China’s Treatment of Foreign Journalists Examined

At a roundtable event held by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Wednesday, The New York Times’ Edward Wong, TIME’s Hannah Beech, Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Sarah Cook of Freedom House shared their views on the currently wintry climate for foreign journalists in China.

Critical to understanding developments in China has been the ability of journalists to cover that country. Domestic journalists operate under heavy censorship while foreign journalists now report a worsening environment under President Xi Jinping. In November, Chinese officials denied a visa to Paul Mooney, an American journalist who had spent the past 18 years in China and had reported on environmental problems, Tibet, Xinjiang, the plight of human rights activists, and kidnapped children, among other stories. Currently some two dozen journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg have yet to receive their visas as a year-end deadline approaches, and the Web sites of both news organizations have been blocked in China after publishing articles detailing the wealth of the relatives of China’s top leaders. Foreign journalists report concern over government retaliation, harassment of sources, and physical threats, and allegations of self-censorship in the face of pressure from Chinese authorities have also surfaced. [Source]

See more on the situation at CDT.

The entire session is available to view online (skip to 16:15). The Telegraph’s Peter Foster, formerly based in Beijing, reported:

“We are calling on China to immediately cease its policy of harassing foreign journalists. They’ve denied and delayed visas, they’ve blocked websites of foreign media in China. That’s not the way to be integrated into the world economy, or the world generally,” said Sherrod Brown, a Democrat senator from Ohio chairing the hearing.

“We ask and demand that China back off this policy. If the situation does not improve we’ll consider other steps that Congress may take to address this issue.”

[…] Although China has routinely used the visa renewal process to put pressure on correspondents and their news organisations, the scale of the current row is unprecedented, with some 24 journalists left in what Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists called “visa purgatory”. [Source]

CPJ’s Asia Desk tweeted highlights:

While Dietz argued that retaliatory policies against Chinese journalists would be “disastrous,” an anonymous China scholar posted a critique of visa reciprocity’s opponents to ChinaFile’s ongoing discussion.

I am glad to see that in saying “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” [China Daily USA deputy editor] 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. […]

[… S]urely 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. [Source]

In the same conversation, Orville Schell had recommended open and unified protest, potentially followed by a complaint to the World Trade Organization. Sinocism’s Bill Bishop had previously proposed including conditions in a Bilateral Investment Treaty. Elizabeth M. Lynch suggested at China Law and Policy on Monday that any visa retaliation should be aimed not at journalists, but at officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Public Security Bureau, and perhaps their families. Others have raised denying student visas to Party leaders’ children, or to state media executives instead of reporters.

Beech’s appearance followed a post at TIME in which she defended China correspondents against the assumption that they would easily cave to government pressure:

[… T]he kind of intimidation that has happened over the past couple of years — visa hassles, intimidation of sources, even the odd beating of a foreign correspondent — […] are things that have flared up on and off since I’ve been covering China. There is, however, one notable difference. Previously, individual journalists have been punished for their enterprising reporting. This year, entire news bureaus from specific publications are being pursued.

Does this mean, though, that an outbreak of self-censorship has struck the foreign media in China? Yes, there probably are some journalists sufficiently worried enough about the year-end visa process to tone down their coverage. But it is an insult to those of us doing our jobs in China to assume that we’ve suddenly taped our mouths shut.

[…] Of course, none of this uncertainty compares with the difficulties of being a Chinese journalist in China. The worst that can happen to someone like me, probably, is being kicked out of a country that I have spent two decades studying and covering. Chinese reporters, however, can end up in jail for what they do. (They are not assassinated, as happens in places like Russia, so I suppose it could be worse.) I have had Chinese assistants beaten up for helping me — suffering the worst kind of wounds that don’t manifest themselves with outward bruises but cause intense internal pain. [Source]

But borrowing a phrase from Orville Schell, The Financial Times’ David Pilling wrote that now “no one is immune from Beijing’s ‘gravity machine’. […] More and more, […] China is dictating the terms with which it deals with its interlocutors. Much of this is expected, natural even, for a state that for two millennia was used to being treated as the pre-eminent power. That does not mean, however, that it will be easy for the rest of the world to take.”