NEW YORK –- When Vice President Joe Biden recently addressed China’s crackdown on foreign press and the government’s refusal to renew journalists’ visas, he turned the spotlight on a challenge that news organizations have traditionally dealt with behind closed doors.
Biden made the administration's views public during his speech last Thursday morning at the St. Regis Beijing hotel and later met privately with roughly 10 Beijing-based journalists at the hotel’s Press Club Bar, a small gathering first reported by The New York Times. A source present told HuffPost that the issue of reciprocity -- or the U.S. refusing visa requests for Chinese journalists in response to China's actions -- was discussed during the off-the-record meeting.
It's not clear if the U.S., a country that prides itself on having a free press, would resort to blocking Chinese journalists. But some journalists and China-watchers suggest that such a measure should be considered if the Chinese government prevents American news organizations from covering the country, a problem compounded by U.S. newspaper sites getting blocked and journalists self-censoring coverage of the Chinese government for fear of reprisal.
On Monday, The Washington Post editorial board called for a U.S. response to China's "strong-arm tactics" with the media.
“Chinese journalists get an open door to the United States,” the Post editors wrote. "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."
News organizations have typically opted to use back channels when dealing with visa issues in China, a country that heavily censors its own media. For instance, instead of editorializing when China refused to grant a visa to a correspondent in 2010, The Washington Post enlisted Henry Kissinger to make its case. It didn't work.
The visa problem for news organizations in China has only become more widespread since then, with dozens of journalists -- and their families -- in limbo.
The New York Times employs nine journalists currently in China on visas, all of which are set to expire by the end of the year, the first on Dec. 18. Three other Times journalists are waiting for visas. Bloomberg News reportedly employs around a dozen journalists whose visas are set to expire in the coming weeks as well.
CENSORSHIP AND SELF-CENSORSHIP
The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos raised the reciprocity issue in January, after U.S. news organizations like The Times, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News published hard-hitting stories on wealth and power in China that rankled the authoritarian government.
Such “scrutiny of China’s politicians to a level of forensic detail,” he wrote, has “rarely, if ever, seen in foreign correspondence.” The Chinese government responded to the critical coverage by blocking the Times and Bloomberg websites, declining some visa requests, and expelling Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan -- making her the first journalist kicked out of the country in 13 years.
And the tension has only grown in recent weeks. The Times revealed last month that Bloomberg News spiked –- or as its top editor contends, held –- an investigative story that could have angered the Chinese government and potentially hurt the company’s business. Bloomberg wouldn't be alone in being wary of antagonizing the Chinese government. The New Republic described on Monday how the "story of self-censorship in China is a quieter tale of unwritten articles, avoided topics and careful phrasing."
Osnos, who recently returned to the U.S. after eight years reporting in China, told HuffPost that “in the China-watching crowd, opinion is split over the idea of retaliating on visas for Chinese journalists.”
“Personally, I stop short of wanting to cut down the number of visas for Chinese journalists because, in the end, the U.S. should keep the moral high ground," Osnos said. "At the same time, this issue will not get resolved by itself, so I would not be surprised if the U.S. takes less overt steps to try to bring about a solution.”
The issue has gotten attention before on Capitol Hill. In 2011, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) introduced the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, which would establish “a reciprocal relationship between the number of visas issued to state-controlled media workers in China and in the United States.” Rohrabacher suggested earlier this year in Foreign Policy that while many Chinese journalists are legitimate news-gatherers, others are likely to be intelligence officers working on behalf of the government.
In a statement to HuffPost, Rohrabacher said, "these Chinese reporters are agents of influence sent by China to propagate the Communist Party’s version of the news here in the US."
"Chinese state controlled media in the US is not censored or blocked, but China jams Voice of America and Radio Free Asia broadcasts and blocks their websites,” he continued. "The CCP’s history of suppressing the free flow of information is part of a larger Chinese strategy of distorting the world’s knowledge of its geopolitical ambitions, recently made so disturbingly evident in its unilateral declaration of 'Air Defense Identification Zone' over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Legislation combating Chinese exploitation of communication channels is vital to protect the interests and security of America."
GETTING THE MESSAGE TO BEIJING
The State Department did not comment specifically on whether the U.S. government would consider retaliating by holding up Chinese journalists' visas, but a spokeswoman broadly addressed the administration's concerns in a statement.
"We are deeply concerned that foreign journalists in China face restrictions that impede their ability to do their jobs, including extended delays in processing journalist visas, restrictions on access to 'sensitive' locations and individuals, pressure on their local staff, blocked websites and reports of cyber hacking of media organizations," said the spokeswoman, Marie Harf. "We call upon the Chinese authorities to respect media and academic freedoms. Chinese and foreign journalists and academics should be allowed to operate freely in China.
"We have raised our concerns about the treatment of journalists and media organizations repeatedly and at the highest levels with the Chinese government, and will continue to do so," she added. "The Vice President raised this issue in his official meetings and also stressed in his public remarks in Beijing the importance of newspapers being able to report the truth without fear of consequences."
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to discuss details of Biden's meeting with journalists and reiterated the viewpoint expressed by the State Department. She added that the administration supports "free and enhanced people-to-people exchanges between our two nations, including between scholars."
China-watchers have recently been debating the issue of reciprocity on sites like ChinaFile and in The Nelson Report, a foreign policy newsletter focused on Asia. Winston Lord, a former U.S. Ambassador to China and Assistant Secretary of State, wrote on ChinaFile that if Biden’s efforts to convince China’s leaders to change tactics fail, then “it is long past time to retaliate.”
“I am in no position to know which specific steps would be most appropriate and effective,” Lord wrote. “Two areas come to mind, however: our own visa policy and our treatment of Chinese media in the U.S.”
Lord suggested delaying or withholding visas for Chinese media executives, rather than lower-lever Chinese journalists, as a way to get the point across to the country’s leaders.
Reuters reporter Paul Mooney, who was denied a Chinese visa last month, wrote on ChinaFile that he’s “not in favor of limiting the freedom of expression of Chinese journalists in the United States, but if the U.S. State Department also delayed the approvals of visas for Chinese journalists and media executives trying to work in the United States, there’s no doubt in my mind that Beijing would soon get the message, and that Beijing’s unacceptable behavior would stop.”
“We stand up for free trade, but take reciprocal action regarding trade issues,” Mooney added. “Why not do this with the media as well?”
And foreign affairs journalist-turned-consultant Chris Nelson continued the conversation Monday in his newsletter, writing that while “Biden did his best to raise the issue, until State and the White House grasp operationally that if being open to the press is a principle, so, too is ‘reciprocity’ a principle.”
“So if reciprocity isn't somehow enforced on China,” Nelson wrote, “talk about the principle of a free press [is] just that. Talk.”