What Should the U.S. Do about China’s Barring Foreign Reporters?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last week, the White House said it was “very disappointed” in China for denying a visa to another journalist working for The New York Times in Beijing, forcing him to leave the country after eight years. What else should the U.S. government do? How should Americans respond? Can civil society play a role in defending U.S. journalists overseas? Does historical precendent shed any light on these questions? We asked ChinaFile Contributors to respond.


In the heady years after the end of the Cold War, many people, at least in the United States, believed that there was no remaining alternative to the American model of how to organize a developed society. Political democracy and free-market capitalism were the foundational elements, and not far behind were the other freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press.

Now that attitude seems unpardonably naïve. There are many dissenters, on many grounds, from the American model. For journalists, it’s obviously a primary concern that nations all over the world don’t believe in our version of free speech, free press, and free information flows. China is at the top of the list, partly because it is a superpower and partly because it has been so forceful in asserting, in word and deed, that it believes it can have the benefits of market capitalism while opting out of the rest of the package because it threatens the authority of the state. The repeated battles over specific (though highly consequential) matters like visas for American correspondents should be understood as part of a larger war.

The United States established diplomatic relations with China more than forty years ago, because it calculated that to do so was in America’s interest. And indeed it has been: the high-bandwidth economic relationship between the two countries has been on the whole, highly advantageous to both. China’s lack of First Amendment-style freedoms has always been a difficult note in the relationship, and now, with China reaching a higher stage in its economic development, it is only going to become more difficult. It’s hard to imagine how a bar on free, unimpeded flows of news, information, and debate won’t begin to be a drag on the deep engagement between our two nations. That is why press credentials for American reporters isn’t just a parochial issue, but one on which the U.S. government should continue to apply meaningful pressure to China.


Nothing. Reporters work in the public sphere and should remain independent from government. If the U.S. government were to get involved, it would only strengthen Beijing’s impression that the reporters in question are on their payroll.

Western reporters working in China tend to look for topics that expose shortcomings of the Chinese political system. This is understandable: journalists have a vested personal and professional interest in “press freedom” and they are therefore instinctively inclined to write critically about a system that limits such freedom. Unfortunately this does mean that their own experience of conflicts with the Chinese authorities (as well as their own excitement about “exposing” things those authorities are trying to “cover up”) comes to dominate the stories they tell, with little room left for nuance or diverging views.

I remember how impressed I was when, a while ago, ChinaFile ran an item called “China: What's Going Right?”. Such attempts at nuanced debate about China are rarely seen in our media. U.S. and U.K. newspaper stories about China are basically all the same, regardless of whether they appear in left-wing or right-wing papers. This is why they come across as ideologically inspired, especially to Chinese readers.

Of course the best way for the Chinese government to deal with this would be to ignore whatever it is western reporters write, and simply go on with their own soft power initiatives. It is a shame that the Chinese government does not do this, but it does give the U.S. authorities an opportunity to take the moral high ground. Which, in this case, means: do nothing and remain confident that your own soft power will prevail in the end.

I wrote on this topic for a previous China File Conversation (“Will China Shut Out the Foreign Press?”). My views remain the same. I remain astonished at the forbearance (diplomatic word) of the vast majority of American commentators. What will it take to change their views? The expulsion of every foreign reporter and the bombing of the office of Voice of America / Radio Free Asia while Chinese TV, radio, and print media inserts run wild with propaganda in America?

The case for punishing China, or Chinese journalists, rests on this logic: that China is behaving like a bully for kicking out the American journalists, and that bullies only stop when challenged. But this misunderstands the motivation behind Beijing’s treatment of Western media.

The Chinese government believes that, in a country where corruption and inequality have emerged as inflammatory issues, it cannot afford for the population to understand just how much elite Communist officials have enriched themselves. Therefore, the only way to deter journalists from reporting these stories is to impose costs on news organizations such as Bloomberg and The New York Times. If, say, The Guardian or The Sydney Morning Herald reported these stories, then Beijing’s reaction would be identical. The fact that Bloomberg and The New York Times are American organizations is incidental.

If the U.S. government were to expel Chinese journalists in reciprocation, Beijing would react with anger and embarrassment; after all, the expansion of China Central Television and The China Daily are a major part of the country’s soft power push. But the Communist Party views the possibility of a popular uprising as an existential threat to its monopoly on power, and understands that controlling the media is essential in avoiding such an incident. Washington expelling Chinese journalists from the U.S. would accomplish little but convince the Chinese population of something many of them already believe: that major American newspapers are simply instruments of state power and thus little different from their own media.

It’s ironic, of course, that by expelling foreign journalists, Beijing is punishing the very people who are most sympathetic to their country. Doesn’t the same logic apply in the U.S.? It seems to be that Washington has more to gain by taking the high road. In government, as in life, the best actions are often the ones you don’t make.

This is a bigger, more tangled, and more important issue than any of us can resolve here — which is why I think that the main value of this discussion may be in encouraging an urgent new thread in the ongoing “what do we make of China?” discussions among people who care about developments there. At least I hope that is its effect. A few starting points from my perspective:

  • I agree with Matt Schiavenza that the easiest and most logical-seeming tools at hand, reciprocal visa action against Chinese journalists, would do more harm than good. It wouldn’t change the calculation of the Chinese leadership, which is more concerned about controlling coverage of its own wealth than about these abstract press issues. Meanwhile it would make the U.S. look bad, on a “sinking to their level” basis, as if we started censoring Chinese sites on our Internet. Perhaps most damaging of all (as Michael Hockx also points out), it would only underscore the Chinese suspicion/allegation that the Western press is just a plainclothes ally of Western governments, working yet again to “humiliate” a rising China.
    I also agree with Matt’s point that the U.S. government should not take the bait of casting this as a purely US-China issue. It’s both narrower than that (it’s specifically about protecting leading families’ interests) and broader (involving international expectations of free political debate).
  • In the very, very long run I agree with Michael Hockx’s conclusion that Western institutions should “remain confident that your own soft power will prevail in the end.” In a generational perspective I think that is right. (The main case I was making in China Airborne is that economic liberalization/political control had gotten China to the first stage of industrialization but would have a much harder time taking it further.)
  • But I disagree with the first part of that same sentence from Hockx, which is that the proper response to the latest tightening is “do nothing.” We shouldn’t do things that are self-defeating, like reciprocal visa limits, but the trends are too consequential and harmful just to ignore.
  • Here’s the difference in most discussions of China circa-2014 to those maybe a decade ago. Through roughly the time of the Beijing Olympics, you could look at almost any trend in China and say: Well, things go up and down on a monthly basis. But clearly it’s a richer, more sophisticated, and more open country than it was a decade earlier, and much more so than 20 years in the past. (Allowing of course for the Tiananmen setback.) Now it’s not clear that the country is moving that way. Compared with five years ago, is China more open? Some commercial liberalization, yes. More transparency on environmental issues. But in many ways it is closing down.
  • As most ChinaFile participants have written over the years, outsiders cannot control these developments within China. But outside pressure, incentives, and opinion undeniably have long-term influence on China. Government policy has to be part of this mix, because the Chinese take it seriously. But just as non-government organizations of all kinds — companies, universities, travelers, researchers, adoption agencies, language teachers, foundations, etc.—have done far more to develop China-foreign ties than government has, that same broad combination of “civil society” needs to think seriously and creatively about resisting the closing-down trends inside China.
  • I don’t have the action plan here. If I did, I would have led with it! But we all can think of precedents, from international efforts against slavery in the 1800s to modern campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, limits on rights of women or racial minorities, environmental outrages, prison abuses, war crimes, and so on. There has been no one “answer” in any of those situations, but a variety of adaptable tactics made a difference. The consequences of China moving into a sustained closing-off stage would be bad enough, for everyone, that it’s worth a similar creative push in the other direction.

In the spirit of Chinese political discourse, let me provide “Three Don’ts and Three Dos”

  1. Don’t let the sideshow of Chinese treatment of foreign news organizations become the focus of attention
  2. Don’t forget that the changes within and threats to China’s domestic journalism and journalists are ultimately far more important to China’s future
  3. Don’t fall into the trap of blurring the line between the U.S. government and the U.S. media by urging Washington to “act”—whatever strength the U.S. media has comes from its independence
  1. Do ensure that American ideals about freedom of the press and of expression and American actions are in concert and not in contradiction both at home and abroad
  2. Do provide the widest possible welcome to Chinese students and practitioners of journalism
  3. Do continue to report aggressively but fairly on China from all possible locations

The past months have made the issue of foreign correspondence in China a front-page story. We should all take a deep breath whenever journalism about our own journalism becomes the lens through which we see the underlying subject.

The individual cases of journalists who have had to leave China, leave a news service or change continents are sad, upsetting, irritating or more—particularly if you know the people involved. But in the panoply of issues around China’s development, relationships of governments and businesses to Beijing, and Chinese human rights, they are not where we should put our focus.

If you want to agitate for something that is ultimately more important for China’s evolution, then take up the cases of China’s own brave journalists and commentators and demand China’s adherence to the clauses of its own constitution and international undertakings.

And by all means, ensure that ideals of freedom of expression and brave unbiased reporting are celebrated and observed to the letter at home so that the U.S., for example, can truly be a model for how a scrupulously independent press can be a vital part of a well-functioning society.

Many international observers believe firmly that the United States should hold the moral high ground in the face of increasing intimidation of the U.S. media in China, arguing that, with time, principle and reason will win out. Unfortunately, the soft power approach has been a complete failure and it’s going to be a very long time before soft power prevails—if that ever happens. In the meantime, Chinese attempts to control the international media are increasing. It can be argued that some of these attempts have succeeded in that we have begun to see a certain degree of self-censorship in the U.S. press.

However, with the domestic Chinese media unable to report freely in China, international media coverage is too important to allow it to be restricted by the Chinese authorities. Many sensitive issues not only impact the Chinese people, but, increasingly, the whole world. When SARS was raging a decade ago, and people were dying around the world, the Chinese Communist Party covered up the extent of the problem in China for months. Retired P.L.A. doctor Jiang Yanyong was disturbed when he heard about the seriousness of the problem from his former students and so he attempted to alert the People’s Daily and CCTV, both of which ignored him. He turned to CNN and TIME magazine, which both ran with the story that, in turn, forced the Communist leadership to take steps to control the situation. Also consider the AIDS epidemic, problems with product safety, the rapid spread of pollution and many other pressing issues that the Communist Party would prefer the world not know about.

It’s disappointing that Professor Michel Hockx uses the same politically charged terminology that is used by the Communist Party to malign the international media. He implies that the so-called Western media looks for topics that expose the shortcomings of the Chinese political system, and that it’s biased. First of all, the Western media is no more or less biased than Western academics, who also frequently write about political shortcomings in China. We should remember that just as many international scholars as journalists are banned from entering China. But is it just the Western media that points out the abuses of the Communist Party? We know the Party likes to use such terminology because it perpetuates the myth that the West is determined to stop China from advancing, and because such accusations strike a chord with Chinese people who have been raised on a steady diet of stories of 100 years of humiliation by the West. But Western coverage of China does not differ from the coverage we see in the United States, Europe or anywhere else in the world. More important, look at what journalists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Latin America write about China and you’ll find the same stories. If there’s a media bias, why not call it an international bias? And don't forget that brave Chinese journalists write about many of the same issues when they’re allowed to do so. Over the years, many of the sensitive stories I wrote were ones that I’d learned about in the Chinese media. Unfortunately, the Party exerts tremendous pressure on Chinese journalists to prevent them from writing about critical issues, censoring the domestic media, intimidating Chinese journalists, firing them and even putting some behind bars. It’s clear that the Communist government is not just opposed to the Western or international media writing about such things—it doesn’t want its own citizens doing this.

The only thing that will change this trend is if Washington takes stronger steps to challenge the Chinese on this issue. While I don’t advocate kicking Chinese journalists out of the United States, we could certainly delay visa approvals for Chinese journalists being newly assigned to cover the U.S., and we could reject visas for non-essential media bosses who are not important to daily news gathering. Neither step would affect Chinese coverage of the U.S. If Washington doesn’t do something soon to send a clear message to Beijing, expect the situation of the foreign media in China to worsen in the coming months.

China has never had a very strong tradition of an independent, watchdog press. It was only after the Qing Dynasty collapsed that China first even developed newspapers in a vernacular form that ordinary Chinese could understand. During its subsequent love affair with Leninism (which was shared by Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and every leader since), the country has hardly been more embracing of the idea of a free press. Indeed, the main thrust of all Chinese leaders during the 20th Century was to develop a strong state, the better to unify and enrich China. Mao clearly laid out the fundamental principles for the press in the “New China” in 1942 at his Yan'an Forums on the Arts and Literature. The only permissible roles for art, culture and media in his new society were as megaphones for the Chinese Communist Party and the new state.

So, it’s no small wonder that China’s newest leadership takes a dim view of such Western media outlets as Bloomberg News and The New York Times, which have undertaken devastatingly embarrassing investigative projects probing the ways relatives of Beijing’s top leaders have been able to use family connections and influence to enrich themselves. What Chinese officials have been doing in Beijing by delaying and denying visa for Western reporters and by blocking websites that run too many stories that are aggressively critical of Chinese affairs and leaders is not the exception to their rules, but a clear expression of their presumed right to guide and control the media, even foreign media.

Here in the most demonstrative ways we have the “clash of civilizations;” the collision of two completely different notions of the roles of the press and media in society.

This not only challenges the principles of Western media outlets, but the governments of the countries which presuppose their diplomatic and trade relations with China to be founded on notions of equality and reciprocity. And, just as China has been getting more resistant, even truculent, in its management of members of the foreign press working in China—and now sometimes even toward reporters and academics outside of China when they address Chinese affairs—it is also getting much more muscular, even aggressive, in its foreign policy expressions toward other countries. Take for example its increasingly uncompromising posture towards its maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, among others. In this sense, Beijing’s hard line against foreign media is only a microcosm of the kinds of larger disputes that increasingly roil its relations with other countries. In both cases a resurgent China is no longer so willing, as it once was, to advertise itself as “rising peacefully,” or, in Deng Xiaoping’s inimitable words, “keeping its head down and biding its time.” Now, China’s increasingly nationalist leaders feels they have arrived at a place where, after so many decades of weakness, they are not only able to project power, but imagine themselves able to prevail in confrontations with even “major powers” like Japan.

If one looks at global media outlets as figurative countries—and The New York Times and Bloomberg News are certainly equivalents of great powers in their universe—they find themselves with similar dilemmas to sovereign nations. So, what should the proper response for each be to this new China, which no longer yields to the niceties of our notions about the importance of a free press or peaceful resolution of conflict, “sacred principles” which, it must be acknowledged, we have all too often abrogated ourselves?

To date, neither media outlets nor countries have yet developed effective response mechanisms.

Limiting ourselves here to the dilemma of the media let me propose a few measures for consideration:

1. Since it is governments that grant visas, and since Beijing leaders really only respect the power exercised by governments (rather than individual companies, NGOs, churches, etc) it is important as the US, and especially Vice President Biden has already done, for Washington to keep making the strongest representations in Beijing that good relations with the US are dependent on working through these practical questions of reciprocity.

2. In some fundamental way closing down a media outlet’s web site is as much a restraint of trade (because it denies that media company the ability to solicit ads) as tariff protectionism against some export. And so, media outlets should begin working up WTO restraint of trade cases on this front against China. However, this should be a final resort, because once such a complaint is formally undertaken, Western media outlets can expect the Chinese to dig in their heals and brook no compromise.)

3. Civil society organizations such as foundations, churches, nonprofit publishers and universities should mobilize themselves to stand together on this issue. Because the Chinese Communist Party is renowned for picking one institution off at a time, if they stand united, they will have added strength. Divided they risk ultimately suffering the same consequence, only one at a time. And, since they all possess pieces of exactly that “soft power” escutcheon which the Chinese now so ardently aspire to buy into, they have far more collective power than they may realize. Indeed, more philanthropic organizations should begin to ponder how new kinds of public/private partnerships might help fortify and independent American press which finds itself not only being now challenged by China, but also by an eroding media market.

I welcome the comments by Mooney and Schell. I was beginning to feel lonely.

Mooney eloquently underlines the outrages taking place and their impact on Chinese as well as foreigners, the slippery slope of self censorship, the economic costs, etc., and therefore why we should respond.

Schell’s sound analysis leads to some useful suggestions which we should pursue. But by themselves they will not yield meaningful results. Government exhortations might produce some temporary, tactical concessions (a la Biden), but without teeth they won’t stem the tide. The WTO will take forever. And uniting various non-governmental groups will be a herculean task as they all strive to dodge Chinese retaliation.

I have worked for positive Sino-American relations for over four decades and will continue to do so. But my experience makes clear to me that, to maintain good relations and head off misunderstandings, we must be willing to be firm and appeal to Chinese self-interest. All the more true for today’s China invoked by Schell.

In my original submission I made clear I am not in a position to know which specific retaliatory levers would be most effective. As I indicated, I agree we should not go after Chinese journalists here. But why not Chinese media moguls, visa authorities, propaganda organs with free reign in America? We all agree that Beijing seeks to expand its soft power and is expending major sums to do so. Let’s get its attention by focussing on its self interests.

I am sure that others, including in our government, can devise better responses than I can, for example, economic pressures. But doing nothing has made this media crisis worse. It will continue to get worse because the Chinese see they pay no price. More generally, appeasement as a policy jeopardizes the goal of improving our bilateral relations.
The view that we should keep on rolling over, and even more so the view that there is some equivalency between China and the U.S., continues to astound me.

So the fine New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy is being forced out of China. If Beijing is able to do this with no cost, she will soon be hand-picking the Western press corps there. Meanwhile the New China News Agency (NCNA) operates freely from their new (2011) headquarters on the top floor of 1540 Broadway, Times Square. This situation is unbalanced to the point of intolerability. Unlike many commentators, I do not believe that the “softly softly” approach always works with China, nor do I think this is a minor issue or a distraction. It threatens the quality of our whole relationship with China. Are we allowed the same journalistic access to them that they have to us? This is a “core” issue.

The only way to fix it, I believe, is for the U.S. to respond with unanticipated firmness: to expel a planeload of Chinese journalists, or perhaps close the NCNA office. The White House is concerned, but will they play the same hardball the Chinese do? We must remember that, as the distinguished former ambassador to Beijing, James R. Lilley once put it to me: “the only way you get anything out of China is to squeeze them.”

Some thinking back on the 1970s and recognition will ask, did we squeeze the Chinese then, as Ambassador Lilley suggests is essential? No, we did not. We basically turned up, did some wordsmithing—some rather subtle—and finally, after Watergate, Washington just pushed the reestablishment of relations through in 1979, and waited for the relationship to flower, Taiwan to disappear, Japan to acquiesce, etc., as expected. In fact, though, the Chinese were being squeezed—by the Soviets. The Battle of Damansky Island in March 1969 saw advanced Soviet weaponry kill 1,000 Chinese. Beijing needed an ally and we, for our own reasons, were eager, even without that battle and the rising tension. I was going through Siberia at the time and remember our train waiting on a siding for hours as hundreds of flatcars, bearing muddy tanks, passed by. We had no idea why. We did not really understand exactly what was going on, as Mao made clear when he set up the eager Nixon saying “all those boring questions,” or words to that effect.

With the end of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 that threat from the north disappeared, for the time being, and China was free to pursue goals of which we scarcely dreamed. Now she needs squeezing again—though how is a question. I think it will answer itself as her neighbors rearm. The point is that the “discourse of engagement” while “hegemonic” even today in the U.S. never really struck root in China. Their leaders do not want to be like us, emulate our ways. They prefer the old Stalinist ways. They don't mind having a few million dollars in the West, carrying green cards, etc., but they do not want to change China in any but perhaps economic ways. Their actions are better understood by looking at China’s geopolitical situation and the opportunities and dangers it presents.