A veteran BBC correspondent has relocated from Beijing to Taiwan after a months-long pressure campaign from the Chinese government and state media, in the latest sign of deterioration in China-UK relations.
John Sudworth left the Chinese capital last week, just days before his visa was due to expire, according to two people familiar with the situation.
Sudworth had been issued a series of three-month or shorter visas that were renewed only at the last minute, as has been the case with other journalists whose reporting has been criticised by China’s foreign ministry and state-owned media. Most journalist visas in China are valid for one year and are renewed weeks in advance of expiry.
“We have faced threats of legal action as well as massive surveillance, obstruction and intimidation whenever and whatever we try to film,” Sudworth told the BBC’s Today programme on Wednesday, adding that “pressure and threats” from Chinese authorities had intensified in recent months.
In February, Beijing banned the BBC’s World News television channel from broadcasting in the country, a largely symbolic move as it was never allowed to broadcast into Chinese homes, having been blacked out by the country’s strict censorship rules.
The move came just a few days after the UK’s media watchdog revoked the broadcasting licence of China’s state broadcaster CGTN, citing its control by a foreign political party as a breach of regulations.
Sudworth said he and his family had left “in a hurry, followed by plainclothes police officers all the way to the airport and through the check-in hall”, after concluding that it was “too risky to carry on”.
He added that his departure was “sadly precisely the point of this kind of intimidation”, pointing out that several foreign news outlets had in recent years faced expulsions of their reporters. “This is the reality now faced by a lot of foreign media organisations [in China],” he said.
Sudworth’s relocation was announced after The Global Times, an offshoot of the Chinese Communist party’s flagship newspaper, said he was “believed to be hiding in Taiwan island” because of threats from Chinese nationals to sue the BBC for broadcasting “fake news”.
The tabloid added that Sudworth “became infamous in China for his many biased stories” on Xinjiang, the western region where the Chinese government has detained more than 1m Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, and on Beijing’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The BBC confirmed that Sudworth had relocated to Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its sovereign territory. Many US reporters that were expelled from China last year are now based in the island’s capital Taipei.
“John’s work has exposed truths the Chinese authorities did not want the world to know,” the UK broadcaster added. “The BBC is proud of John’s award-winning reporting during his time in Beijing and he remains our China correspondent.”
The BBC’s Beijing bureau is otherwise operating as normal, staffed by other reporters and researchers.
The BBC and Sudworth have been frequent targets of Chinese state media and a generation of so-called wolf warrior diplomats, who aggressively rebut what they contend to be systematically biased foreign reporting of China.
A report released this month by the international cyber policy centre at ASPI, an Australian think-tank, detailed how the Chinese Communist party has in recent months co-ordinated attacks against the BBC to discredit the organisation, “distract international attention and recapture control of the narrative”.
Zhao Lijian, a leading wolf warrior and foreign ministry spokesman, reposted a tweet on Wednesday that referred to the BBC as the “British Bias Corporation” and a “political puppet controlled by the British government”.
China-UK relations have deteriorated rapidly during the coronavirus pandemic. China last week imposed sanctions against a number of British politicians, lawyers and academics in retaliation for co-ordinated UK, EU and US sanctions aimed at the mass internment campaign in Xinjiang.
China’s foreign ministry this month summoned Dame Caroline Wilson, the UK’s ambassador in Beijing, over an allegedly “inappropriate” and “arrogant” article that defended foreign media coverage of China and was distributed over WeChat, a Chinese social media platform.
Wilson responded to the dressing down by noting that China’s ambassador in London had published more than 170 pieces in mainstream British media, many of them harshly critical of UK policies.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing