda machine has been at full throttle, denying that I have faced any risks in China, while making those risks very clear.

“The Foreign Office says it does not know that Sudworth was under any threat,” the newspaper said. Global Times, controlled by the Communist Party, “except that he can be sued by people in Xinjiang for his defamatory reporting.”

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The chilling effect of such statements lies in the reality of a judicial system administered, such as the media, as an extension of the Communist Party. With the idea of ​​an independent judiciary described as “a flawed Western notion.”

China’s Foreign Ministry has continued the attacks, using the lectern at its daily press conference last Thursday to criticize what it called “fake news” from the BBC.

He played a video clip of our recent interview with Volkswagen in China about its decision to operate an automobile plant in Xinjiang, suggesting that this “is the kind of report that triggers the ire of the Chinese people.”

Something unlikely, of course, given that the vast majority of the Chinese people cannot see any of our reports, which have been blocked for a long time.

But while my post has led to a tense and disturbing ending, it’s worth remembering that mine is just the latest in a long list of foreign media outlets in recent years.

And it is part of a much larger battle that China is waging in the global space of ideas and information.

The media become a battlefield

“Economic freedom creates habits of freedom,” former US President George W. Bush once said in a speech calling for China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“And the habits of freedom create expectations of democracy,” he continued.

That hopeful assumption, that as China got richer it would become freer, could still be heard frequently in news analysis and scholarly discussion about China when I started working here in 2012.

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But my arrival that year coincided with an event that has made that prediction seem completely naive: Xi Jinping assumed the most powerful position in the country, that of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

While the enormous transformation in global trade patterns over the years has undoubtedly changed China, unleashing a whirlwind of economic and social change, those expectations for democracy seem more distant than ever.

President Xi has used China’s already rigid political system to tighten control over almost every aspect of society, and after 10 years in office (now without limits), it is the media landscape that has emerged as the field. defining battlefield.

The “Document Number 9”, an alleged high-level leak, identified from the beginning the main objectives of that fight: “Western values”, including freedom of the press.

And, as the BBC’s experience shows, any foreign journalism exposing truths about the situation in Xinjiang, questioning China’s handling of the coronavirus and its origins, or giving opponents a voice on authoritarian plans for Hong Kong, now is in the line of fire.

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Undermining the democratic debate

But as China’s propaganda attacks continue in the wake of my departure, it is also notable that foreign social media is being widely used to amplify the message.

The irony is, of course, that at the same time that the space for foreign journalism is shrinking in China, the Communist Party has been investing heavily in its overseas media strategy, taking full advantage of easy access to free media and open.

Its diplomatic “wolf warriors” unleash tweet storms, criticizing foreign reports, while denying their own citizens access to those same foreign platforms.

It’s an intensive and coordinated strategy across multiple platforms, as documented in a report by researchers from the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy.

Propagandists in state-run media publish and post their content abroad without restrictions, while at home, China restricts independent reporting, censors foreign broadcasts and websites, and blocks foreign journalists on their own social media.

In this context, my departure can be seen as a small part of an emerging and highly asymmetric battle for control of ideas.

It is not a happy prospect for the free flow of good and accurate information.

Diminishing access will erode our ability to understand what is really happening in China, which is harnessing the power of the institutions of a free press to undermine democratic debate everywhere.

Footprints that lead to the truth

While there are no easy answers and President Bush’s idealism has long since evaporated, there is some hope.

Much of the information that has been revealed in recent years about what is really happening in Xinjiang, despite being called “false” by China, has been based on its own internal documents and propaganda reports.

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In the operation of a mass incarceration system, a modern digital superpower cannot avoid leaving traces on the internet and the important journalistic effort to discover them will continue from afar.

I join a growing number of foreign correspondents who are now forced to cover the history of China from Taipei (Taiwan) or other cities in Asia and beyond.

And of course, even if they are few in number, there are courageous and determined members of the foreign press corps in China who remain committed to telling the story.

Most notably, within the increasingly strict limits of political controls, there are also a few extraordinary Chinese citizens who, at enormous danger to themselves, find a way around censorship to do the most important work of the world. journalism anywhere: tell the story of your country in your own words.

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Much of what we know about the early days of the Wuhan shutdown came from these citizen journalists, who today are paying the price for their bravery.

I leave the plainclothes police, for the last time, I hope, in the departure hall of a Beijing airport.

In the new global battle for ideas, we must never forget that it is the citizens of China who continue to face the greatest risks for speaking the truth.

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