Should the U.S. Bar Chinese Journalists? (Updated)

The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a roundtable discussion on Wednesday on the feared expulsion of some two dozen journalists from Bloomberg News and The New York Times. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Bob Dietz—one of the session’s participants—explains his opposition to retaliatory visa restrictions on Chinese reporters in the U.S., a long-mooted proposal that is enjoying a resurgence amid the current uncertainty.

We strongly advise that Chinese journalists working in the U.S. NOT be treated in the same way their colleagues are being treated in Beijing. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China agrees, but not everyone else does, including people for whom I have a high degree of respect. Paul Mooney, who hasn’t been allowed back into China to take a new job for Reuters, told me in an interview last week he wants to see retaliation. With 18 years’ experience in China, his opinion has to be taken into consideration. […]

[…] Whether or not these American journalists stay in China, the problems of reporting from there remain. Yesterday’s panelists agreed that things have become worse under President Xi JInping’s government for all reporters, Chinese and foreigners. The way the current issue is resolved is important — it can set the tone not just for journalism but for other forms of interaction between these two powerful countries. A front page piece in today’s New York Times, U.S. Colleges Finding Ideals Tested Abroad, deals with the issues confronting U.S. universities that partner with Chinese schools. Both issues — academic freedom and journalism— represent more than just a clash of culture and ideals. There are fundamental rights issues at stake, and the dispute is coming to a head. Cool heads and wise analysis need to prevail. [Source]

Mooney, who was scheduled to attend yesterday’s discussion, posted the statement he had submitted in his absence, in which he made his case for visa retaliation. He stressed first “that my reporting, and that of my colleagues, is not anti-China,” and that Chinese authorities have never challenged him on grounds of accuracy. He then gave a detailed account of the obstruction and harassment he and others have encountered.

In the past, governments and organizations have tried to use polite persuasion to convince China to stop its intimidation of the international media. Unfortunately, this has not worked. In fact, the situation has seriously deteriorated in recent years. I don’t think that China will change it’s attitude unless some stronger steps are taken to stop its unfair treatment of the media.

Many people are opposed to a tit-for-tat visa policy against Chinese journalists, arguing that this would go against the traditional American respect for freedom of the media. I don’t want to see my Chinese colleagues prevented from reporting in the United States. However, delaying visas for Chinese journalists or for media and propaganda officials who are not involved in the daily work of journalism would send a clear signal to Beijing.

Despite arguments that reciprocal polices can’t have any impact on China, there are precedents for this. I’ve heard of several cases in which foreign governments have delayed issuing visas to Chinese journalists and officials in retaliation for such policies, and in these cases, China immediately backed down. [Source]

The Washington Post’s Keith B. Richburg also described his experiences covering China, which he contrasted with reporting from Africa. He came to a different conclusion from Mooney’s:

What should we do? Reciprocity for Chinese journalists, by kicking them out of the U.S. in the same numbers as American reporters expelled from China? That’s a slippery slope, I say, and at any rate goes against our basic values, and our idea that the freer the flow of information the better.

A better idea, raised most recently in a new Post op-ed, is to bring China’s restrictions on the foreign media to the World Trade Organization as a trade dispute. The free flow of information is an essential component of trade and investment, the authors argue, and the Obama administration should make sure China understands that the work journalists and academics do is essential to our economy, and to our growing economic partnership.

On that, I agree. [Source]

See more voices in the current visa reciprocity debate via CDT, and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s year-end statement for 2013 via its Hong Kong counterpart.

Updated at 10:55 PST on December 13th: Slate’s Joshua Keating surveys the debate, and argues against visa reciprocity:

This strikes me as a dangerous road to go down. China isn’t the only country where this issue comes up. Russia, for instance, appears to be selectively denying certain reporting visas ahead of the Sochi Olympics. If the U.S. sets a precedent that the awarding of journalist visas is politically conditional, other countries may feel much more comfortable playing this game. Just as NSA surveillance revelations have accelerated calls for “cyber-sovereignty,” a media access trade war between the U.S. and China seems like the kind of thing that could set off a race to the bottom.

Given that Chinese state media outlets have ambitious plans for global expansion, including in the United States, it seems like it’s not the worst thing if they at least think this was a possibility. Hopefully the U.S. can find ways to apply pressure on this issue without losing the moral high ground. [Source]

At HuffPost Media, GreatFire.org‘s Charlie Smith also opposes visa retaliation, and urges unity among media organizations backed by concerted circumvention of Chinese web censorship:

Restricting access for Chinese media in the US plays right into the strongest argument the censorship authorities in China have – that everything they do, other countries do as well. The Snowden revelations have almost completely disabled the ability for foreign governments to criticize online surveillance in China. Expelling Chinese journalists overseas risks repeating the same pattern. The Chinese Propaganda Department would know exactly how to spin this. Do we really want to give them that opportunity?

[…] The censorship authorities do not want to block all information. Their strategy is to divide reporters and media organizations so that they can selectively decide what information should and should not be disseminated. Media organisations in China need to uphold the principle of freedom of speech by not giving the Chinese authorities the flexibility to make this choice. [Source]

From Ron Javers at ChinaFile, on the other hand:

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. [Source]