Caught in the middle of the U.S. and China conflict as a journalist


Christine Park

I, along with many people who study, work, or live in between these two countries, am balancing on a wobbly cultural bridge. And it also seems the once-strong international journalism community I used to aspire to be a part of is eroding.

When I first landed in the U.S. during high school, the customs officer asked me what I wanted to pursue as a career. When I told him journalism, his immediate reaction was to ask me, “So you want to work for the news in China, for the state media?” I didn’t appreciate that the first American I encountered at the border was cynical about Chinese politics. But I didn’t know this was only the beginning. 

A deep chasm has grown between the U.S. and China over the years because of political disputes, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further deteriorated the countries’ relationship. When the pandemic first started in January, the origins of the novel coronavirus in China’s Hubei Province sparked a blame war between D.C. and Beijing. These accusations also influenced the media, especially Chinese state media that is under financial and editorial control by the government—both directly and indirectly. 

In May, after the U.S. government classified Chinese state media organizations as “foreign missions” and tightened control on them, China announced the expulsion of the media credentials of all American journalists from three major U.S. news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. I never expected The China Press Weekly, the Boston-based Chinese news agency I once freelanced for, to shut down in early May largely due to the U.S. government’s expulsion of the majority of Chinese media. The moment I heard this, it felt like someone punched me in the throat. 

As a non-native English speaker who came to the U.S. to study journalism, I try to learn and produce the same quality of news as anyone else. With my blended perspective from living in two countries, I want to report on China without constraint and promote a more objective view. I want to help bridge the gap between the East and the West. 

But now, I, along with many people who study, work, or live in between these two countries, am balancing on a wobbly cultural bridge. And it also seems the once-strong international journalism community I used to aspire to be a part of is eroding. 

The blame game only accelerates the greater gap of misunderstanding the countries’ media industries have against one another. While American media sometimes dramatizes stories about China, there have also been misconceptions about American or Western media that I see when I return home. 

I wish I could tell the American press not every Chinese journalist they encounter is a government propagandist. I wish I could convince the editor at my previous summer internship in Beijing that the freedom of press laws written in the U.S. Constitution are actually a way to protect journalists. But none of these discussions can be fully understood by either side if they don’t listen and instead continue to fight against each other. 

The increasing geopolitical tensions disrupt many ordinary families who exist and comment between the two countries. As the number one source of international students in the U.S., Chinese students are also trapped in a greater power struggle—the American government denies their visas more frequently because of their increasing suspicion toward Chinese students as spies.

More recently, the U.S. closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas on July 27. In response, China closed its U.S. embassy in Chengdu. This is probably the most tense period in U.S.-China relations since former president Richard Nixon re-established diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1971.

Considering the continuing international travel restrictions and Emerson’s fall reopening, I decided to stay in the U.S. over the summer. When I spoke on the phone with friends who returned home to China, many of them said they aren’t coming back to the U.S. in the fall, not only because of safety concerns but also because of the uncertainty surrounding the U.S. and China’s relationship as the presidential election approaches.

I fear that uncertainty, too. I feel overwhelmed living under the shadow of the Trump administration’s previous intention of deporting all international students in online-only classes. I don’t know if there will ever be a day I somehow become a sanctioned target within the U.S. and China’s deteriorating relationship. I’m not a Chinese spy; I’m just an ordinary international student who wants to finish school and pursue my passion here. In the past, I used to fantasize about post-graduation plans about where I would work and live in the U.S. Yet, every day that fantasy becomes less attainable. 

I encourage those of you who are in a similar situation to embrace change because you can’t stop the pace of history. Although we cannot alter how we as individuals are perceived in the greater geopolitical sphere, we should continue to work hard and practice our professional skills regardless of where we are and might be in the future.