What Next for Foreign Media in China?

As staff for The New York Times and Bloomberg News face visa delays and possible expulsion, Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish reviewed the story so far and asked what might lie ahead:

It’s not too late for Beijing to pull back and allow the bureaus to continue to operate. “Perhaps they won’t pursue the nuclear option,” said one of the New York Times journalists, adding that “it would be a public relations debacle” if the bureau was expelled. “There is talk about contingency plans, but it’s not our priority right now,” said the other reporter. “We have until Dec. 17 or 18 before the first of our residency visas expires.” If they are expelled, the plan is to continue reporting, but from Hong Kong and Taiwan. “It’s not ideal, but we’re going to have smart and trenchant coverage of China either way,” said one of the journalists. An executive at the New York Times familiar with the plans, who asked to speak on background, said reporting on China “is best done from China, but it can be done from elsewhere as well.” [An NYT reporter writing anonymously at ChinaFile seemed less optimistic: "Our work only reflects the proper nuances, texture and voices—in other words, the true nature of China—if we’re on the ground."] Hong Kong, where the newspaper has a large presence, is an “obvious” choice.

The experience of Chris Buckley, the New York Times reporter who settled in Hong Kong after his visa wasn’t renewed last year, has shown that it’s not impossible to cover China internationally. He has continued doggedly reporting from Hong Kong, though his wife and daughter remain in China. “The personal toll on Chris has been immense,” said one of the New York Times journalists. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that Buckley may be the future of China journalism. “I sincerely hope not,” he responded. Sadly, that’s looking more and more likely. As for Buckley himself, it doesn’t appear likely he will be allowed to move back to China anytime soon. Just like Laurie and his peers in the 1970s, he is consigned to sitting in Hong Kong and gazing longingly at the Mainland. And if things get worse, he’ll soon have company. [Source]

Some journalists with whom Stone Fish spoke raised the controversial suggestion of reciprocal visa restrictions on Chinese media workers in the United States. The issue is said to have come up in talks between journalists and U.S. vice president Joe Biden during his visit to Beijing last week, and is likely to do so again in a roundtable held by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Wednesday afternoon. The Washington Post suggested in a Sunday editorial that the time might have come to take such steps, which have been proposed in Congress before but never gathered critical momentum.

Congress ought to urge the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors to allocate more funds for technology to help Chinese people circumvent the massive firewall, as a coalition of human rights and religious freedom groups recently suggested.

Passport control remains pretty effective when it comes to people, however, and China is also using this as a weapon. The Times and Bloomberg have nearly two dozen journalists whose visas are up for renewal by the end of the month, and they may be forced to leave if the visas are not granted. Vice President Biden was right to protest this crude tactic at the highest levels during his meetings in Beijing last week. In response, China’s foreign ministry said correspondents had been provided a “very convenient environment.” This was insulting, as if a soft couch was at issue, rather than strong-arming by the Chinese state.

Chinese journalists get an open door to the United States. This reflects U.S. values and is fundamentally correct. But perhaps, if China continues to exclude and threaten American journalists, the United States should inject a little more symmetry into its visa policy. [Source]

Neither the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, nor the Committee to Protect Journalists supports this position. In an ongoing ChinaFile Conversation on the issue, China Daily USA deputy editor Chen Weihua also argued against it:

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. [Source]

Sinocism’s Bill Bishop countered on Twitter that Chen “of course offer[s] no suggestion to solve the issue. Just more of the engagement canard.” Orville Schell, on the other hand, proposed a two-step approach: first open negotiation and then, as in Bishop’s own earlier recommendation, attacking the issue from an economic angle if necessary:

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.

[…] 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. [Source]

Some balk at diluting a matter of principle with the introduction of economics. But in the final part of a previously featured series at China Law and Policy, Elizabeth M. Lynch argued that the two are fundamentally linked:

What Beijing currently seeks to censor – articles about the overlap of its economy, major businesses and the power elite – are the exact articles necessary to inform potential market investors. Unfortunately as the New York Times and Bloomberg reporters appear on the cusp of a compelled departure, there are few news agencies that can – or will even want to – fill their role of hard-hitting financial reporting on China, a time-intensive endeavor.

[…] But even articles about legal development, political unrest, growing wealth inequalities, environmental degradation and crackdowns on dissent, issues that Mooney and Chan fervently covered, are also important. Businesses who invest in China hire companies – like the Eurasia Group – to inform them about these developments. It is vital to their investments to know if the village, town or county where their company or factory is located is a political powder keg.

But by continuing to harass, intimidate and effectively expel journalists who cross certain red lines, Beijing is sending a message to the remaining reporters. […] Foreign reporters who are left in China may not want to continue to take on these hard-hitting stories that could effectively terminate their livelihoods. Their editors may not let them. As a result, banks, investors and even the U.S. government will lose one of its most important resources for accurate and frank reporting on a country vital to America’s position in the world. [Source]

Lynch also examined the existing legal foundation for visa reciprocity, and found it sound. She argued against the policy on principle, however, suggesting that officials from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Public Security Bureau—”the entities that are responsible for U.S. journalists’ current mistreatment”—would make more appropriate targets than reporters, state-employed or not.

The self-censorship Lynch describes appears to be precisely the goal of the current visa delays: whatever happens to the organizations under immediate threat, others will face the temptation to soften coverage in future. Bloomberg has already faced fierce and sustained criticism after reportedly succumbing. But at The New Republic, Emily Parker warned that self-censorship is a much broader issue:

A Beijing-based reporter for a major U.S. newspaper, who requested anonymity for fear that the Chinese government might cancel his visa (yes, that really was his reason), put it this way: “Sometimes you can feel that you have a limited amount of ammunition and you ask yourself: Do I want to spend it all on this one mission that might not yield anything and will leave me vulnerable, or on knocking out these other targets?” 

[…] Countless Chinese journalists do this all the time. Of course, for them the stakes are much higher: They could end up behind bars. “Self-censorship is in my blood,” an outspoken Chinese Internet dissident once proudly told me. His years of carefully dancing around political land mines kept him out of exile or jail. Murong Xuecun, a writer and an increasingly bold critic, recently admitted: “I often remind myself: Don’t engage in self-censorship, and I was confident I had succeeded in this, but so far I have not yet written a single article about Tibet issues, even though I lived in Llasa for three years; nor have I openly discussed Xinjiang issues, even though they are of great concern to me.”

[…] There is no easy solution to self-censorship, but we can start by having an honest conversation about the fact that its arm reaches much farther than Bloomberg News. “I have a certain sympathy with Matt Winkler,” Orville Schell said. “I understand his dilemma. I live his dilemma. Indeed, many of us who deal with China–whether journalists, scholars, diplomats, businessmen or film makers–live his dilemma, and it would be disingenuous to plead otherwise.” [Source]

If there is an answer, Beijing might inadvertently have provided it: by continuing to punish Bloomberg with surprise inspections, exclusion, and now visa delays even after the company apparently adopted self-censorship, it has broadcast the message that such concessions are no guarantee of safety. Chang Ping commented at South China Morning Post:

After all that Bloomberg has done, who knew that it would continue to be a target of official ire? Others may laugh but Bloomberg editors won’t find it so funny. No one can really say what the government would do in retaliation if the article was published.

[…] When it comes to China, self-censorship has long been an open secret in international academic and publishing circles. China scholars who don’t watch what they say may soon find themselves barred from entering China, thus losing precious opportunities for research and study. Just last month, exiled Chinese writer Yuan Hongbing criticised the Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite for allegedly refusing to put a book he co-authored, Death of a Buddha: The Truth Behind the Death of the 10th Panchen Lama, on its shelves for open sales because the topic was “too sensitive”. Eslite only accepts online orders for the book.

Of course, we know about this and other incidents of self-censorship because the media reports on them. But when more and more media companies themselves exercise self-censorship, the voices of truth and justice will fall silent. [Source]

The FCCC’s year-end statement, issued on Sunday, complained of a number of other negative trends aside from the visa issue, including restrictions on reporting from areas such as Tibet. “The Chinese authorities have repeatedly said that they are keen to improve foreign reporters’ working conditions,” the statement read. “We eagerly await the fruits of their efforts.” It also noted tightening constraints on interviews with ordinary Chinese. But the BBC reported that many Chinese are reluctant to talk in any case, and asked people on weibo why:

“I dare not. I’m afraid that I will be invited to tea,” one person wrote. He was talking about a common method Chinese police use to warn dissidents or people who don’t toe the government line. To be “invited to tea” is to be given a talking to, with vague threats implied.

“We don’t speak out because we, ordinary people, are already being ‘represented’ by our representatives. You should put your questions to those representatives,” another wrote, mockingly.

“Even if we speak the truth, you wouldn’t broadcast it anyway,” said another. […] [Source]