India and China are kicking out each others' journalists in the latest strain on ties

Hong Kong

India and China are fast heading toward having few or no accredited journalists on the ground in each others’ country – the latest sign of fraying relations between the world’s two most populous nations.

New Delhi on Friday called on Chinese authorities to “facilitate the continued presence” of Indian journalists working and reporting in the country and said the two sides “remain in touch” on the issue.

Three of the four journalists from major Indian publications based in China this year have had their credentials revoked by Beijing since April, a person within India’s media with first-hand knowledge told CNN.

Meanwhile, Beijing last week said there was only one remaining Chinese reporter in India due to the country’s “unfair and discriminatory treatment” of its reporters, and that reporter’s visa had yet to be renewed.

“The Chinese side has no choice but to take appropriate counter-measures,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular briefing when asked about a Wall Street Journal report, which first reported on the recent ejections of journalists from both sides.

The situation is the latest flashpoint in the fractious relationship between the nuclear-armed neighbors, which has deteriorated in recent years amid rising nationalism in both countries and volatility at their contested border.

The reduction of journalists – which includes both those from China’s government-run state media and major Indian outlets – is likely to further degrade those ties and each countries’ insight into the other’s political and social circumstances, at a time when there is little room for misunderstandings.

Tensions between the two have remained heightened after a long-standing territorial dispute erupted into a deadly clash in Aksai Chin-Ladakh in 2020. India’s defense minister in April accused China of violating existing border agreements and “eroding the entire basis” of bilateral relations.

It’s also not the first time that journalists have been caught in geopolitical cross-hairs in recent years.

China accused the US of “political crackdown” in 2020 after Washington cut the number of Chinese nationals allowed to work in Chinese state media bureaus in the US, citing a “surveillance, harassment, and intimidation” of foreign reporters in China and a need to “level” the playing field.

Beijing hit back by expelling journalists from several major US newspapers. Both sides also imposed visa limitations on each others’ media organizations.

The number of foreign reporters in China has dwindled in recent years, following the American newspaper expulsions, Beijing’s intimidation of reporters with Australian outlets, and long delays in visa approvals within an increasingly restrictive and hostile media environment for foreign reporters.

On Sunday, Xinhua published a first-person account from Hu Xiaoming, the state agency’s New Delhi bureau chief since 2017, describing the “torment” of Chinese reporters’ “visa hassle” in India.

“The Indian government’s brutal treatment has put enormous psychological pressure on Chinese journalists in India,” wrote Hu, who said the Indian government rejected his visa renewal in March on the grounds that he had stayed in the country too long.

Due to India’s visa policy, Xinhua’s New Delhi branch “now has only one journalist working with a valid visa,” the article said.

A spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs on Friday declined to comment on the number of Chinese journalists in the country when asked in a regular briefing.

“All foreign journalists, including Chinese journalists, have been pursuing journalist activities in India, without any limitations or difficulties in reporting,” spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.

Bagchi did not confirm that any Indian reporters had lost accreditation in China, but said such reporters had faced difficulties doing their jobs there.

The Hindu newspaper in April ran an article saying China’s Foreign Ministry had decided to “freeze” the visa of its Beijing correspondent Ananth Krishnan, as well as that of a second journalist, Anshuman Mishra of Indian public broadcaster Prasar Barahti.

When asked about the measures at that time, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official said Beijing was responding to “unfair” treatment of its reporters in recent years, including requiring the Xinhua reporter to leave in March. That situation followed another in 2021, when a reporter for state-run CGTN with a valid visa was told to leave, the official said.

Beijing has not said if there are other Chinese reporters with valid India visas currently outside India.

China maintains tight control of its state media, which it views as a vehicle to spread its propaganda messaging overseas.

A Western correspondent who is among many waiting for a visa into China said the situation facing Indian reporters was “in keeping with a pattern we’ve seen in the past few years of connecting the approval of journalist visas in China to the granting of visas for state media reporters in other countries, and to bilateral relations more broadly.”

India, on the other hand, has come under increasing scrutiny for what some observers see as shrinking press freedoms and censorship.

Earlier this year, Indian authorities raided BBC newsrooms in New Delhi and Mumbai, citing allegations of tax evasion, weeks after the country banned a documentary from the British broadcaster that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in deadly riots more than 20 years ago.

The latest situation with both countries’ reporters “boils down to the complete erosion of trust between both governments,” said Manoj Kewalramani, a fellow for China studies at the Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru.

Because Chinese reporters are working for state media outlets, New Delhi is also likely looking at them as “state actors,” according to Kewalramani.

If New Delhi was not approving their reporter visas, as Beijing claimed, this could be an example of India’s strategy to “impose costs” on China that do not involve military escalation, but can still put pressure on Beijing to return to the status quo along the border, he said.

Since the 2020 clash there, India has taken several steps to push back against China, including banning social media platform TikTok and other well-known Chinese apps, saying they pose a “threat to sovereignty and integrity,” while also moving to block Chinese telecoms giants Huawei and ZTE from supplying its 5G network.

Amid concerns in New Delhi of China as an increasingly powerful regional force, the Indian government has also bolstered its relationship with the United States, including via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad – a grouping of Japan, US, India and Australia widely seen as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

China last month boycotted a Group of 20 (G20) tourism meeting hosted by India in the Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir, citing its opposition “to holding any kind of G20 meetings in disputed territory.” India and Pakistan both claim the disputed Kashmir region in its entirety.

A regional bloc that has provided a forum for China and India to meet – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – will meet this summer, but virtually, according to an announcement from this year’s host India, ruling out what would have been the next expected opportunity for an in-person, face to face between Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

When it comes to the journalists’ on-the-ground presence, fewer Indian reporters in China will be a blow to more nuanced understanding of the country in India – and could also have a negative impact on Beijing, Kewalramani said.

“For the longest time, Beijing has been telling the Indian government and Indian people to have an independent view of China (separate from) looking through the Western prism,” he said.

“If you are going to deny our reporters access to the country, how do we develop that independent perspective?”