Back at the end of 2020, there was this spat:

In a sharp escalation of tensions between the two superpowers, China announced on Tuesday that it would expel American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. It also demanded that those outlets, as well as the Voice of America and Time magazine, provide the Chinese government with detailed information about their operations.

The announcement, made by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, came weeks after the Trump administration limited to 100 the number of Chinese citizens who can work in the United States for five state-run Chinese news organizations that are widely considered propaganda outlets.

China instructed American journalists for the three news organizations whose press credentials are due to expire this year to “notify the Department of Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within four calendar days starting from today and hand back their press cards within ten calendar days.” Almost all the China-based journalists for the three organizations have press cards that expire this year.

The announcement went on to say that the American journalists now working in mainland China “will not be allowed to continue working as journalists in the People’s Republic of China, including its Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions.” The two territories are semiautonomous and in theory have greater press freedoms than the mainland.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the decisions “are entirely necessary and reciprocal countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the U.S.”

The statement also accused the United States of “exclusively targeting Chinese media organizations,” adding that it was “driven by a Cold War mentality.” The new limits imposed by the Trump administration effectively forced 60 Chinese employees of the state-run organizations to leave the country.

Reporters at foreign news outlets in China were among those who aggressively reported on the coronavirus epidemic in January and February, including in its earliest days, when it was a regionalized outbreak in central China and the Chinese government sought to play down its severity.

So if there were 160 [apparently foreign] employees of (the five) major Chinese press outlets in the US in late 2020, how many US nationals from major press organizations were working in China at that time? I.e. is 160 an outlandish number, possibly covering for side-ops?

1 Answer 1


An Upper Bound From The Number of Americans In China

While it is hard to pin down, an upper bound is fairly easy to establish from the total number of Americans in China, their geographic distribution, and the number who are known to be something other than journalists.

An estimate published in 2018 counted 600,000 people of other nations living in China, with 12% of those from the US; that means approximately 72,000 Americans living in China. Based on data collected in 1999, when 64,602 Americans lived in China, most lived in Hong Kong (48,220 in 1999), with smaller numbers in Beijing (10,000), Guangzhou (3,200), Shanghai (2,382), Shenyang (555) and Chengdu (800).


This includes U.S. diplomatic personnel at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and U.S. consulates in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan, and one for Hong Kong and Macau. There are probably on the order of a thousand U.S. diplomatic personnel in China including dependents of diplomatic personnel.

It also includes American personnel at thirteen American schools in China in Shanghai (3), Beijing (2), Hong Kong (2), Changchun, Chengdu, Dalian, Shenzen, Suzhou, and Guangzhou. This could range from hundreds to thousands of Americans.

Hong Kong which accounts for a majority of Americans in China has many American businessmen and professionals. Americans in China also include significant numbers of English instructors and dependent family members in all regions where Americans are present.

Journalist Specific Information

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in Beijing (FCCC) has 186 correspondent members representing news organizations from 25 countries and regions, and while it is merely a voluntary association rather than a comprehensive tally, it is probably at the right order of magnitude for journalist from major international news organizations. It reports 12 deportations of journalists following Trump's announcement.

According to CNN, the club had 192 members in December of 2021 from all of the countries with members, but some of them were reporting from outside of mainland China by then.

A March 22, 2021 report from PBS citing the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China stated that there were only 39 American journalists in China, but considering the source, which may not have comprehensive statistics and may have actually been reporting only the number of American journalists who are members of its club, this should probably be viewed as a lower bound.

A New York Times report discussing China's response to Trump's announcement which expelled about sixty Chinese journalists from five news organizations. China expelled American journalists working for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and demanded additional disclosures from to the Chinese government by these three newspapers, and also by Voice of America and Time magazine. Voice of America journalists, however, since this is an official U.S. government organization, may be treated as diplomatic personnel rather than as journalists.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, on January 31, 2022 relying on the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China as a source, reported that:

Many outlets have had to find ways to report from outside China, with dozens of journalists still barred after their expulsion in 2020 and 2021, which was the “single biggest blow to international reporting in China”, said Steven Lee Myers, the New York Times’s expelled Beijing bureau chief, who is now based in Seoul. . . .

China reporters are now based in Taipei, Singapore, Sydney and London, covering the country remotely or awaiting visa approvals. Late last year, China and the US agreed to ease visa restrictions on journalists from each other’s countries but few have been processed. In the FCCC survey, 46% of respondents said their China bureaux were understaffed because they had not been able to bring in enough journalists.

Lingering COVID-19 restrictions also limited the number of American journalists in China.

There is an official category of visas for foreign journalists in China, so somewhere there is an official tally of professional journalists whose status as journalists has been disclosed to the Chinese government. But, I wasn't able to locate those statistics and can't read Chinese through which I might be able to read official Chinese government publications on the subject that have not been translated into English. So the core estimate is heavily dependent upon a single source, the FCCC.

There have also been numerous "soft" restrictions on foreign journalists in China in addition to hard visa limitations and expulsions in recent years according to CNN:

Nearly 90% of the journalists who traveled to Xinjiang last year said that they were “visibly followed, often by men in plainclothes.”

The Chinese authorities have also cracked down on sources, the report said. Chinese sources are routinely threatened by police and forced to cancel interviews at the last minute. Journalists are also struggling with shrinking access to academics, think tanks and employees of both state-owned and private enterprises, where approval is required from higher-ups in order to speak to foreign reporters.

Meanwhile, a quarter of respondents said they were targeted online as a result of their reporting in China. The report said that organizations — including the BBC, NPR, and the Economist — have been “attacked by state-linked entities, state media, and anonymous social media accounts for their reporting.”


Taking all of this information as a whole, the number of officially recognized professional journalists who are American who are in China is probably in the range of 39 to 100, although all foreign news organizations in China also employ many Chinese citizens as journalists for their organizations.

Whatever the number of American journalists in China is now, this number is certainly significantly lower than it was before China's retaliatory expulsions of foreign journalists in recent years.

Also, there are probably significant more Americans in China who sometimes serve as sources for reports by U.S. media outlets or are "citizen journalist" via blogs and the like. The number of non-professional journalists in China according to this broader definition is probably at least several hundred.

Full Disclosure

I am a former member of the Society of Professional Journalists (and even won a minor reporting award in that capacity), in connection with a part-time news reporting job I had in the late aughts. I was a regular (part-time) talk radio panelist in the early aughts. I was also radio news reporter in college. And, I currently, and have for many years, earned a trivial amount (under $100 U.S. a year gross) licensing journalistic blog content. These experiences could impact my perspective on this matter.

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