French journalist Ursula Gauthier was expelled from China at the end of last year after she wrote a report critical of Beijing’s policies in the Xinjiang region, where native Uyghurs’ resentment of China’s rule has led to years of violence.

Her article, entitled “After Paris attacks, China’s solidarity is not without ulterior motives”, bluntly pointed out that the terrorist attacks which killed 130 in the French capital in November were different than violent incidents inside China. Gauthier said Beijing’s crackdown on the Muslim Uyghur minority should not be equated with “battle against terrorism.”

Ursula Gauthier.

The report, released amid an outpouring of sympathy for France in China, drew a backlash from Chinese state media and nationalistic netizens. At the end of 2015, the Chinese foreign ministry told Gauthier, China correspondent for L’Obs, that her visa would not be renewed.

Now back in France, Gauthier spoke to HKFP about the controversy surrounding her journalism and expressed concern over the recent disappearances of five Hong Kong publishers. She says the increasingly sensitive political climate in China is “worrying”, adding it may be the result of a serious internal power struggle within the ruling Communist Party.

HKFP: Why do you think your article fell foul of the authorities when similar pieces didn’t?

Gauthier: I don’t have an explanation. What the people from the IPC [International Press Centre] of the Foreign Ministry told me is that they recognised that many other media had made the same article, more or less. But maybe, my style was more vivid.

HKFP: Has your case been covered much back home in France?

Gauthier: In the news I’ve been everywhere. The media has responded very keenly. The government issued two other statements in response to French senators who interrogated the government, as they can do it publicly or by written question too… But they still don’t condemn, there is no condemnation [of China]. “We are sorry”, you know, they feel sorry. But they are not condemning. So there is a difference between the reaction of the media and the reaction of the government. And a big difference.

HKFP: And how has the public reaction been?

Gauthier: From what I know, the public are very supportive. And people are more and more aware of things going wrong in China. And more and more aware that things are becoming tense and maybe worrying.

HKFP: Will you continue reporting on China from outside the country?

Gauthier: Well, in fact, I still have some stories that I did… I did the reportage but I didn’t write it down yet. So, I just published reports from Tibetan areas in Sichuan, a huge Tibetan monastery… I won’t do anything like I was doing before – I mean, one of my points was to go to the places where nobody could go, and to do these kind of difficult on-the-field reports. But I can’t do them any more. So I will do more like the 18th November piece, analysis and that kind.

HKFP: What do you make of the recent TV “confessions”, with an NGO worker and a Hong Kong bookseller being paraded on state TV?

Gauthier: Yes. You know, I’ve known China since ’79 – it was the first time I came to China. And I never saw this kind of thing. The regression is so huge. It’s going back to even before ’79 – the Cultural Revolution days, when some foreign supporters of this-and-that were paraded publicly. There were no TVs at that time but they were paraded at public tribunals… So it’s the same thing coming back. It’s very worrying. Where does China want to go?… Everyone is wondering what’s going on really, and I suppose there’s a very tense conflict inside the Communist Party, and this is the result.

HKFP: When you watched these state TV “confessions”, do you fear that you also could have suffered the same fate?

Gauthier: Yes. But you know, I thought it could be me, but they had nothing legal against me. There’s only an interpretation of my writing, but they couldn’t bring anything legal – I have not done anything illegal in China. But “illegal” could be just like the guy [Gui Minhai] who, 11 years ago, was drink-driving… “Illegal” could be anything – they could even make it up, you know. I think it’s becoming very dangerous now for my colleagues there… and I think next time they won’t just expel someone.

HKFP: How long had you been living in China?

Gauthier: As a correspondent, six years. But before, when I was just studying Chinese, ten years – in the 80s.

HKFP: Do you hope to return?

I will, I will. But you know, I don’t believe that they will let me in any time soon. I mean, maybe in many years, I don’t know. But I will try, I will try.

HKFP: What do you think is behind this new crackdown on dissent?

Gauthier: The most important thing I think is the situation now for foreigners in China, especially foreign journalists… I wonder when we will see self-censorship – I don’t know, maybe it will come? But I hope not. I also hope that they won’t go this way even further because it’s a dead end. How can they go that way? It means that they will cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Is that what they want? I don’t think so. I think it’s the consequence of an internal fight, and it must be a very brutal one.

HKFP: You think this is part of an internal power struggle?

Gauthier: I think there are many things going on inside the leadership. And maybe the result will be very frightening… Because I see that all the nationalists, all the rabid nationalists, are up in arms and trying to take [President Xi Jinping up] on his word – he is using very firm language… He is obliged, he is forced to accept whatever outcome. And this cannot be in his interests – it’s not in his interest what’s going on, but he is obliged to accept it. So I think that this is a very serious situation. And what we are seeing is just a small symptom. Maybe later it will be even more, much more horrifying – open fighting. And then it will be terrible.

Additional reporting: Vivienne Zeng.

Tom Grundy

Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.