With Reporters Under Fire, Can U.S. Do More?

After foreign reporters increased their scrutiny of the Chinese government and its politicians in 2012, and with a backlash ensuing against them and their publications, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writes that the U.S. State Department should both address the treatment of American reporters in China and weigh its current approach to Chinese reporters in America:

Why is this happening now? At bottom, it’s a curious confluence of skill, corruption, and record-keeping. Twenty years ago, most foreign correspondents made their bones on exotic front lines, and rarely ventured into the wilds of business reporting until they came home. But these days the ranks of the foreign press include a number of people who came up reading 10-Ks and bond prospectuses and have the instinct to deploy those skills abroad. At the same time, the increasing sophistication of China’s economy has forced the bureaucracy to create a body of records that, if deciphered correctly, can provide a roadmap of relationships that no human source could easily match. And finally, the scale of corruption in China has grown right along with the economy, creating a target-rich environment.

Some are calling for the U.S. to respond by delaying or preventing Chinese journalists from entering the United States. Last year, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, introduced the “Chinese Media Reciprocity Act,” which would compel the State Department to deny visas to all but a handful of the some six-hundred-and-fifty Chinese citizens working in the U.S., until China removes the obstacles to Americans. France, I’m told, did the same thing behind the scenes, and the problems disappeared. But this strikes me as unattractive option that risks undermining the very values of free, unfettered reporting that empower the American press in the first place. (For a smart take, see this testimony by Robert L. Daly, an expert on Chinese-U.S. media dealings.)

But the U.S. can do much more, both privately and publicly. In public, the State Department, at a senior level, should strongly object to pressure on American journalists, with the same energy it has directed at obstacles to the free conduct of other American businesses in China, or violations of intellectual-property and human rights. In private, media reciprocity should become a priority, and U.S. officials can remind their counterparts that Beijing’s ambitious plans to expand Chinese media in the United States are vulnerable to a backlash. This problem will not get solved on its own.

The New York Times reported on Monday that Chinese authorities have failed to renew a visa and journalist accreditation for Chris Buckley, an Australian citizen who recently rejoined the newspaper from Reuters. On Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said they were still reviewing his application. And in May 2012, Al Jazeera English had to close its operations in China after authorities refused to renew the visa of its Beijing correspondent, Melissa Chan.