Will China Shut Out the Foreign Press?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Some two dozen journalists employed by The New York Times and Bloomberg News have not yet received the visas they need to continue to report and live in China after the end of this year. Without them, they will effectively be expelled from the country. Visiting Beijing earlier this week, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden met reporters from The Times and Bloomberg and told them he had raised the issue in his meeting with China’s top leaders.  Next week in Washington, U.S. lawmakers will hold a roundtable under the auspices of the Congressional Executive Commission on China to discuss China’s treatment of the foreign press. We asked contributors to react to this news and suggest how the United States should respond.


As we were editing the posts in this ongoing conversation, we contacted a New York Times reporter for an update on the situation in the Times’ Beijing and Shanghai bureaus. The following is from an email exchange with the reporter, who asked not to be named to avoid further complicating the visa delays faced by members of the Times’ China staff. —The Editors

After Vice-President Joe Biden took a forceful stand on the new threats against foreign journalists by China, some people have asked what exactly is different now. After all, foreign journalists in China have to apply at the end of every year for a renewal of their J-1 visa, which allows them to legally reside in the country, and there is sometimes uncertainty in the process. I recall a few instances in recent years where other correspondents, friends of mine, have had to wait until the last minute, as their visas inched toward expiration, before the authorities decided to process their renewal applications. In each case, the journalist had been given a stern, off-the-record lecture by officials at some point before the renewal process about their recent “negative” coverage or actions. And in each case, the journalist did think that expulsion was a possibility. They said the goal of the authorities was to coerce them into practicing self-censorship.

The actions being taken in recent weeks against The New York Times and Bloomberg News bring those tactics to a new level. For journalists at the Times, issuance of press cards — a government accreditation that must be renewed annually as the first step in the visa application process — stopped around November 13. That was the day that The Times published an investigative story on the business transactions between JPMorgan Chase and Wen Ruchun, the daughter of Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister. As Jill Abramson, our executive editor, has said in interviews this week, Chinese officials have in the last year admonished the paper’s correspondents and editors for reporting on the personal lives and family wealth of China’s leaders. Bloomberg News has received the same scoldings, for a series of stories it published last year. And both organizations have suffered what are in effect forms of economic sanctions, by having their websites blocked in China or, in the case of Bloomberg, terminal sales halted.

The process of getting a J-1 visa renewal can be confusing to an outsider. It goes in two stages at the end of every year — first, you get the new press card from the Foreign Ministry, then you apply for the visa itself. A few Times reporters applied for new press cards in the first week of November, when the process began, and received them within a week. In recent years, this has been the standard length of time it has taken foreign correspondents to renew press cards. The next step is to drop off a passport, copy of the new press card and other supporting documents at the Public Security Bureau’s entry-exit office, east of the Lama Temple. Officials there had said it would take fifteen working days this year to complete the processing of J-1 visas. In late November, the Times reporters who had submitted their paperwork were called back into the office and told to take back those documents—with no new visas inside their passports. Officials at the bureau told the reporters there was a problem, and that it was impossible to proceed.

This act of returning passports without visas during the renewal process had not happened before to any journalist I know. Along with the freeze on the issuance of press cards for Times reporters who had not gotten theirs earlier, this was a clear sign that the Times was in trouble. One Times journalist who showed up at the Foreign Ministry at the end of November to pick up his press card was told he could not get it, even though a ministry employee had called the bureau weeks earlier, before the publication of the Wen Ruchun story, to say the card was ready. The day he showed up, an employee at the front desk holding a card called out his name in Chinese, looked down at the card when he reached out for it, then scurried into an office and did not return. A second employee told him the card belonged to “another foreign journalist with the same name”—an unlikely scenario, to say the least.

Bloomberg is the other news organization dealing with the same problems right now. Between the two bureaus, two dozen journalists and their families are affected by the visa delay. In its scale, this campaign has no precedent. And officials no doubt intend for it to resonate with all journalists covering China. 

Do we fear expulsion? It’s impossible to discount the possibility, given what has happened in recent years to Melissa Chan, Andrew Higgins, Chris Buckley and Paul Mooney. Chris has been reporting for us from Hong Kong because China has yet to grant him a new J-1 visa. Our editors hired him from Reuters more than a year ago, and he was forced to leave China by Dec. 31 of last year when his visa for The Times did not materialize. In the cases of those journalists, there was little public outcry over their predicaments in the weeks before Chinese officials made decisions that forced them to leave the country or remain outside it. That is different now, since Vice President Biden and others have taken a vocal stand and have hinted at deeper repercussions. The United States government has firmly put this issue on the agenda.

We are all still reporting and writing stories. But as Chris did last year, we’re also looking around our homes and wondering what we might have to pack in our bags in the coming weeks, what farewells we might have to say. All of us believe that engagement with China is part of our mission, both personal and professional, and that we are one of many bridges between China and the rest of the world. Our work only reflects the proper nuances, texture and voices—in other words, the true nature of China—if we’re on the ground. Living inside China, we listen to the people here. I’m hopeful there are Chinese officials who see the value in that, and who will make the right decision.


 What does it take to stop us from appeasing China on this issue? For decades we have rolled over with gymnastic rationalizations, and the result has been increased Chinese squeezing, especially under Xi as part of his general, ominous crackdown.The tired arguments for appeasement have prevailed while the Chinese have gone from selective visa harassment to mass delays and turndowns and expulsions, and the American media starts sliding toward self-censorship a la Bloomberg.

It is good that Biden raised this in all his meetings and publicly. We will have to see if this has an effect, but the prospects are grim.

There are two ways to move China (and other countries) on difficult issues: appeal to self interest and apply appropriate pressures. I assume Biden did the former, including the argument of media portrayals when Beijing seeks greater soft power. While necessary, this alone is not apt to be sufficient, especially under Xi who has launched the most sweeping repression and censorship since Tiananmen Square. Chinese leaders are much more concerned about political control than China’s image abroad.

Assuming Biden’s efforts don’t bear fruit (real, not token), it is long past time to retaliate. I am in no position to know which specific steps would be most appropriate and effective. Two areas come to mind, however: our own visa policy and our treatment of Chinese media in the U.S.

On the former, we could start delaying and withholding visas concerning Chinese media personnel here. It might be better to apply this to Chinese media executives or visa granting officials rather than innocent journalists who seek a balanced view of America (when their editors permit this). It would be nice to find some people to expel, but they might be difficult to identify.

As for treatment of Chinese media here, this is relevant not only because of the treatment of our journalists, but also the jamming of websites, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Again, I leave the choices to insiders, but areas that come to mind for retaliation include CCTV, Chinese radio and China Daily propaganda inserts in our newspapers. In all cases we should make clear, on background, that these are strictly to counter Chinese policies, and have zero to do with peoples’ views or reporting.

I know the counter arguments: How about the principle of free speech? This is precisely what taking action is all about. How about Chinese retaliation? If one is frozen by this concern, the Chinese will continue to have a field day. Whether it’s Air Defense Identification Zones or any other important issue, acquiescence in the face of provocation will fuel further pushing of envelopes.

This is a rare case where I am rooting for this Congress to get in the game.

The Chinese have significantly stepped up their attempts to intimidate the foreign media over the past four years. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, China made some small concessions in order to win the Olympics. After the games were over, however, things began to slide backward. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs started to delay issuing visas to foreign journalists as a form of intimidation and also began to use other threats to silence us.

Over the last two years, Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera and I have been refused visas to work in China. In both of our cases, the Chinese offered no reason, other than to say it was in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations. If a law has been violated, Beijing should say what it is. The silence says it all.

During my last three years in China, police in charge of journalist visas tried to intimidate me, giving me six- and then three-month visas—instead the normal one-year visa—a practice I saw as a veiled threat. One year at renewal time, the visa police insisted I bring my wife to their office, where we were taken to a back room and asked personal questions by two police officers that had nothing to do with our visas, the object being to let us know they were aware of where we went and what we did. It was obvious from the conversation that we’d been followed.

Even worse, during the brief Jasmine Revolution in China, in February and March 2011, Stephen Engle, a reporter for Bloomberg Television, was beaten in public view on the streets of Beijing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied this, despite the fact that a video proved the beating’s occurrence. In some cases around that time, police visited the homes of journalist friends of mine, warning them not to cover the silent protests. Some colleagues also told me that MOFA threatened to refuse to renew their visas if they went to the scene of the protests.

Working in China, our computers often are targeted with malware that is very likely coming from state agencies. More recently, friends have told me about being hauled into police stations, where police shouted at them and videoed them being interrogated.

This is not the behavior we expect from responsible nations.

The Chinese government is able to do all of this because foreign media organizations and governments have for the most part declined to speak out openly to criticize this treatment, instead relying on discussions behind closed doors. Something can be done, but it’s going to take more than just expressing displeasure. I’m not in favor of limiting the freedom of expression of Chinese journalists in the United States, but if the U.S. State Department also delayed the approvals of visas for Chinese journalists and media executives trying to work in the United States, there’s no doubt in my mind that Beijing would soon get the message, and that Beijing’s unacceptable behavior would stop. China has more than 700 state journalists working in the U.S., which is roughly triple the number of American reporters in China. Right now, there’s limited freedom of expression because for years we’ve allowed Beijing to act with impunity. Delaying visa approvals will limit the freedom of the Chinese media for a short period of time, but it will soon provide a far greater degree of freedom of the media on both sides than currently exists. We stand up for free trade, but take reciprocal action regarding trade issues. Why not do this with the media as well?

Is China really willing to see the bureaus of major U.S. news organizations shut down and thereby jeopardize relations with the United States? Will China be willing to allow it’s own reporters to be limited in their ability to report on the United States? I expect that the Chinese will delay approving the visas for The New York Times and Bloomberg journalists until the final days of this year, and may even give shorter visas of a few months, as they did to me in the past. The hope is that this will be enough to frighten journalists into submission—the Chinese proverbial act of killing the chicken to scare the monkeys. And it’s working. One foreign journalist told me recently that he was delaying doing a sensitive story until his visa was approved later this month. How many journalists over the coming year will have second thoughts about reporting on certain issues?

The reality is that China’s tactics are not going to work in the long run. The Party’s problems are the result of its own failed and abusive policies, and these problems aren’t going to disappear by kicking out foreign journalists.  The widespread use of social media by China’s citizens has grown beyond Beijing’s ability to control it. Chinese citizens and journalists already are doing an excellent job of making injustices known throughout China and the world. Instead of attacking the foreign media, the Party needs to reflect on its own behavior and policies so it can see why there is so much reporting that leaves it embarrassed.

I’m not sure the U.S. can convince Beijing of the merits of a free press—not if by “Beijing” we mean the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. The present squeeze the Party is putting on American reporters and media organizations working—or trying to work—in China reminds me of the pressure the Party exerted against both the U.S. Embassy itself and many foreign NGOs back in 2011 in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. Then, scores of activities—cultural events, school programs, ambassadorial visits—sponsored by the U.S.Embassy and other Western missions were canceled or interfered with. The pressure then was also directed at Chinese citizens, who were detained, beaten or placed under house arrest for expressing ideas deemed to be too liberal.

Thankfully, then, Americans and the world could read all about this repression in The New York Times or on Bloomberg online. Maybe soon, that will not be so easy. The Times, for its part, has been steadfast and often brilliant in its coverage of China. At the moment, the Bloomberg record is more complicated, with some signs that the company may be trimming its political coverage to protect its lucrative, private sector business information stream. Both the Times and The Wall Street Journal have been hurt financially and journalistically by Beijing’s effectively blocking both companies’ ambitious Chinese-language Web sites.

The Chinese Communist Party continues to believe that its way of life and leadership is threatened from without, that China has certain “characteristics” that preclude  “Western” notions of free speech and human rights. Meanwhile, many Chinese people have already defined free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly as “universal” human rights. Vice President Joe Biden and the rest of the Obama administration might direct their efforts at persuading the CCP leaders that the existential threat to them is not from without—where most civilized nations have long issued reciprocal press credentials to foreign nationals—it is from within. It’s certainly not spring just now in Beijing, nor is it spring in many Arab capitals. But there is hope. And hope has a way of springing.

A U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty is near the top of the cooperation agenda for the two nations. It would be an important agreement for both sides, and China may in fact want it even more than the U.S. does.

One of the prerequisites for good investing is accurate information. If China tightens its restrictions on American journalists and/or if the U.S. retaliates by limiting P.R.C. journalists in the U.S., information flow will diminish markedly and businesses and governments on both sides will be unable to make informed investment decisions. Preaching to the Chinese about American values will not help move the Chinese on this issue, but making it about economics might.

The U.S. should link the journalist visa issue to the bilateral investment treaty negotiations by insisting the agreement contains language guaranteeing fair treatment of each others’ correspondents, a reciprocal number of journalist visas etc.

That message needs to come from the White House before the end of the year. If Beijing balks, then the Obama administration should call off the BIT talks.

May I respectfully suggest a broader frame for this discussion beyond the question — important though it is — of media freedom? As everyone knows, Perry Link and I have been denied visas to visit China since the publication of The Tiananmen Papers in 2001.  Many other academics have been denied visas for varying periods of time to punish them for unwelcome scholarly work.  Some have been punished not even for what they wrote but just for addressing unwelcome topics, such as Xinjiang.  Then there are reported attempts by Chinese diplomats to dissuade some universities from inviting certain speakers or from holding conferences on certain topics; reported interference by Chinese authorities in activities proposed by some universities that host Confucius Institutes; and, most concerning of all, proactive self-censorship by scholars in anticipation of potential Chinese government disapproval.  Beyond news media and academia, we hear of censorship and self-censorship in the movie industry and in Internet industries; among foundations and NGOs seeking to work in China; and among businesses, business advisors, and consultants in other fields who feel they need to preserve access in order to succeed in China.  I don’t think Beijing has a missionary impulse to export its model of authoritarian rule to other countries.  But without really trying, it has begun to extend its system of fear-enforced conformity to the West.  I think it is a trend worth resisting, not only in journalism but across the board.

I second what Andy Nathan writes, and would underscore his point that fear of blacklists induces “proactive self-censorship” in China scholars, especially younger ones who feel their careers might be at stake.  When self-censorship happens, the costs are not just to the scholars concerned but to their students and to the broader public who read what they write (or can’t read what they don’t write).

I feel ambivalent when friends who work in or near the U.S. government tell me they have been working, behind the scenes, to get me, Andy Nathan and others off of blacklists. Of course I feel grateful, but I also sense a misconception of the problem. Getting certain names off of blacklists solves some problems of research access for the people of those names; but the much larger problem of self-censorship that comes from fear of blacklists cannot be solved by removing names from blacklists.  The institition of the blacklist itself needs to go—or the fear will stay, and the accommodations in scholarship will stay.

The other side will say that the U.S. also denies visas. Yes, and it does so for several reasons.  But those reasons do not include attempts to control the ways in which the Chinese public perceives the U.S. (It’s almost funny to imagine U.S. visa officials trying to do this.) There is nothing parallel here.

You Americans have a very powerful tool at your disposal: you can revoke and deny visas. Use that tool.

Update: This tool does not have to be directed at journalists - it would be far more effective to squeeze executives at state owned media companies.

I am deeply concerned by the call for the United States to retaliate by limiting the number of Chinese journalists coming to work in and visit the United States.

This is wrong on multiple fronts.

First, we all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. Retaliation with a similar action only means that you endorse such action. It simply weakens your original argument for press freedom.

Second, it’s easy to simply label the Chinese news media as government propaganda. If you delve deep into the Chinese news media landscape today, it’s far more complicated than that, and it’s not black and white, just like China today. There are many Chinese journalists who are practicing the same professionalism and demonstrating the same courage as their counterparts in the U.S. and other countries.

Third, letting an increasing number of Chinese journalists work in the U.S. exposes them to the international news media and the news media in the U.S. It’s having a positive effect.

U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has proposed retaliation measures against Chinese journalists in years past, but his bill was never passed

I believe exactly the opposite should happen. The U.S. should invite more Chinese journalists to come to the U.S. to learn from their counterparts, whether it’s The New York Times, NPR, Democracy Now or Al-Jazeera America. That includes issuing visas to Chinese journalists (and journalists from any other countries) working in the U.S.

It’s just like having the 230,000 Chinese students enrolled in the U.S. colleges and universities. It’s bound to have a positive impact on their life. It’s also like the numerous fellowships and scholarships the U.S. government and private programs provide to Chinese students, scholars and journalists.

The Chinese journalists working in the U.S. bring a new perspective to the issues, whether it’s concerning China, China-U.S. relations or regional and global issues. It's just like the growing international news media operating in the U.S. now. It's a good thing. This is true regardless of the unique nature of the Chinese news media—its government ownership.

I cannot imagine a worse suggestion to the problem faced by The New York Times and Bloomberg News than limiting visas to Chinese journalists.

Following is a response we received by email from a veteran U.S.-based China scholar who asked not to be named for fear of being denied a visa to China:

I am glad to see that in saying “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Chen Weihua agrees with the other commenters here that China’s action in denying visas is wrong; I look forward to an article or op-ed in the China Daily saying this.

At the same time, however, I can’t agree with the way he and others making similar arguments ground those arguments in simple and abstract moral maxims instead of informed analysis of the complex world as it is. We are told that you can’t defend freedom of the press by restricting freedom of the press. This is like saying that you can’t preserve peace by preparing for war. It sounds paradoxical at first, but once we go beyond first impressions to think a bit more, we can see that there may well be situations where that’s precisely what you can do. As for whether two wrongs make a right in this case, the question is entirely an empirical one. If threatening to withhold visas for Chinese journalists causes the Chinese government to change its visa policy for U.S. (and other) journalists, well, then, this policy will have made a right. The idea that such a threat “weakens your original argument for press freedom” misunderstands how policy is made. The Chinese government does not make visa policy for foreign journalists based on reasoned arguments for press freedom. It makes visa policy based on how it views its interests.

I understand the misgivings of those who feel uncomfortable with a retaliatory policy that restricts access to foreign journalists. The solution here is simple: let’s come up with a policy that does not involve restricting such access. I’m not sure why the discussion of this issue seems to take for granted that the choices are either to retaliate in kind or to do nothing. If China were to block U.S. soybean exports to China, would anyone think the U.S.’s only option was to retaliate by blocking Chinese soybean exports to the U.S.? The options are limitless and not confined simply to restricting visas to Chinese journalists.

This brings me to my last point: surely it is incumbent on any critic of the strategy of retaliation in kind to offer an alternative strategy for accomplishing the same end (unless of course they are satisfied with the status quo). But those who have objected to retaliation in kind (at least those I have read) have offered none at all, let alone one with a reasonable prospect of success. I am especially disappointed that Mr. Chen did not do so; given that he “cannot imagine a worse suggestion” than retaliation in kind, it should have been simple to come up with a better one.

I agree with Chen Weihua that it would not only be counter-productive, but a violation of the U.S.'s own most vaunted principles of a free press, to deny visas to Chinese journalists as a form of retaliation for the visa and access problems American journalists now confront in China. However, refusing to take this tit-for-tat approach raises a crucial question: What is the right approach?

I think that Vice President Biden’s raising this issue with Party Secretary General Xi Jinping and then meeting with American journalists in Beijing was a good start: It brought government attention to the issue, which both sides have different interests in resolving.

But before calling in any more governmental pressure, perhaps the major U.S. media outlets could get together on some civil society organization's auspices, write a protest, send a delegation to Beijing, request a meeting with high-ranking officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Central Propaganda Department and the State Council's Information Office, and then hold a very public press conference. In other words, having tried to find a remedy to this important impasse through private channels, begin to take their grievance.

U.S. media outlets have a legitimate need to see the access question resolved because without resolution they risk being unable to cover China in a responsible and comprehensive way. Moreover, being shut out of China damages their competitiveness as businesses in the global media market, which in turn raises the question of whether Chinese actions are not forms of trade discrimination that violate rules set forth by the W.T.O. and agreed to by China.

The last thing Chinese leaders should want is to find themselves at odds with the global press in the middle of a costly campaign to garner more "soft power" for China, a country which already wins very low marks from neighbors when it comes to trust, something Chinese officials tirelessly speak about when explaining what is wrong with foreign relations between them and other countries.

A new and high visibility public grievance brought before the W.T.O., or some other kind of restraint of trade challenge initiated by some of the world’s major media outlets against the Chinese Government for shutting down foreign company websites because they do not like their reportage, or, for preventing legitimate representatives of such companies— namely, journalists—from gaining access of China, will shatter Beijing’s chances at establishing “mutual trust” with its neighbors and only will cause China grave embarrassment and loss of face.

All this is coming precisely at the time when China has managed at last to reach the precipice of its long-desired level of global respect. After accomplishing so much over the last three and half decades in their progress toward becoming a daguo, a "big power," that seeks a "new great power relationship" with the U.S., this is not the way constructive partners act. Denying access to the foreign correspondents from either country is behavior, as Chen Weihua suggests, that would be wrong if engaged in by the U.S., and it is equally wrong, not to say counter-productive when engaged in by China.

The only way for to China to win its historical struggle to become a respected rising power is to conduct itself in a manner that is fully deserving of respect. Arbitrarily discriminating against media outlets whose reporters write well-researched and accurate reports about the leaders of any country is not a way to gain such respect. Otherwise the goal of respectability will remain elusive.

I very much like Orville’s ideas of bringing public pressure on the Chinese in the ways he suggests.The W.T.O. route is also okay to highlight the issue but would take forever as a trade remedy.

The comments so far all censure China and wring hands, but most,aside from Orville’s, either offer no response to Beijing or aim at the straw man of hurting Chinese journalists here. My original submission specifically said we might want to avoid these innocents who often try to report objectively when their editors let them. What about other targets such as Chinese media executives or visa officials? I also pointed to other issues such as website blocking and jamming of our radios, and cited the field day CCTV, Chinese radio and China Daily have in our media. What should we do on these fronts?

And if efforts like Orville’s good ideas fail?

I asked what would it take to stop appeasing the Chinese on these issues. Apparently we still have a ways to go.

First, as someone who has worked closely with Chinese journalists, both inside and outside of China, I’d like to agree with my friend Chen Weihua when he says that many of those journalists have exhibited growing professionalism, and have become, if not totally independent of their Press and Propaganda cadres, then at least more adept at looking at the situation on the ground, both at home and abroad, and reporting what they see and hear, not purely the Party line. This has been something of a long march, and sometimes a dangerous one for the Chinese reporters and editors so inclined.

As it is, there are already substantially more visa-holding Chinese reporters and editors working in the U.S. than there are visa-holding American reporters and editors working in China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. I am encouraged that some of our Chinese colleagues are improving their professional skills and even becoming somewhat more independent of the propaganda bureaucracy. But, right now, there are some two dozen American reporters being threatened directly with visa denials by the Chinese government. Before we even think of letting in larger numbers of Chinese reporters, let’s make certain that responsible Chinese officials take their wildly ill-advised threat off the table and return to handling news coverage between our two countries in a professional and statesmanlike manner. Then, to paraphrase Mao, let a hundred flowers bloom, at least on the foreign news front.