Jennifer O’Connell: ‘I woke up gripped by fear there might be secret police outside’

Exodus of journalists from China allows human rights abuses to flourish unchecked

For weeks before she left China, Yvonne Murray had been waiting for the knock on the door. "One morning, I woke up when it was still dark, hours before the children had to get up for school, gripped by fear there might be secret police outside," the RTÉ journalist told me from the hotel room in Taiwan where she is quarantining with her husband, BBC correspondent John Sudworth, and their three children.

She remembers peeling back the curtains and peering outside, up and down the empty street. Later, she would laugh at her middle-of-the-night paranoia. But “it turned out it wasn’t misplaced”.

Sudworth had been repeatedly threatened with repercussions over his reporting, including on the origins of coronavirus and human rights abuses in Xinjiang

On the morning they left 10 days ago, fleeing with hurriedly packed suitcases, secret police were outside their home. An unmarked car followed them to the airport.

I have known Murray – who is from Howth, Co Dublin – since our first weeks in university together in 1993, when she introduced me to Harry Connick jnr and we drank warm cabernet in deliciously grubby late night clubs. We spoke last week over wifi that occasionally juddered, as the girls – aged between six and 10 – tried to attend an online class. She was relieved to be safe. Sudworth had been repeatedly threatened with repercussions over his reporting, including on the origins of coronavirus and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where he exposed the scale of re-education camps, in which Uighurs and other Muslims were being detained. China calls them "vocational education training centres".


The pressure had been ratcheting up in a climate of tetchy EU- and UK-China relations. “It had built up over a long period of time. The direct threats weren’t going away and the atmosphere was getting more hostile” to the point where they could no longer ignore it, she said.

Over the past two years, the Chinese state has begun to deploy a whole suite of new weapons against foreign journalists, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s (FCCC) annual report: ever-shortening visa extensions; coronavirus restrictions used to keep reporters on a tight leash; threats of legal action and forcible detainment and arrest.

In Xinjiang, Murray was followed, harassed, forced to delete footage, filmed and photographed without permission. In Wuhan, she was greeted with “a wall of silence” when she tried to speak to medics. She later learned they had been issued with a gag order.

An extraordinary report published this week in the Communist Party-controlled Global Times catalogues Sudworth’s so-called wrongdoing: “biased stories distorting China’s Xinjiang policies and Covid-19 responses”. At a press conference on March 18th, an official claimed a number of individuals in Xinjiang plan to sue the BBC for producing fake news. The report concludes with a barely-veiled threat by unnamed “Chinese observers”. “No matter where he flees to and in what capacity he reports on China, as long as he continues to adhere to ideological bias and . . . false news to attack and smear China, he will not be able to escape righteous condemnation.”

Last week, the Chinese embassy in Dublin repeated the threats of legal action on Twitter, along with bizarre tweets about Murray which denied she was forced to leave, and attempted to riff on Aesop’s fable about a wolf and a lamb. The tweet caused much mirth, but there’s nothing funny about China’s threats of legal action, as Richard O’Halloran, the Irish man who has been prevented from leaving China since March 2019, discovered.

International condemnation of human rights abuses won't go away. A small but growing community of expelled or departed former foreigner correspondents are in Taipei, soon to be joined by Murray and Sudworth

Murray and Sudworth's experience is not unique. Eighteen journalists were expelled from China last year, according to FCCC, the largest expulsion since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1998. Its report paints a picture of press freedom deteriorating at an alarming rate and in plain sight. Australia no longer has any correspondents in China, after two of its journalists were slapped with an exit ban last year and had to shelter for five days in the Australian embassy until they were allowed to leave.

The void created by this exodus of journalists – and the restrictions on those left behind – is one in which human rights abuses have the potential to flourish unchecked in Xinjiang and the truth about the origins of the virus may never be known.

The fact that China is doing all of this in plain sight, less than a year before it plans to host the Winter Olympics, inviting journalists from all over the world, is both astonishing and not at all surprising.

It is an indictment of the insipid response to date from Western countries. Last month, the European Union, United Kingdom, United States and Canada finally co-ordinated sanctions against four Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China promptly responded with harsher counter-sanctions. The sanctions, some suggested, were a signal that the EU will not always put business interests ahead of human rights issues. But in the end, the lure of those vast Chinese markets will probably be too great.

Last week, the Irish Government and Bord Bia completed an "intensive series" of virtual trade meetings with China, to which Ireland exports €872 million worth of meat. There was "positive engagement" on the resumption of beef exports, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said, and he hoped it would resume soon. But, he added respectfully, "we must recognise that the timing of that decision lies with the Chinese authorities". That's true of a lot. The juxtaposition of that report, with the one just two days later about an Irish journalist fleeing China, while another citizen is still prevented from leaving, is jarring.

International condemnation of human rights abuses won’t go away. A small but growing community of expelled or departed former foreigner correspondents are in Taipei, soon to be joined by Murray and Sudworth. As the space for reporting shrinks in China, displaced reporters might have more freedom to do their jobs from across the strait. Murray bats away notions of her own bravery in staying so long. “We can leave, but Chinese journalists who try to report independently risk dire consequences and don’t have an escape. That’s bravery.”