Vice-president Joe Biden’s recent trip to Beijing focused a spotlight on the Chinese government’s often heavy-handed treatment of Western journalists, while raising questions about how the U.S. administration could and should respond.
Chinese restrictions on Western media reporting are nothing new. What is new is that much of the reporting has gotten sharper, more critical and — crucially– directed more personally at the Chinese leaders and their family members, and the various ways they have used their elite positions to amass vast fortunes.
And what also seems new this time is the government’s response. In the past, the Chinese government has responded to what it perceived as “negative” reporting by going after individual reporters — threatening not to renew their residency visas to work China, or in extreme cases kicking them out of the country and blacklisting them. And the same has happened to academics deemed “unfriendly” or “negative” to China.
But this time, in what seems like a break from the past pattern, Chinese authorities are threatening to withhold visas from all reporters from the bureaus of The New York Times and Bloomberg, both of which have run stories revealing the extent of the corruption at the top levels. That would involve two dozen reporters who theoretically could be forced out.
It should be said at the outset; this could just be a threat, and the visas could all be renewed — and I hope they will be. We won’t know until near the end of December, when most foreign reporters’ visas expire. The renewals typically come sometime in mid-to-late December, and are good for a new calendar year. And the waiting period is often a time of anxiety, sometimes disrupting Christmas and New Years’ travel plans; you don’t want to leave the country until your visa to return is granted, but you must leave when the existing one expires.
If the Chinese do decide to withhold visas from reporters for The Times and Bloomberg, it would mark a dramatic escalation. In the past, Chinese officials often seemed to make a distinction between individual reporters they deemed troublesome, and the news organizations for which they worked. That appeared to be the case for The Washington Post, where for three years, from 2010 until early in 2013, I was acting as Bureau Chief in Beijing when our designated Bureau Chief, Andrew Higgins, was repeatedly refused a visa since being named to the job in 2009. There’s nothing against the Post, we want the Post here, I was repeatedly told. “Just send us another correspondent.”
Of course, there were huge exceptions to that rule of blaming the reporter, not the organization. Once, after being told I would be among a select group of foreign reporters to go on a rare foreign ministry trip to Tibet, I was called at the last minute and abruptly told that there were no longer any more seats available. The real reason, they let me know, was that they were upset about another story, by a Washington-based Post reporter who had been in China only temporarily, that looked at the roots of recent ethnic rioting between Han Chinese and Muslim Uighers in the restive province of Xinjiang. I protested that I didn’t write that story, and in fact had nothing to do with that story. “But you are the responsible person for The Washington Post,” I was told.
In May, 2012, I wrote about how China expelled American Melissa Chan, the correspondent for Al-Jazeera English (AJE), in the first expulsion of a foreign reporter in 14 years. The tightening of controls on foreign reporters really began in earnest one year earlier, at the beginning of 2011 with the Arab Spring uprisings, when Chinese leaders were concerned about similar, copycat unrest in China. I, like all the other Bureau Chiefs at the time, had been called into the police station in Beijing and warned against covering a murkily planned “demonstration” in Beijing, which never materialized partly due to a heavy police presence.
What we all wondered when Melissa Chan was expelled a year later was whether that was a warning shot to all of us that the rules were changing, and that the authorities were now willing to take more heavy handed measures to rein in the Western press.
But that was also a period in which the reporting about the inner-workings of China’s system became more penetrating than ever. The Chongqing party boss, Bo Xilai, in 2012 was dismissed from his posts and arrested, along with his wife, for corruption and complicity in the murder of a British businessman, and details of Bo’s corruption and abuses of power regularly found their way into hard-hitting front page stories in The Wall Street Journal. The Times that year ran a deeply-researched and meticulously documented investigative piece detailing the billions of dollars in wealth amassed by the family members of China’s then-prime minister, Wen Jiabao, a story which won its author, David Barboza, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting. And Bloomberg in June 2012 ran a piece looking at the financial connections of the family members of China’s new president, Xi Jinping.
The Bo Xilai stories appear not to have caused a problem for the Journal, probably because Bo was already disgraced; the stories, in fact, only helped build a narrative that Bo was corrupt and out of control. The stories about Wen and Xi touched a nerve, exposing, as they did, sitting powerful leaders and their family members. The backlash against The Times and Bloomberg appears to be a direct response to those stories — and a warning to other Western reporters that there is a line not to be crossed.
Does the warning work? Of course it does, to an extent — and more so for some China-based correspondents than others. Specifically, there are many reporters who have invested years of their lives learning to read and write China’s difficult language, and for them, getting kicked out of the country and blacklisted would be far more painful than, say, for another correspondent who has no particular China expertise and could easily be assigned elsewhere if expelled. Not being a China “expert” or specialist in some ways imparts a bit more freedom when writing, I have always maintained.
And many China reporters, like academics specializing China, learn adopt the standard Chinese-use vernacular and phraseology when writing about China. (James Mann, in his excellent little book The China Fantasy, sums up this peculiar lexicon). For example, we refer to the Taiwan issue as “cross-Straits relations” and avoid the use of “Taiwan independence.” When we write about the Dalai Lama, we add, “whom China considers a criminal.” In many particularly hard-hitting stories about the Communist Party, reporters often include phrases like “while the Party is credited with lifting millions out of poverty….” in a bow to the Chinese official view of recent history and its accomplishments. We write about the national legislature as if it is a real legislating body, when it’s in fact a rubber stamp. We write about village “elections,” when in fact we know the results will almost always be rigged. We avoid inconvenient phrases like “torture,” which is what happens in Chinese jails. Most reporters still write tough stories about China. But they also learn how to do it with subtlety.
I used to cover Africa for The Washington Post. If an African regime were run by an outdated, secretive and thoroughly corrupt Marxist-Leninist dictatorship that regularly arrested and tortured dissidents, made human rights activists “disappear” into secret jails, restricted the rights of people to worship freely, restricted the Pope from naming his own bishops, and where local developers in league with corrupt officials regularly stole land from poor villagers and demolished their homes, I am certain we would call them out forcefully in our stories. But in China, where we are concerned with being there on the ground to report, and where part of the story is China’s growing global economic clout, yes, sometimes we learn to pull our punches.
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.