Yuan Yang, the British-Chinese journalist witnessing the decline of press freedom in China

Yuan Yang, the British-Chinese journalist witnessing the decline of press freedom in China
Image: Courtesy of Yuan Yang/Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
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Yuan Yang is deputy Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times (FT), where she has covered technology for the past five years. She was born in China and grew up in the UK, where she read philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford, and later co-founded the nonprofit campaign Rethinking Economics, which advocates for a change in the way economics is taught and practiced globally. She is currently on book leave to write about China’s newfound anxieties over social mobility. 

As a board member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), Yang has witnessed the rise in harassment and expulsions of foreign journalists in China since the start of the pandemic and of the US-China trade war.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Quartz: How did you end up in journalism?

Yang: I went into journalism largely by accident. I grew up in [the Sichuan province of] China until I was four and then I moved to the north of England with my parents, in Manchester and Leeds. As soon as I learned to write and speak English, I became very passionate about writing. This was encouraged by my teachers and by a group called The Yorkshire Writing Squad that I joined as a teenager.

But there was no obvious career [path as a writer]—at the time I wanted to be a poet. So I put that to one side as a hobby, and I studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford. It was through studying economics in 2008 during the financial crisis, and thinking that we need better economics communicators and policymaking in the UK, that I started a charity with a group of friends called Rethinking Economics to change the way that economics is taught in universities.

After setting up that campaign, which is still running in the UK, I was interviewed by an FT journalist for a feature about student activists who were trying to change the [economics] curriculum. It was the first time I had ever spoken to a real-life journalist. I was like, ‘this person’s job is really cool,’ and a few years later, I applied for an internship at The Economist, and then went to the FT in Beijing. It was really a series of accidents.

Is that FT journalist still your colleague?

Yang: Yes, she’s called Claire Jones, and you can still find the piece if you Google our names.

What made you want to move back to China?

Yang: I did a year abroad studying at Peking University in 2013 because the Chinese government was paying for foreign students to go and because I wanted to improve my Chinese language.

That was my first time being in China as an adult, and I had a very difficult year. Living in the university district in Beijing as a foreign national who only speaks half the language, it’s very difficult to meet people who are not other foreign students. I really got to know China through coaching English-language debating. That was my other big passion in university and I met this bunch of extremely articulate, bilingual Chinese students who, like me, love talking about politics and economics. I’m still very close with that debating community in China. And if there is one thing I’ve learned about China it’s how wide a variety of communities there are here that you wouldn’t ever expect to find.

I imagine that between 2013 and now, debating those topics must have become more sensitive in China?

Yang: That’s absolutely true. In 2014 in the final round of a government-sponsored English-language debating competition, we talked about whether Chinese students should support the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, 1 which is a topic that would nowadays not be debated. We’ve seen instances of censorship in the debating community in the years since then.

This is reflective of how public debate in the realm of policymaking and the media in China has changed: People still want to debate the issues that affect their lives, but the number of topics that people are allowed to discuss is limited, and people have been very delicate and subtle about the framing of those topics. Framing makes a very big difference as to whether there is censorship or not.

What do you mean?

Yang: A lot of whether you’re allowed to say something or whether something’s going to go down well in public depends on whether you frame it as a criticism of local leadership versus a systemic problem within the Chinese government that might affect the top leadership.

That’s probably the biggest difference: learning the rules of how to craft and knowing that those rules are often shifting, so you might get caught out by the fact that these unspoken rules have shifted.

Are those rules different for journalists?

Yang: The rules haven’t changed in that we still aren’t accountable to the Chinese government for our news reports.

For the past year and a half I’ve represented our bureau to the Foreign Ministry. When they’ve had a problem with our reports, they’ll call me and they’ll tell me what the issue is and I’ll tell them what our viewpoint is. We’ll try to find a common ground, but when there is not, we agree to disagree, and I think that’s the most diplomatic and truthful way of engaging in a relationship with the Chinese government.

Our editors have been very specific that they would prefer to leave China then to censor ourselves here. That’s quite far away off. I think we’re quite well off actually, when it comes to getting visas and getting access to China, and that’s partly because the kind of reporting that we do in China on economics and business and policy is something that members of the leadership benefit from and that they read.

Have the rules changed for other media outlets?

Yang: The overall rules haven’t changed for foreign media; the rules have changed where they apply to our sources. And that’s made the biggest difference for our reporting here.

To give an example, it has become very sensitive for me to meet with [an executive at a foreign semiconductor company in China]. I strongly suspect that my communication with sources, especially if it’s on WeChat, is easily monitored by the government, and that my sources in the semiconductor field have been given pressure not to speak to me—not that they would tell me this specifically, but after being a journalist here for a few years, you get a sense when something is abnormal.

Five years ago, certainly before the US-China trade war and the sanctions on Huawei, nobody would have thought that semiconductor executives were a sensitive crowd. They’re not like labor activists or Tiananmen demonstrators’ parents. They are making money in China, like a lot of people are, and they are also benefiting the economy.

Is that what has happened to technology reporting as a whole? 

Yang: Technology reporting used to be thought of as business reporting, as a relatively open sphere. But we’re seeing now the line of what’s politically sensitive extends so far into other topics that there’s almost nothing that I can think of as being unequivocally non-sensitive anymore, which means that we have to treat all of our sources with much more care and caution to protect them, and it also means that we have to go to great lengths to cultivate new sources and bridge the gap between us and them.

It sounds like you went from reporting on a topic that flew relatively under the radar to now covering one of the hotspots of Chinese geopolitical tensions.

Yang: I started tech reporting in late 2016-early 2017, and back then the tech stories were the huge number of unicorns that were fundraising in China and the booming VC investment here, like all the funding rounds into the bike sharing industry.

The 2019 US sanctions on Huawei were a turning point in how politicized that field became. China had for decades had aspirations to technological self-sufficiency, but it was only after the Huawei sanctions that it became extremely pressing to secure a supply chain so that future tech companies would not be scuppered in the same way that Huawei has.

The foreign press corps in China is shrinking. What is it like to witness that? 

Yang: According to the Foreign Ministry, before Covid, and it may be very different now, there were 400 to 500 foreign journalists here. A lot of people have left and not been able to get back in because of Covid, and a lot of American journalists have been expelled. This community of English-language journalists [is] where you can see the shrinkage most clearly.

I also experienced it as a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which documented these expulsions and made statements whenever there were instances involving harassment of journalists here, and [which] has been, unfortunately, more and more busy over the last few years. I saw it not just as friends leaving, but also as the whole community changing. And I think it means the journalists who are left behind have more work to do to communicate a very diverse country to a foreign audience.

Why does it matter that there are fewer foreign journalists in China?

Yang: I think the worst examples of China reporting come from people who have never been in China, have no intention of going to China, really have no skin in the China reporting game, but are translating Chinese social media posts into English and then saying this is representative of China, which you get in a lot of tabloid reporting from outside of China.

Our job is to communicate the complexity and the many contradictions you get in China to a foreign audience, and that is of course much harder when there are fewer of us. I think the Foreign Ministry at some level understands this, but they also feel they have their hands tied by geopolitics. It’s important to note that the Foreign Ministry sees the expulsion of American journalists in 2020 as tit-for-tat retaliation against US restrictions on Chinese journalists 2. And from the Chinese point of view, until the US changes their policy, then China is not going to let those journalists at American publications come in.

The Foreign Ministry also at some level understands that the most accurate China reporting comes from this old brigade of experienced China reporters who they expelled—but that doesn’t outweigh the importance of [retaliating].

Perceptions of China with the general public in Britain have gotten significantly worse since the start of the pandemic. Is the reverse true in China in your experience?

Yang: For a lot of Chinese people, “the West” is synonymous with “the US,” to the extent that Europe and the UK become real afterthoughts. Often when I introduce myself to people, I would be conflated with being American, not because I sound or am American, but just because “Western” feels like it’s “American.”

I do think there’s a surprising amount of international literacy in China. In general, the Chinese population knows a lot more about the rest of the world than the UK knows about China. [In 2019] I was talking to a cafe owner in a medium-sized city in Xinjiang, who was telling me about his views about Boris Johnson. Can you imagine Boris Johnson knowing the name of the governor of Xinjiang?

What do people say to you about the US?

Yang: The US’ actions impact the perception of all foreigners in China and people often feel like you should explain or answer for US government policies, which is really tricky, especially when you disagree with a lot of them, as I do.

The crackdown from the US on Huawei especially presaged a lot of worsening of Chinese national sentiment against the US—an increasing feeling that it’s us versus them. And for my generation, the post-1990s generation of intellectually liberal Chinese growing up in China, the last few years of the trade war and Covid have caused a rethinking of how much people appreciate US democracy.

But the US can’t represent all democracies, in the same way that Beijing can’t represent the whole of China, including rural China, which is very different. And the mistakes we make in understanding China are taking a very small part of a large, complex whole to represent the whole thing.

With a country of 1.4 billion people, is there any other way?

Yang: I think we should treat China as a couple of different countries stitched together.

The most important distinction is between the big cities and rural China. If you are a foreign businessperson in China and you fly into Beijing or Shanghai, you spend your time here in a five star hotel, you see an extremely well-provisioned city center with public amenities, brand new schools, the streets are extremely clean, and you feel very safe. This is an accurate perception of a very small fraction of China. And right now there’s still a half a billion people living in the countryside, which is where my dad’s parents are from.

My dad was lucky, because a lot of rural children don’t have the opportunity to receive a proper education, and still suffer from health issues like anemia and intestinal worms. Rural China has changed because of the government’s poverty alleviation campaign 3, but there is still quite a long way to go. And it’s really important to not forget the two different Chinas.

From your own point of view as a British Chinese person covering China for a British newspaper, what do you think of the UK’s China policy?

Yang: I think the UK faces a lot of very difficult questions and no easy answers. And believe me, if I thought I had an easy answer, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops.

It’s clear that the UK or any country, including the US, needs to be part of an international alliance to achieve any policy objectives [in regards to China]. Right now, I see the UK as not necessarily seeking to achieve certain aims and build alliances but trying to figure out what’s doable in respects to China. I really would hope that the UK would [not] wait until the eve of negotiating a free trade agreement with China and then try to figure all this out, because there are a lot of moving parts here.

That sounds more or less like what the Johnson government has been saying in the Integrated Review 4 and other places, no? 

Yang: The difference is I’m not entirely sure what the [UK’s] ultimate aims and policy objectives are in China.

The way I understand it is: Pursue deeper trade opportunities with China, work with it on shared challenges like climate change, but try to affect change in the human rights space. They’ve expended considerable energy in the past year trying to lay out exactly what their aims are in China, so if even you don’t understand it, that’s not a good sign.

Yang: The goals that you just mentioned are completely consistent with my understanding of what the UK government is trying to do, but you could use them to describe what the UK wants to do vis-a-vis every single country in the world and what the UK would have done with China 10 years ago versus now.

I would be curious to hear the result of the next phase, where somebody articulated what the ideal UK-China relationship would be like in 10 years’ time, especially if the UK tries to negotiate a free trade deal with China. And I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as whether you’re for or against the Chinese government.

Correction: The writing group Yang joined as a teenager is called The Yorkshire Writing Squad, not the The Yorkshire Writing School.