U.S. Hits Chinese Journalists With 90-day Visa Limit: Reactions

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a new 90-day limit on I-class journalist visas for mainland Chinese citizens working at foreign news organizations. The restriction is the latest in an exchange of blows over following years of mounting pressure on foreign reporting in and on China. In February, the U.S. labeled several Chinese state media organizations as “foreign missions,” a designation seemingly in line with Xi Jinping’s own insistence that Chinese media must “take ‘Party’ as their surname” and serve its interests. China subsequently expelled three reporters for The Wall Street Journal, ostensibly over an insensitive headline on an opinion piece unrelated to any of the expelled reporters’ own work. The following month, the U.S. announced a cap on the number of visas available to Chinese state media organizations, expelling 60 of their employees but leaving the organizations free to choose which ones. China responded with the expulsion of nearly all American reporters for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Chinese authorities also dismissed several Chinese news assistants assigned to foreign media organizations by the government bureau that officially employed them. In addition, veteran China correspondent and Australian citizen Chris Buckley was forced to leave the country after several weeks locked down in Wuhan after being denied a visa renewal in February.

Each side has insisted that its own actions are proportionate and necessary, while the other’s are reckless and extreme. Chinese officials have glossed over their own government’s past hostility to foreign media and accused the U.S. of initiating the exchange, while declaring China’s own willingness to match the U.S. blow-for-blow. Following the announcement of state media visa caps, for example, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted “now the US kicked off the game, let’s play.”

The DHS, explaining its rationale for last week’s move, similarly argued that “the PRC government’s actions are not merely ‘reciprocal’ as it claims, but instead an escalation of hostile measures targeting a free press within its borders.” It highlighted an ongoing “suppression of independent in the PRC, including an increasing lack of transparency and consistency in the admission periods granted to foreign , including U.S. .” It said that the new limits are intended “to address the actions of the PRC government and to enhance reciprocity in the treatment of U.S. in the PRC,” describing them as a “direct and measured response” aimed at “ensuring full and fair access for U.S. .” The document also cited a foreign affairs exception in federal regulations requiring public consultation before such rules are introduced. It did not explain why it expected the new measures to ensure “full and fair access for U.S. ” when previous steps had prompted such unprecedented movement in the opposite direction.

The new visa length limit marks a notable departure from the American measures’ former focus on state media: it will affect mainland Chinese correspondents at relatively independent organizations, such as Caixin, as well as those working for organizations from Hong Kong, such as Initium Media, and elsewhere, like the BBC.

The Wall Street Journal’s Sha Hua reported on the new rules and responses to them:

The U.S. issued 425 to mainland Chinese nationals working for non-U.S. media in 2019, according to State Department statistics. Individual Chinese reporters sometimes apply for multiple in the same year as each visa is restricted to a single entry.

The 90-day limit won’t apply to reporters from Hong Kong or Macau, or to mainland Chinese citizens who hold green cards.

[…] When it comes to treatment of news media, Washington cannot level the playing field, said Richard McGregor, an expert of Chinese politics at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

“Beijing only wins a race to the bottom,” Mr. McGregor said, pointing out that the majority of Chinese reporters in the U.S. work in a propaganda capacity for state-run media, while foreign journalists do independent reporting. “It would be like exchanging rooks for pawns.”

[…] Conflating Chinese journalists working for state and nonstate outlets risks harming those who “do a genuine, professional job,” Mr. McGregor said. [Source]

The suppression of independent journalism cited by the DHS is real and worsening. Aside from pressure on the foreign press, authorities have further stepped up ideological control on domestic media, become the world’s leading jailor of journalists, and strictly controlled reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Conditions have also been deteriorating in Hong Kong, once a haven for independent media. Many, though, fear that the U.S.’ actions will do nothing to reverse these trends, and may make matters worse. The Committee to Protect Journalists criticized the new rules on Monday, for example:

“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is playing a fool’s game with its decision to restrict journalist visas issued to Chinese citizens during a global pandemic, when the free flow of information is more important than ever,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “This move by the only invites further harsh retaliation from China, where the expulsions of U.S. journalists have already devastated U.S.-owned news operations in the country, partly blinding the world to China’s response to COVID-19.” [Source]

Because the scope of the new rules extends well beyond state media, they further narrow the space available to Chinese journalists committed to free and independent reporting. Non-state media and independent citizen journalism at home face tightening restraints, and work for foreign media within China is increasingly scarce, fraught, and precarious. Now avenues in the U.S., seen by many as a “beacon of press freedom,” are also under pressure. This narrowing was a central theme of a compilation of responses from members of the Chinese Storytellers collective, whose cofounder Shen Lu wrote in an introduction:

I moved to the United States for graduate school in 2016 after briefly working as a news assistant at an international news outlet in Beijing. I was one of many Chinese journalists drawn to the beacon of press freedom, hoping that in the United States, a country whose democratic institutions inspired me to come and study journalism in the first place, we could work as proper journalists without fear.

For some of us, it takes leaving China to be rid of that assistant role and to have our own voice. But it turns out that press freedom doesn’t protect us in China, and it seems to no longer protect us in the U.S. [Source]

The BBC’s Zhaoyin Feng also commented:

As a Chinese national working for a British media outlet in the U.S., I often find myself caught in the middle of rising global nationalism and geopolitical tensions.

[…] As Beijing tightens its grip on the press, an increasing number of ambitious Chinese journalists are leaving home for the U.S. to seek greater freedom at work and in life. But now, the U.S. is shutting its door on them, effectively becoming more like its own adversary. But it can never beat China at its own game — it will only turn talents away, damage its own core values, and lay bare its frayed confidence.

From Caixin’s Zhang Qi:

I have worked very hard throughout my professional life to surmount the many obstacles that come with being a Chinese journalist. Today, I’ve exhausted all options and find myself cornered.

[…] In the U.S., I witnessed the impacts of policy decisions made during a series of confrontations with China, including the trade war, technological contest, and the COVID-19 pandemic. In documenting the policy changes and explaining their implications to Chinese readers back home, my reporting demonstrated its value with accurate and balanced writing at a time when misinformation inside China is rampant.

From Zhang Yan, U.S. correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Initium Media:

Upon convincing my colleagues of the value of covering China from the outside, my company agreed to relocate me from China to Washington, D.C. I immediately dove headfirst into reporting on the pandemic, the FBI’s investigation on Chinese scientists, phase one of the trade deal, Liu Qiangdong’s lawsuit, TikTok’s expansion, and finally, the U.S.-China media spat. I acquired stacks of documents through the Freedom of Information Act and spent my free time digging into their details.

These stories offered a rare window into how the U.S. interacts with its greatest competitor and proved extremely popular among our readers. I hoped that I would have all the time in the world to tell more stories like these, but now I can no longer be optimistic.

And from Mia Li, a former New York Times news assistant and now a researcher Yale Law School:

COVID-19, the U.S.-China trade war, and tech decoupling are only three of numerous reasons why now is not the time to ban Chinese journalists from providing much-needed information and extensive source networks to media outlets in America. The global audience needs knowledge and expertise on China’s public health, trade, finance, and technology now more than ever. If the goal is to safeguard press freedom, this move only diminishes it. If the goal is to improve the quality of news, this move only deteriorates it. If the goal is to eliminate propaganda, this only hands Beijing a bigger and better talent pool to choose from.

[…] Beijing has barred Chinese citizens from working for foreign news outlets in China for decades — a deliberate effort to keep the Western press from gaining meaningful access. It is astonishing to see the U.S. helping Beijing achieve that very goal while undermining its own values and soft power. [Source]

In their Neican newsletter, Yun Jiang and Adam Ni argued:

As we wrote previously on this media tit-for-tat:

Reciprocity may not be an effective means to achieve an outcome. If the aim of the US Government is to increase press freedom in China, it is unclear how placing restrictions on Chinese journalists in the US would achieve that. It can only work if China deeply cares about these Chinese journalists enough that it would reverse its course. That appears unlikely.

The latest restrictions will affect the lives of Chinese journalists, including those working for independent media or non-Chinese media. Their work will be uncertain — and with a 90-day visa, should they move their families to the US? This also discourages media outlets, especially non-Chinese media outlets, from hiring Chinese journalists.

It will also adversely affect newsroom diversity in the US, and ultimately be detrimental to press freedom. This media war is a lose-lose situation for both Chinese journalists and press freedom in the US.

But it is a win-win for Trump and Xi administrations. After all, they share an apathy for independent journalism. [Source]

Numerous others have also commented on Twitter:

Suspicion of Chinese media and ethnically Chinese reporters has been evident in ’s more broadly fractious relationship with the press. On Tuesday, Trump responded to a question from CBS reporter and American citizen Weijia Zhang, about his own framing of pandemic response as a global competition, with “don’t ask me, ask China that question, OK?” He then refused to explain his response, or to take a question from another reporter he had called on, and abruptly walked out of the briefing. Trump has previously challenged other ethnically Chinese reporters over their affiliations or origins. At The Diplomat, Chauncey Jung highlighted one of these cases as an example of the new visa rules’ errant targeting:

Earlier, President Donald Trump got into an exchange with reporter Chang Ching-Yi, who works for a Chinese state-controlled corporation, Shanghai Media group. When Trump asked for Chang’s media affiliation, however, Chang noted that he is from Taiwan. [Trump’s actual question was simply “Where are you from?”] In response to the incident, Trump tweeted “Cut him off now!” while retweeting a post that called for Chang to “be arrested and deported.” But under the administration’s latest policy changes, Chang’s status will not be impacted. Chang was born in Taiwan, and he holds a passport from the Republic of China instead of a People’s Republic of China passport, which the DHS is targeting. Despite working for a Chinese state media outlet, Chang’s visa status will not be subject to more frequent reviews because of his nationality.

[…] If the intent was to crack down on Chinese state-owned media operations in the United States, the nationality-based policy clearly did not hit its intended targets. Rather, it will damage the quality of work for many other reputable media outlets that heavily rely on frontline reporters for news stories.

[…] When it comes to spreading its propaganda, China does not necessarily require reporters to be on the ground. From engaging with YouTube influencers to simply translating stories from local U.S. outlets, China is also utilizing other media outlets in its information war. Chinese state media can easily hire American citizens to work in the United States; more simply, state media outlets can simply translate stories from American media to compile propaganda material for domestic and foreign audiences. [Source]

In a column last month, The New York Times’ Ben Smith similarly noted that “a Chinese journalist in Washington told me that China Global Television Network already has a plan to replace the staff it sent home: They’ll hire some American journalists on contract to help with the propaganda broadcasts. In this job market, they probably won’t be hard to find.” The job market has only deteriorated with successive rounds of layoffs by media organizations facing collapsing ad revenues. The American organizations hit by Chinese retaliation have no equivalent workarounds.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, promised further “countermeasures” if the new rules take effect:

Reuters: The US Department of Homeland Security issued new guidelines, restricting visas for Chinese-origin journalists to 90 days with possibility for extension. What’s China’s response to this move and is China planning any retaliation?

Zhao Lijian: We deplore and reject the erroneous move by the US side, which is an escalation of its political suppression of Chinese media. For a while, the US, entrenched in the Cold War mentality and ideological bias, launched one round of suppression after another against Chinese media. In December 2018, it demanded a Chinese media organization’s US office to register as “foreign agent”. More than 20 Chinese journalists’ visa applications have been denied without cause since 2018. In February 2020, the US designated five Chinese media organizations in the US as “foreign missions” and then placed a cap on the number of their staff, in effect expelling 60 Chinese journalists. Now it is resorting to discriminatory restrictive visa measures, severely disrupting Chinese media’s normal reporting in the US and affecting bilateral people-to-people and cultural exchange.

The US keeps talking about reciprocity. However, most American journalists in China are issued press cards and residence permits with one-year validity. In contrast, under the new rule issued by the US, Chinese reporters can only get visas allowing a stay of not more than 90 days. Is there any reciprocity in this? The US prides itself on press freedom and media transparency, but why is it so afraid of Chinese media’s reports?

The very nature of the reciprocity the US is claiming is prejudice, discrimination and intolerance towards Chinese media. It has been using this so-called “reciprocity” as an excuse to escalate political suppression against Chinese media. This will severely affect Chinese media’s normal coverage in the US. We urge the US to immediately correct its mistake. Otherwise, China will have to take countermeasures. [Source]

The state-own tabloid Global Times, which represents the same belligerent strain of external messaging as Zhao Lijian, though with less authority, has reported twice this week on potential retaliation against litigation over the COVID-19 pandemic and a proposed ban on chip sales to Huawei, including quotes in each case that American antagonists must be made to “feel the pain.”

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