OPC Citation Winner Gerry Shih Chronicles China Outbreak Before Expulsion

An employee guides a discharged COVID-19 patient as they leave Wuchang Fang Cang makeshift hospital on March 10, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo: Stringer/Getty Images

In March, China expelled more than a dozen U.S. journalists in retaliation against tightened controls on Chinese journalists imposed in the month before. Among them was Gerry Shih of The Washington Post, the recipient of the OPC’s Citation for Excellence in the Hal Boyle category this year. Shih had served as China correspondent for the Post since September 2018, most recently following the coronavirus outbreak from the beginning of the crisis.

On February 18, the State Department classified five Chinese state media organizations as foreign missions, citing concerns about a growing “propaganda” campaign from Beijing. China answered on March 18 with an effective ban on US journalists working for the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, demanding journalists to turn in press credentials up for renewal this year within 10 days.

Hal Boyle head judge Farnaz Fassihi said the panel found Shih’s work for the Post covering China in 2019 to be “indispensable and extraordinarily eye opening.”

“Judges loved this entry and spent a lot of time praising Gerry Shih for the breadth and scope of his reporting and beautiful writing,” she wrote in a message about the citation. “We unanimously agreed that this series lifted the veil on China for us and we would recommend it for anyone interested in China as required reading. His lone effort in delivering this project represented the essence of foreign correspondence.”

Shih’s coverage during the crisis this year includes a wide range of angles and stories that chronicle the outbreak, first reporting on a spate of 59 cases of “viral pneumonia of unknown cause” in the city of Wuhan on Jan. 8. The next day, China announced the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus.

He wrote on Jan. 25 about fresh warnings from the government about the accelerated spread of the disease, with an official death toll of 56 at the time, and efforts of the U.S., France and Russia to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan. There were only two confirmed cases in the U.S. at the time.

Shih began filing updates nearly every day, reporting on travel restrictions, quarantine efforts and screening, as well as the impact on those sequestered in the worst-hit region.

“One hand clutching her furry bunny purse and another propping up her disabled grandmother, Shi Zhiyu hobbled down the empty highway on a one-way journey across the Yangtze River,” Shih wrote on Feb. 5 in a piece titled “In China’s Virus-hit Heartland, Fear and Loathing on the Road to Wuhan.”

“You won’t be able to come back,” he quoted a police officer warning the travelers at the last checkpoint on the border bridge separating Wuhan in Hubei province from neighboring Jiujiang.

Shih reported on the Feb. 6 death of Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, who became a folk hero for his efforts to raise alarm about COVID-19 in Wuhan, and public outrage against the government after China tried to silence him during the crisis. His social media posts warning colleagues about the disease had been censored, Shih wrote, but not before word started to spread across China. Li had been detained on Jan. 1 for “rumor-mongering.” The doctor’s death sparked a digital uprising and a push for more freedom of speech, answered with more censorship and control from Beijing.

Shih also reported on the rising strain on Wuhan’s health system, and shortcomings for patients with other issues as the country scaled back services for non-coronavirus ailments, including those suffering from compromised immune systems. “As the outbreak’s second-order effects ripple across China, the breakdown of the health system is posing a logistical and ethical challenge for the government,” he wrote in a piece on Feb. 21.

He continued to file frequent stories about the crisis from Beijing until his expulsion, with a final story from inside the country published on March 16, titled “Locked Down in Beijing, I Watched China Beat Back the Coronavirus,” recounting his run of coronavirus coverage.

“For my work, I traveled around China, down empty boulevards, through empty airports, in empty train cars,” Shih wrote. “I saw China’s whole economic machinery, from the curbside noodle shops to sprawling tech campuses, clank to a halt as the government pulled out every stop to contain the virus’s spread.”

Since his expulsion, Shih has continued to serve as China correspondent from outside the country, covering COVID-19-related developments such as the disappearance of an outspoken property tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, who called President Xi Jinping a “clown” in a widely distributed essay criticizing the government’s failures during the outbreak.

On April 21, he reported on China’s campaign to roll back Hong Kong’s autonomy in which at least 15 pro-democracy activists were arrested, and Beijing asserted its power to intervene in the city despite the special constitutional provision granting autonomy until 2047. Hong Kong authorities detained former legislators Martin Lee and Albert Ho, as well as media tycoon Jimmy Lai, for leading unauthorized protests last year. Shih wrote that pro-democracy activists say Beijing has taken advantage of the pandemic, with since Hong Kong’s streets cleared of mass protests in recent months, to hamstring the movement while global attention is diverted.

At the time of Shih’s expulsion, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in a statement said that “there are no winners in the use of journalists as diplomatic pawns by the world’s two preeminent economic powers.” The statement added that “journalists illuminate the world we live in. China, through this action, is dimming itself.”

He is currently covering the China beat from Seoul, after spending two weeks in a police barracks under government quarantine “with three cold bento box meals a day and no coffee for the first week,” he wrote in an email to the OPC. “But the facility managers were very kind and things looked up, marginally, once I got my colleague to ship me a bottle of whisky…”

Shih previously covered China as Beijing correspondent for The Associated Press, and before that wrote about Silicon Valley and California politics for Reuters and The New York Times while based in San Francisco.