Posts tagged: Andrew Higgins

The Widening Gyre: The Changed Power Dynamics of Journalists Visas

By , December 23, 2013
Former WashPo Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli

Former WashPo Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli

After publishing an article concerning the Washington Post‘s 2010 decision to pull author Peter Manseau’s 8,000 word magazine piece on Washington D.C.’s  Falun Gong  community, the Post‘s former executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, returned China Law & Policy‘s call. Brauchli, executive editor in 2010, denied insinuations of self-censorship: “The Washington Post did not nor would it ever have killed a piece of journalism because of concerns about getting visas for its reporters.  The Post made its [publication] decision, and as far as I know always makes its decisions, based on journalistic merit” Brauchli said.

But Brauchli, with decades of experience reporting from China, was far from ignorant of the China visa issues.  As of last Thursday, many but not all of the New York Times and Bloomberg China correspondents received press cards from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, enabling them to apply for their renewed visas with the Public Security Bureau.  But that does not mean the crisis is over.  As Brauchli noted to China Law & Policy, Beijing’s current approach to journalists’ visas appears to be a much more organized effort compared to the past.  Quite a number of individuals share Brauchli’s feelings, with many believing thatafter 2008, the Chinese government has been more inclined to use the journalist visa renewal or visa application process to intimidate and possibly censor foreign journalists.

But are these feelings accurate?  Even if the Times and Bloomberg journalists’ visas are renewed with full year ones – not the month to sixth month temporary journalist visas given to Paul Mooney and Melissa Chan before they were effectively barred from China – Beijing will probably continue its approach. It came fairly close to shutting down the China offices of two major news organizations.  As a result, it is imperative that the changed dynamics – both in U.S. newsrooms and in China – are understood.

Things Fall Apart: The John Pomfret, Ian Johnson & Andrew Higgins Visa Experiences

John Pomfret is perhaps the most famous American journalist to be expelled from China.  As a 30-year-old Beijing correspondent for the

John Pomfret reporting from Tiananmen during the 1989 protests

John Pomfret reporting from Tiananmen during the 1989 protests

Associated Press, Pomfret found himself in the middle of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, protests that would bring as many as a hundred thousand people to the Square, that would shake the Chinese Communist Party to its core and that would culminate in the massacre of hundreds on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4.

Ten days after the crackdown, Pomfret was  expelled from China.  The Chinese government accused him – along with Voice of America correspondent Al Pessin who also was expelled –  of stealing state secrets and violating martial law.

Pomfret’s journalist career would take him to other places and other crises, but eventually it would come back in China.  As Pomfret recounts in his book, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, in 1997, the Washington Post, his employer at the time, sought to elevate him to Beijing Bureau chief.  But the Chinese government had not forgotten his coverage of Tiananmen eight years earlier; the Chinese Embassy told the Washington Post: “please try another name.”

Pomfret would be approved for a journalist visa but not without great effort on the part of the Washington Post.  Fortunately for Pomfret, Katharine Graham, head of the Washington Post at the time and a powerful force in her own right, got involved.  She invited the Chinese ambassador to tea and made sure that her friend Henry Kissinger mentioned Pomfret’s case to the Vice Premier Qian Qichen.  Additionally, according to a source close to the Washington Post, managing editor Bob Kaiser and Beijing Bureau chief Steve Mufson raised Pomfret’s visa directly with then President Jiang Zemin in an off-the-record conversation during their October 1997 interview.  As he recounts in Chinese Lessons, Pomfret himself decided to write a “self-examination” about his prior attitude in response to a Chinese government official’s request that Pomfret write a letter applying for the Washington Post position.  On Christmas Eve 1997, Pomfret received word that his visa was approved.  Since then, Pomfret has never had a visa problem.

Journalist Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson

If Tiananmen was Pomfret’s roadblock to China, Falun Gong was Ian Johnson’s.  Between 1997 and 2001, Johnson was one of the Wall Street Journal‘s China correspondents.  Like Pomfret, he was covering China during a major crackdown, this time on a burgeoning spiritual group that was able to amass tens of millions of followers in less than ten years: Falun Gong.

In the beginning, Falun Gong, which uses traditional qigong exercises and draws upon the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism, was ambiguously tolerated by the Chinese government.  But on April 25, 1999, in response to a negative article published in a state-run magazine, an estimated 10,000 Falun Gong followers conducted a day-long silent meditation protest outside the Chinese government headquarters.  As Johnson recounts in his book, Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China, the fact that one group could amass so many people in one place without the State Security knowing, horrified the leadership.  Falun Gong – now perceived as a threat to its rule – would no longer be tolerated.  In July 1999, Beijing banned Falun Gong and began a violent crackdown against members of the group.  As Johnson recounted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the crackdown for the Wall Street Journal and later in Wild Grass, Beijing permitted the crackdown to be enforced by all means necessary, even if that meant that many would die, a fact that Johnson recounted in his reports.

In 2001, Johnson left China to cover Europe for the Wall Street Journal.  But in 2007, the Journal sought to bring him back to China. Again, prior China coverage would prove problematic in obtaining a visa and would require the powerful resources of his news agency. According to an individual who had been involved in the matter, the Chinese government initially told the Journal that Johnson would never get back into China.  But as this source told China Law & Policy, the Journal began its lobbying in earnest with senior editors meeting with the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. and eventually Rupert Murdoch raising the issue directly with the Chinese government in Beijing.  Johnson also had to write a self-criticism.  But by 2008, right around the time Beijing was to host the Olympics, Johnson’s journalist visa was informally approved and was issued in early 2009 according to the source involved in the matter.

But less than a year later, Andrew Higgins’ attempt to obtain a journalist visa would end with a different outcome.  In 2009, the Washington

A group of nationalist Inner Mongolians protest in front of the Chinese Embassy, seeking the release of a Mongolian activist.

A group of nationalist Inner Mongolians protest in front of the Chinese Embassy, seeking the release of a Mongolian activist.

Post hired Higgins ostensibly as its Beijing Bureau chief and again the Post would need to lobby to get their chief into China as prior reporting had put Higgins on a blacklist. In 1991, Higgins was a Beijing correspondent to the British Independent newspaper, covering the Chinese government’s secret crackdown against ethnic Mongolian intellectuals in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.  According to a Human Rights Watch report, after being found in possession of a top secret Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document that ordered the harsh crackdown(a.k.a. Document 13), Higgins was expelled from China.

This time the Post was not able to overcome Higgins’ past.  According to a source involved in the Higgins negotiations, the Post raised Higgins’ visa issue in every high-level meeting with  Chinese officials, including the Chinese Ambassador; then executive editor Marcus Brauchli and publisher Katharine Weymouth went to Beijing to meet with China’s foreign minister about Higgins visa; and Don Graham, head of the Post at the time reached out to influential Americans, including Henry Kissinger, to assist with getting Higgins a visa.  But the Post‘s efforts failed.  Unable to obtain a residential journalist visa to China, in 2012, Higgins left the Post to cover Europe for the New York Times.

Since the Higgins’ incident, at least two other journalists – Paul Mooney and Melissa Chan – have been effectively denied journalist visa and many others, including Philip Pan and Chris Buckley, both of the New York Times, have been waiting more than a year for their visa request to be approved.

The Center Cannot Hold:  China’s Visa Policy Demonstrates its Continued Insecurity

Was Higgins the harbinger of China’s changed and harsher foreign journalist policy?  Another source familiar with the Higgins’ negotiations did question the strategy of the Post, noting that there were certain missed opportunities, that the Post did not bring in top people, like a Katherine Graham or a Rupert Murdoch, to close the deal, and Higgins’ alleged crime – being found in possession of top secret CCP documents – was inherently harder to overcome than Pomfret or Johnson’s issues.  But the source did tell China Law & Policy that the Higgins’ debacle reflected a China taking a harder line against foreign journalists.

Jim Sciutto, Former Chief of Staff to Amb. Gary Locke

Jim Sciutto, Former Chief of Staff to Amb. Gary Locke

Some, such as Jim Sciutto, former chief of staff to Ambassador Gary Locke, have argued that the Chinese government’s current attempts to censor foreign journalists through the visa process reflect a “more confident Chinese government.” Certainly, in 1997, when the Washington Post was seeking Pomfret’s visa, China was desperate to be in the good graces of the U.S. government as it anxiously awaited WTO entry.  In 2008, when the Wall Street Journal sought to get Johnson back, China was attempting to pull off its first Olympic games with as little criticism as possible.  But Higgins visa application came after these events, when China has made it through the 2008 economic crash and in 2010, surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.

But the type of reporting the Chinese government is currently trying to suppress does not reflect a Chinese Communist Party secure in its rule; instead, it demonstrates a government cognizant of the fact that its power is more vulnerable now than ever before.

The Chinese government’s current targets are the New York Times and Bloomberg, two news agencies that wrote hard-hitting articles exposing the corruption at the highest levels of the Chinese government and the CCP.   According to one source that China Law & Policy spoke to, these articles represent more of threat to the CCP’s legitimacy than Tiananmen, Falun Gong or any other taboo topic.  Tiananmen, Falun Gong, and Tibet are not issues that are necessarily on the minds of every Chinese person.  But corruption is.  If the media, even the foreign media, is able to prove that the Chinese leaders are corrupt, these allegations go to the very core of the government’s authority.

For the leaders of China, this threat is not theoretical.  In a September 2013 People’s Daily editorial, Li Congjun, the head of the state-run Xinhua News Agency, used particularly harsh language to  lambast the foreign press.  Referring to certain unnamed foreign media outlets as “hostile i_will_crush_you_loldog_elephant_ears_pajama_pals_pet_costumeforces,” Li went on to criticize these outlets for smearing the CCP and China with made up stories which further weakens China’s interests and national standing.

In the introduction to his 2004 book Wild Grass, Johnson described the Chinese government’s message to current threats to its rule as “we are nervous, possibly even weak, but do not meddle; we can still crush you.”  In 2004, that message was for Falun Gong practitioners.  Today the message is still the same, but this time it is for foreign media companies and their reporters.

The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer: The Weakened State of US Media Companies

The Chinese government may be weak, but as its threats to the New York Times and Bloomberg demonstrates, it may very well still have the power to crush.  In elaborating on allegations of self-censorship, Brauchli was adamant that such a thing would not happen.  “Our credibility has always rested heavily upon the depth, quality and accuracy of our reports.  Any type of self-censorship could have impaired our success as a journalistic enterprise.”

This is likely true on the journalist side of the enterprise, but as news agencies find it harder and harder to turn a profit, at what point is the business side able to unduly influence editorial decisions.   Two weeks ago, Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, reported that with its Chinese website blocked, the Times had $3 million in lost revenue (the Times2012 revenue was $2.32 billion).  Similarly, Bloomberg News’ parent company, Bloomberg L.P., makes 85% of its profit through the sale of its stock-trading Bloomberg terminals.  With only 3,000 terminals throughout China, the market is undersaturated (compared with 10,000 terminals in Hong Kong and 100,000 in the United States).  Finally, even the Washington Post appears to rely on China for revenue.  Since 2010, the China Daily has paid for “China Watch” to the supplement section of the Post‘s website.

As Evan Osonos, former New Yorker China correspondent pointed out at some point business considerations must come into play: “the prospect of taking an expensive stand against a foreign state is unappealing, especially when it might mean giving up their dreams for future growth in China.”

Max Baucus, will be dealing with more than just  trade as new Ambassador to China

Max Baucus, will be dealing with more than just trade as new Ambassador to China

The Higgins visa incident and subsequent incidents might indicate more than just a scared China; it might also represent news agencies no longer powerful enough to fight on their own for the principle of freedom of the press.  As a result, even if the immediate crisis with the Times and Bloomberg journalists pass, there is still a pressing need for the U.S. government to remain vocal on this issue especially as it seeks to bring a new ambassador to China.

Xi-Obama Agenda: Time to Talk Press Freedom?

Sunnylands’ golf course – will this lady be President Xi’s caddy?

President Obama and China’s new president, Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin-ping) have much to discuss in their two days of informal meetings scheduled to begin Friday in Sunnylands, California.  Economic ties, cyber-espionage, North Korea, the United States’ “pivot” to Asia, will all likely be on the agenda.

One small critical item that needs to be on that agenda: China’s increasingly hostile treatment of foreign journalists, especially those foreign journalists whose stories the Chinese government does not like.

Freedom of the press is limited for the Chinese domestic media.  The Chinese government still supports certain state-run media outlets which serve as its mouthpiece and even the independent, commercial media is subject to censorship, including daily instructions on what not to report.  It likely comes as a shock to the Chinese government that it cannot control the foreign press in quite the same way.

But that doesn’t mean it does not try.  Over the past year, in response to critical articles and coverage, the Chinese government has attempted to censor the press with something that many fear most: a denial of a journalist visa during the annual renewal period or a visa renewal that is conveniently not processed.  In 2012 alone, four journalists, Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan, the Washington Post’s Andrew Higgins, the New York Times’ Philip Pan and also Chris Buckley, have either been forced to leave China or not allowed to enter because of visa issues.

Buckley’s visa problems are likely attributable to his colleague, David Barboza’s hard-hitting series on the then Vice Premier Wen Jiabao’s family’s inordinate amounts of wealth.  Although Barboza’s visa was renewed, when Buckley’s visa expired on December 31, 2012, even though he put in for a renewal months prior, the Chinese government was still processing his paper work.  Without a valid visa, Buckley and his family were forced to leave China.  As of today – six months later – Buckley is still reporting from Hong Kong and waiting on his visa.

China’s visa vendetta diplomacy may seem minor but it doesn’t have to stay that way.  Right now, the Chinese government has decided to deal with recalcitrant foreign journalists by not renewing their visas or in some cases toying with their visas (in a 2012 survey, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China found that a third of its members surveyed stated that they had difficulty renewing visas.  The majority of those journalists believed – or in some cases were told – that their difficulty was a result of specific reporting).

But each one of these reporters are also subject to Chinese law, including Chinese criminal law.  Articles 102 to 112 of the Criminal Law criminalize behavior that is a threat to national security.  In particular, Articles 105 and 111 are commonly used to censor dissent and carry prison terms of 3 years, 5 years, 10, life or death depending on the severity of the circumstances.

  •             Article 105: “Whoever instigates the subversion of the political power of the state and overthrow the socialist system through spreading rumors, slandering, or other ways….”
  •             Article 111: “Whoever steals, secretly gathers, purchases, or illegally provides state secrets or intelligence for an organization, institution, or personnel outside the country….”

Article 4 of the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists (“Regulations”) makes clear that foreign journalists are subject to China’s laws, including its criminal law.  Although the Regulations were amended in 2008 to take out specific prohibitions against endangering China’s national security and using foul means to carry out news coverage (see Article 14 of the earlier regulations here), the fact that these provisions were deleted does not shield foreign journalists from those provisions of the Criminal Law dealing with the same issues – Articles 105 and 111.

As the cases against Stern Hu – a naturalized Australian business man and Rio Tinto executive – and Xue Feng – a naturalized U.S. citizen and geologist – demonstrate, China will bring criminal charges against foreign citizens. Hu, whose case began as a “state secrets” case, was given 10 years; Xue was given 8 years in his “state secrets” case.

So far, the Obama administration has remained publicly silent about China’s attempted censorship – through the visa process – of American journalists and American media companies.  Hopefully there is behind the scenes discussions about this issue and that it will be discussed during the next two days.

If the issue is not raised and highlighted as a priority, that silence will come with a price.  As foreign journalists continue to write hard-hitting exposes on China, the Chinese government will begin to realize that its visa vendetta diplomacy has not had the intended effect and might resort to another tool in its tool box against foreign journalists – China’s vague and expansive “endangering national security” provisions of its Criminal Law.

Vendetta as Diplomacy – China Fails to Renew NY Times Reporter’s Visa

By , January 2, 2013

While I like the Godfather movies as much as the next person, it’s always strange when personal vendettas make it onto the world stage.  But that is what appears to have happened on Monday when the Chinese government failed to renew New York Times reporter, Chris Buckley’s journalist visa before it expired on December 31, 2012.

Although the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains mum* as to the precise reason why it failed to renew Buckley’s visa – which he had been attempting to renew since October – most in the Western media suspect that it is pay back for the New York Times’ series on the enormous sums of wealth and key investments acquired by Premier Wen Jiabao’s family.

In China Wen is very much known as a man of the people – his mother was a teacher and his father a pig farmer and as a result, the people actually like him.  Unlike the other aloof leaders who rarely if ever smile for the cameras, the Chinese people feel a bond with “Grandpa Wen.”  During public crises – natural disasters, train wrecks –  Wen is the man the government sends to relate, and more importantly, to calm an angry public.  In many ways, Wen’s image is important to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

But on October 25, 2012, the New York Times questioned the veracity of that image.  David Barboza, the Times’ Shanghai bureau chief, reported

How can you not love this guy??? Premier Wen Jiabao

that since emerging on the national stage in 1998, Wen’s humble roots fell by the wayside,  at least in terms of his family’s myriad books of business.  While none of the wealth is directly held by Wen, Barboza detailed the estimated $2.7 billion held by members of Wen’s immediate family.

The Chinese government did not take kindly to the article, blocking the New York Times website (which almost three months later remains blocked) and stating that Barboza’s article “smears China and has ulterior motives.”

A month later – on November 24, 2012 – the Times published Barboza’s second damming article on Wen.  The piece documented and insinuated Wen’s role in preventing the legally-mandated break-up of one of his family’s key holdings – Ping An Insurance.   Evidently, the Times did not heed the Chinese government’s rather public warnings.  Is the failure to renew Buckley’s journalist visa payback?

This would not be the first time the Chinese government has used the visa process to punish foreign journalist.  In the past year, visa renewal troubles have become an increasing problem for foreign reporters in China.  In July, China Law & Policy ran a three-part series on this problem (Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here), noting that in 2012 a third of members surveyed by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China had difficulty renewing visas.  The majority of those journalists believed – or in some cases were told – that their difficulty was a result of specific reporting.

In May, Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Melissa Chan, who had covered many of China’s sensitive topics, was expelled from China after the government closed the Al Jazeera Beijing Bureau.  In September, Andrew Higgins, the Washington Post’s China chief who had been waiting in Hong Kong for accreditation from Beijing for the past three years, finally left his post and took a job covering Europe for the Times.  And since March 2012, Philip Pan, author of the amazing Out of Mao’s Shadow which details the growing inequalities in China, has been waiting for accreditation from Beijing.   If Higgins’ situation is a guide, Pan should not hold his breath.

Fortunately for the Western public, this attempted censorship has not hurt China coverage.  Hard-hitting stories are still being covered even with the continued visa harassment.

NY Times Reporter, Chris Buckley

But the question remains, will this get worse?  Four reporters in one year alone – Chan, Higgins, Pan and Buckley – have been permanently impacted by the Chinese government’s revengeful visa policies.  Will the Chinese step-up the use of this tool?  Will eventually all New York Times reporters find themselves in Buckley’s boat?

In a country like China, where the domestic media is controlled and censored by the government, the foreign press offers an alternative – and at times more real – perspective of what is happening in China.  This doesn’t just benefit the Western audience but also benefits the Chinese public.  The stories that foreign reporters cover are stories that the Chinese people want to tell and cannot currently tell their own press.

Additionally, given the increasing fluency in English of the Chinese youth, some of them are reading these articles.  On my last visit to China, a Chinese law school student lamented about the recent blocking of the New York Times website and his inability to know what is happening in China.

Finally, some of the exposés that are originally covered by the foreign media are eventually picked up by the Chinese press and produce change.  Melissa Chan filmed her report on China’s black jails in April 2009; in November 2009, a Chinese magazine ran a similar expose.  Last month, a court in Beijing heard a case brought by victims of black jails, signaling perhaps the Chinese government’s willingness to eliminate abusive black jails (in China courts will only hear cases pertaining to certain issues if the government or the Party permits it).

In the United States, the media has often been viewed as the fourth branch of government – the media provides an important level of transparency to our political system.  In a one-party authoritarian country, that transparency can only be provided by the foreign press.  The United States spends millions of dollars of “rule of law” and democracy projects in China.  But supporting the work of foreign correspondents in China, at least verbally, is equally as important a tool to achieve those goals.  As we noted in our July series, it is imperative that the U.S. government publicly address and admonish the Chinese government’s attempt to censor the foreign press through the visa renewal process.

U.S. government officials often lament that with China, there must be closed-door diplomacy; the Chinese take “face” very seriously.  But to the extent that the U.S. government has been conducting this type of diplomacy concerning foreign reporters in China, here’s a news flash – it’s not working.  Things are only getting worse for foreign reporters and as a result, for the Chinese public.  In Melissa Chan’s case, the State Department, through a press person, just said that it was “disappointed” with what happened.  If ever you wanted to give the Chinese government a signal to continue to harass foreign reporters, such a tepid response was likely it.  As a result, it’s vital that a high-up official at the State Department publicly comment on what is happening to Buckley, Pan and countless other foreign reporters in China.  It’s time the U.S. government to publicly articulate one of our key values – that a free press, here a free foreign press, is an important human rights issue.

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* On January 3, 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs broke its silence stating that Chris Buckley’s visa application is still under consideration.  See news report here.  Actually addressing this a good thing for sure, but there will be no step forward until Buckley’s visa is renewed and Philip Pan is finally accredited.  Pressure on the Chinese government should not stop just because of this statement.

The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and Censorship of Foreign Journalists in China

By , July 16, 2012

Part 2 in a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China
(For Part 1, click here)

Putting aside the shrill rhetoric surrounding the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and the fact that it only deals with the harassment of a small segment of U.S. journalists in China (the VOA and RFA reporters), the Act does draw attention to an increasingly problematic issue: the Chinese governments harassment of foreign journalists through the visa process.  It also raises the question: what should the U.S. government be doing about this harassment?

The Visa Renewal Process for Foreign Journalists – a Censoring Tool?

In the past two years, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”) has documented an increasing number of incidents where the Chinese government threatens not to renew a visa or  unnecessarily delays the visa renewal process.  In China, a journalist visa (“j-visa) is only for a year and must be renewed every December.  What should be a routine event has turned into an anxiety-ridden occasion.  In 2011, the FCCC started focusing on the difficulties some of its members experienced in renewing their visas.  A 2011 FCCC  survey reported that 27 foreign journalists waited four months for a visa renewal.  According to Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, the FCCC considers waiting more than three months for a visa for a permanent correspondent excessive (for a temporary correspondent the FCCC believes it should only be a 30 day wait).  Thirteen journalists waited six months for a visa; and for three, their visa applications have been pending since 2009.

For 2012, the numbers have only gotten worse.  In the FCCC’s  2012 survey, released on May 31, close to a third of all respondents (36 out of 111 respondents) reported difficulty with renewing their j-visas or obtaining visas for new colleagues.[1]  Furthermore, the FCCC’s 2012 survey found that 21 of these reporters were told or believed that their visa difficulties were a direct result of their China coverage, demonstrating the Chinese government’s attempt to censor foreign correspondents by threatening their j-visa.  Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, told China Law & Policy that he doesn’t think that these threats and the continued harassment has had a chilling effect on foreign reporters’ China coverage.

It’s true that great and hard-hitting stories still make their way to our shores and maybe we just haven’t hit that tipping point.  But if China increases its pressure on foreign journalists, at what point will they crack and soften their stories?  A loss of a visa, especially for freelance journalists, could easily mean a loss of one’s livelihood.

A Foreign Correspondent Expelled from China: Becoming More than Just a Visa Problem

This past May, the Chinese government took the bold step of kicking out a foreign journalist: Melissa Chan, a U.S. citizen and long-time Al Jazeera English correspondent in Beijing.  The reason for Chan’s expulsion from China?  We don’t know.  The Chinese government has elected not to share that information.  But most speculate that it was a result of the Chinese government’s displeasure with Al Jazeera’s documentary of Chinese forced labor camps, a documentary that Chan played no role in filming and it was produced out of Al Jazeera’s London bureau.  Likely though, Chan’s hard-hitting coverage of official corruption, government land grabs, black jails and other sensitive topics didn’t help her case.  Prior to her expulsion, Chan was already being harassed:  her visa was not renewed for another year, instead she was on three short-term visas, probably to keep her on a “tight leash.”

Al Jazeera English China correspondant, Melissa Chan (photo from Al Jazeera)

Is Chan’s treatment a bell weather for other reporters?  Soon after Chan’s departure, Ford, as then president-elect of the FCCC was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the body which, in conjunction with the Ministry of Public Security, oversees foreign  journalists) and was reassured that Chan’s case was “sui generis.” “I was assured by a Ministry official that Melissa’s case was specific to her and other correspondents had nothing to fear.”  But as Ford went on to muse, the official’s statement only provided so much solace to the remaining correspondents in China; as long as the Chinese government continues to be mum on those specifics and persists in using the visa process as a censorship tool, other foreign correspondents don’t know if they have crossed that line that Chan crossed until they actually cross it.

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, one reason to oppose the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is a belief in freedom of the press.  One would think that the U.S. government would have a particular interest in guaranteeing that journalists around the world – especially foreign journalists abroad – are left unharassed and are free to report their stories.  But the U.S.’ reaction to the expulsion of one of its citizens questions this commitment.  In a single press briefing, Department of State deputy spokesperson, Mark C. Toner, expressed the Department’s “disappointment:” “I would just say that we’re disappointed in the Chinese Government – in how the Chinese Government decided not to renew her accreditation.  To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China.”

True Chan was not working for a U.S. media organization and instead was working for Al Jazeera, and her expulsion came soon after the difficult negotiation on Chen Guangcheng, but regardless, one would think that the U.S. government, the stalwart of press freedom, would have been more than just “disappointed.”  Even if the U.S. government did not want to raise the issue of an Al Jazeera reporter, it could have used Chan’s expulsion to highlight the case of Andrew Higgins, one of the Washington Post’s China correspondent who since 2009 has been waiting for a j-visa to enter China.

If freedom of the press is so important, how can we just sit back and watch the Chinese government toy with and try to influence any U.S. reporter, even one working for private news outlets?  What can the U.S. do to try to change this situation in China?

To be concluded in Part 3


[1] The FCCC’s “2012 FCCC Correspondent Member Survey Highlights” is on file with China Law & Policy.  To obtain a copy, please email fcccadmin@gmail.com.

What is Wrong With the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act

Part 1 of a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the “Chinese Media Reciprocity Act” (H.R. 2899), a bill introduced last fall by Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California.   The Act attempts to combat China’s restrictive visa policies for U.S. government-employed journalists.  Instead of issuing journalist visas to most if not all Chinese journalists in the U.S., the Act would require that the number of visas issued to Chinese government journalists be identical to the number of visas that China issues to U.S. government reporters.

In reality, the impact of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is anything but reciprocal.  The U.S. has two government-sponsored news agencies in (or trying to get in) China: Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA); the remaining U.S. journalists in China work for private media outlets.  China on the other hand, with its state-owned media, has 13government-run agencies and over 800 media personnel working in the U.S.  If passed, within 30 days, the State Department would be required to revoke the number of visas issued to Chinese journalists to equal the number of visas issued to American government journalists in China which currently stands at 2.  The Act would all but eliminate a Chinese media presence in the U.S.

Given its extreme and inflexible nature, the Act shouldn’t be passed.  But it does highlight a truly important issue: the harassment, censorship and expulsion of foreign journalists from China and raises the issue of what the U.S government should do about it.

The Act has many problems.  First, it solely focuses on China, giving it the air of a Chinese Exclusion Act.  China is not the only country which denies foreign journalists visas – a quick review of the worst countries for journalists on Reporters Without Borders’ website reveals that Burma, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea similarly deny foreign journalists visas.  But this Act is exclusively about China.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher

Second, the rhetoric by the Act’s proponents leads one to believe that they are more motivated by a Cold War mentality than a true concern about U.S. journalists’ access in China.   Rep. Rohrabacher’s testimony in support of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is filled with red herrings concerning Confucius Institutes, billboards in Times Square, and the Chinese purchase of AMC movie theaters (in order to flood the US with Chinese propaganda films).  Testimony by John Lenczowski focused more on Russian spies in the US Embassy in Moscow during the Cold War than the actual treatment of U.S. journalists in China today.

Third, passage of the Act could lead to even worse retaliation by China.  China repeatedly harasses the two VOA reporters in China (see Nick Zahn’s testimony, p. 5-6) and it has consistently denied visas to RFA reporters.  Perhaps the most famous incident was when the Chinese government rescinded the RFA reporters’ visas only days before they were to accompany President Clinton on his 1998 trip to China.

But other major media outlets, like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and CNN, just to name a few, have reporters on the ground in China doing some hard hitting reporting.  Yes these reporters are also often harassed and are often forced to wait months for a visa or are threatened by the Chinese security apparatus that visa renewal will be denied (one of the Washington Post’s China reporters – Andrew Higgins – has been waiting for a visa since 2009, forced to report from Hong Kong).   But in general, most reporters are able to renew their visas and solid reporting from China is able to make it to our shores.  But some, like the Committee to Protect Journalists, warn that passage of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act could lead to an all out visa war, resulting in China denying a greater number of visas and exacerbating an already tense situation for foreign journalists there.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, is this who we want to be?  A free and vibrant press has been a central tenet of the United States; it was crucial to the success of the American Revolution, is encapsulated within the First Amendment, and is rarely if ever abridged.  As Americans, we understand that the press is a building block to creating a government truly accountable to its people; unfettered press access is an important goal in and of itself.

In recent years, China has seen some developments in a more professionalized and freer press.  Yes, the Chinese press still has to take its most of its cues from the Chinese government, but there has been some development in more real reporting (see Susan Shirk’s Changing Media, Changing China).  But by essentially eradicating the Chinese press from U.S. shores, the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act undermines our goals of this burgeoning freedom of the press in China.  Even the reporters harassed by the Chinese government do not agree with such actions.  Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”), told China Law & Policy that they “do not support efforts to restrict press freedom in one country in an effort to improve press freedom in another.  We remain committed to freedom of the press.”

But all the attention surrounding the Act raises the issue of Beijing’s treatment of foreign journalists.  Is there anything the U.S. can do to change what appears to be the Chinese government’s increased harassment of foreign journalists?

Continued in Part 2

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