Posts tagged: China

Bloomberg & Censorship: A Harbinger of What is to Come?

By , April 13, 2014

bloomberg-1In June 2012, Bloomberg News’ China coverage was considered cutting edge.  It’s China team had published  an investigative piece that unmasked the enormous wealth accumulated and hidden by current Chinese President Xi Jinping and his family.  For its courageous China coverage, Bloomberg won a prestigious George Polk Award here in the U.S.  But back in China, the accolades were less than forthcoming.  Instead, Bloomberg received the Chinese government’s retribution with its website blocked, its journalists experiencing increasing difficulty renewing their visas, and its computer systems penetrated by Chinese hackers.  Evidently it’s coverage hit a nerve.

Fast forward a little over a year and last November, allegations of self-censorship regarding its China coverage engulfed Bloomberg News.   According to unnamed Bloomberg reporters, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler killed what would have been another investigative piece exposing the deep and corrupting ties between one of China’s wealthiest men and the top leadership of the

Matthew Winkler, Head of Bloomberg News

Matthew Winkler, Head of Bloomberg News

Chinese Communist Party.  Allegedly Winkler  feared that if the story was published, Bloomberg journalists would be kicked out of China and its China offices effectively closed.   Winkler denied the allegations, informing the New York Times that the piece had in fact not been pulled. Even with these denials, Bloomberg quickly suspended the lead reporter on the story and the executive editor of  Bloomberg’s investigative news division who also was an on its June 2012 China story, Amanda Bennett, left the company shortly thereafter   Coincidence or sign that journalism takes a back seat to business?  Recent events point toward the later.

Should We Be Surprised That Bloomberg’s Priority is Its Bottom Line?  

By early 2014, it appeared that things had died down for Bloomberg’s beleaguered China team.  But in March,  the accusations of self-censorship re-emerged.  First was Peter T. Grauer’s, chairman of Bloomberg News’ parent company Bloomberg LP, admission that some China stories it “should have rethought” when discussing Bloomberg LP’s China business.  Then, only days later, longtime Bloomberg employee and editor-at-large for Asia news, Ben Richardson, vocally departed from Bloomberg and explained to media critic Jim Romenesko that “[he] left Bloomberg because of the way the [November 2013] story was mishandled, and because of how the company made misleading statements in the global press and senior executives disparaged the team that worked so hard to execute an incredibly demanding story.”

Working at a Bloomberg Terminal

Working at a Bloomberg Terminal

But while self-censorship – if that is what is going on Bloomberg – is always disappointing, in Bloomberg’s case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Bloomberg News is only a negligible part of Bloomberg LP, at least revenue-wise.  Instead it is the Bloomberg Terminal, a computer that delivers real-time stock quotes, provides an electronic trading platform, and a widespread instant messaging service, that is king.  Bloomberg Terminals are ubiquitous at investment banks and hedge funds; those organizations would not be able to function without them.

At $20,000 a terminal a year, it is the sale of these terminals that account for the vast majority – around 80% – of Bloomberg’s revenues.  According to Dean Starkman, an editor at Columbia Journalism Review and author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Bloomberg News was always meant to play a supporting role.  When Winkler founded the news division in the early 1990s, “Bloomberg was explicit about creating a new model, integrating business and editorial, where the two would work together” Starkman told China Law & Policy in a phone interview. In fact, according to Starkman, it was only in the last five to ten years, with the financial crisis, that Bloomberg News started to get more serious about journalism and rose in prominence.  It was in that period that Bloomberg News won various awards for its coverage in many parts of the world.

But when a company gets 80% of its revenue from a single product it is important that its other lines of business do not hurt that

Trader in Shanghai, not working on a Bloomberg Terminal

Trader in Shanghai, not working on a Bloomberg Terminal

product.  Here, Bloomberg’s China coverage most likely violated that business tenet.  After the June 2012 publication, sales of the Bloomberg Terminals in China came to a halt.  But China, unlike the United States which accounts for 37% of Terminal sales and Europe which accounts for 35% of sales, is far from a saturated market.  In fact, China only accounts for a mere 3,000 Bloomberg Terminals (the tiny island of Hong Kong accounts for more than 20,000 Terminals).

To be shut out of China would jeopardize Bloomberg’s ability to increase its revenue, all at the time when its main competitor, Thomson Reuters, is gaining market share.   In 2010, Thomson Reuters sought to take advantage of the financial crisis by creating the Eikon, a cheaper competitor to the Bloomberg Terminal.  Although Eikon had a shaky start, its growth more recently has been phenomenal (but many in the industry still view it as inferior).  In 2013 it tripled the number of Eikon subscriptions to 122,000.  A scary prospect for Bloomberg.

Given that Bloomberg’s cash cow – sales of its Terminal – took a major hit after the publication of the article on Xi Jinping’s family wealth and that its battle with Eikon will be on mainland, it is not surprising that Bloomberg potentially killed another news article that would have hurt its bottom line.

Should We Be Concerned That Bloomberg is a Harbinger?

It’s no secret that the titans of the media world have taken huge hits with the influx of the internet.  The Graham family’s recent sale of the Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is one such example.  For the business side of journalism, it’s not just about the bottom line, it is about survival.  With this mindset, will every media outlet that covers China soften its coverage?

Dean Starkman, editor at the Columbia Journalism Review

Dean Starkman, editor at the Columbia Journalism Review

“No” Starkman emphatically told China Law & Policy.  “[Bloomberg] is different from other media companies.  Other than Reuters, no other media company has as much to lose in China.”  Even when raising the issue of the New York Times and its Chinese language website which is blocked in China, Starkman was still optimistic.  “The New York Times doesn’t have to be there as a business; it’s just there as a newspaper.  There is no critical need for them to grow in China.”  Bloomberg on the other hand, very much has a need to grow its Terminal business in China.

For Starkman, the decline in ad revenue is precisely the reason why media organizations will be forced to provide hard-hitting coverage of places like China:  “The fact that news organizations rely more on subscribers [for revenue] makes it all the more imperative that. . . their news coverage remains uncompromising.”   By relying on subscribers, the game comes down to credibility – if you publish less than the truth, you will no longer be credible.  For the traditional media outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal credibility is paramount.  But as Starkman pointed out, if readers doubt Bloomberg News’ articles, it ultimately does not affect their business because they still have Terminals to sell.

For Starkman, it is this need for credibility that could potentially drive newspapers to do more investigative articles, not less.  building_trust“Investigative pieces cover something everyone knows about but it hasn’t been documented” Starkman told China Law & Policy.  Corruption in China was one example that he provided; it’s well-known fact but few have been able to document the evidence as powerfully as the New York Times and Bloomberg News.  “As the gap between what everyone knows and what you cover becomes wider, you lose your credibility.”

And it is true.  When it comes to China coverage, the go-to newspaper is increasingly the New York Times.  Why?  Because it is able to provide the in-depth, uncompromised coverage about what is really happening in China.  Part of this of course is resources.  As Bloomberg’s former editor-at-large, Ben Richardson told CNN, these type of investigative pieces are extremely expensive and difficult to produce.  Large media outlets like the New York Times and Bloomberg have these resources. wall-street-journal

Another entity that has the money and expertise to publish investigative pieces on China’s corruption would seem to be the Wall Street Journal.  But they have yet to publish anything on China as in-depth as what the New York Times and Bloomberg covered.  Starkman did not blame this on self-censorship but rather a changed model of news reporting where shorter pieces predominate.  As the Columbia Journalism Review has documented, since Rupert Murdoch took control of the Wall Street Journal  in 2007, longer pieces have precipitously plunged.  “What’s the good of covering small incremental things if miss the one big thing”  Starkman mused.

Bloomberg’s apparent self-censorship is disheartening especially for the reporters who likely worked really hard on the piece that appears to have been killed (six months later it still has yet to be published).  But the Bloomberg Incident itself doesn’t signal the death knell for investigative journalism in China.  To maintain its monopoly on China credibility, the New York Times will likely continue its hard-hitting pieces for as long as China allows it to have journalists there.  It is that credibility that impacts the Times‘ bottom line.  Until of course Bloomberg purchases it.

And Things Just Got More Awesome: CECC To Host Hearing on Rights Lawyers

By , April 7, 2014

ceccToday, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) added two new witnesses to it’s April 8 hearing on the recent and severe crackdown on China’s rights activists.  If Prof. Don Clarke of GW Law School and Dr. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch were not enough of a draw, the CECC just added Jewher Tothi, daughter of recently detained Uyghur scholar and activist Ilham Tothi and human rights lawyer, Teng Biao.

For those not in Washington, D.C., the hearing will also be broadcast live on the CECC’s website.

 

Hearing:  Understanding China’s Crackdown on Rights Activists
Date: April 8, 2014
Time: 3:30 – 5 pm
Location: 418 Russell Senate Office Building
Live webcast can be found by clicking here.

The hearing will also be archived on the CECC’s website.

Just For Fun – Art Review: Xu Bing’s Phoenix

By , March 10, 2014

P1000203There are those pieces of art that are truly transformative; that can change the way you see the world and remind you of the humanity of this united struggle we call life.  Picasso’s Guernica is one such work.  Now there is Xu Bing‘s (pronounced Sue Bing) recent installation – Phoenix.

Housed in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Phoenix is nothing less than iconic.  Back in 2008, Xu, who had just returned to Beijing after 18 years in New York City, was commissioned to create an art installation for a glass atrium in Beijing’s soon-to-be-completed World Financial Center.  It was Xu’s visits to the construction site that proved to be the inspiration for the work.  After seeing the paltry conditions for the migrant construction workers and the primitive construction techniques, Xu used much of the scrap left over from the site to create two massive and powerful phoenixes, an homage to those nameless workers who built one of Beijing’s most modern skyscrapers.

For those who have spent time in China, the materials that create the birds’ gritty skeletons are familiar: faded red, white and blue plastic tarps serves as wings, bamboo poles as the ribs, and old hand cement mixers for the birds’ heads.  But the message of these phoenixes is fresh.  As one of my companions noted, the simplicity of birds’ frames monumentalizes the laborers and workers who built one of Beijing’s fancier skyscrapers and who have largely been left behind.

But this was not a message that Beijing was ready for.  Reflecting how far removed the People’s Republic is from its socialist

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

rhetoric, the real estate mogul who commissioned the work requested that Xu cover the phoenixes’ rough frames  with nothing less than crystals.  Fortunately, Xu, schooled in the Socialist Realism style, refused to change his art.

Since 2010, the Phoenixes, and Xu’s homage to those invisible workers who have literally built China’s new society, have traveled around the world.  But seeing the Phoenixes suspended in flight in the nave of a Gothic cathedral is truly spectacular.  It elevates an amazing piece of art – and the message that infuses it – to an almost sacred and divine realm.  As we walked the nave this past Sunday, studying all the construction site scraps that created the birds,  the choir practiced at the altar, giving the phoenixes an angelic feel.

Phoenix is on display through 2014 and should not be missed.  Admission to Cathedral is free but a suggested donation of $10 is politely requested (and well worth it to help support this piece as well as the Church’s important community outreach and services).

Where’s Your Tracksuit – Will Xi Jinping be China’s Putin?

By , February 13, 2014
President Xi waving to the Chinese Olympic team during the Sochi Opening Ceremonies

President Xi waving to the Chinese Olympic team during the Sochi Opening Ceremonies

Last week’s opening ceremonies were full of Russian stereotypes – ballet, nutcrackers, revolution, really bad techno.  But one image that was far from a cliché was the cozy relationship between Russian President Vladamir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.  Over at Concurrent Opinions, law professor and China expert Margaret K. Lewis, mused about what appears to be a deepening friendship and what this could mean for China.  Will Xi be wearing a tracksuit anytime soon?  Read Lewis’ post here.

CORRECTION on NY Times Reporter’s Departure from Beijing

By , February 10, 2014
CL&P issues a correction

CL&P issues a correction

Yesterday, China Law & Policy published a post regarding New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy and the circumstances surrounding his effective expulsion from China this past January.  After the post went up, some readers emailed me to comment that my analysis may be wrong, in particular my examination of Article 14 of the Regulation on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists (“Foreign Media Regs”).

Here’s the background.  On January 27, 2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) spokesperson Qin Gang addressed the Ramzy situation stating that by not changing the status of his visa (presumably to a tourist or some other non-journalist visa) when he re-applied for a new press card with MOFA, Ramzy was in violation of the regulations.

As I wrote yesterday, Qin Gang’s assessment is correct under Article 14 of the Foreign Media Regs) if Ramzy’s prior press card with Time Magazine was “canceled.”  Article 14 reads:

The cancellation of the Certificate for Permanent Office of Foreign Media Organization in China and the Press Card (R) shall be made public.

The Journalist Visa of a resident foreign journalist whose Press Card (R) is cancelled automatically becomes invalid ten days after the date of cancellation.

A resident foreign journalist whose Press Card (R) is cancelled shall, within ten days from the date of cancellation, present the relevant certifying documents to the public security authority of his place of residence to apply for the alteration of his visa or resident permit.

I concluded that Ramzy, who was permitted to apply for a New York Times press card in June 2013, did not have a canceled press card,

When obtaining press cards were a bit easier: Edgar Snow's press card for Beijing

When obtaining press cards were a bit easier: Edgar Snow’s press card for Beijing

making Article 14 inapplicable.  But a few emails came in, including from individuals with experience with press cards in China, that based on their experiences, it was more likely that Ramzy’s Time Magazine press card was canceled in order to apply for the New York Times press card, making Article 14 applicable.  Fox News also highlighted this reading of the Foreign Media Regs.

I stand corrected and I thank the readers who wrote to me.  Under Article 14 of the Foreign Media Regs, it does appear that when a foreign journalist in China switches employers and tenders her prior press card, that card is effectively canceled and to be in line with the Foreign Media Regs, the journalist presumably has to apply for a change in visa status.

But the reason why I still continue to hedge and question if Ramzy was in fact in violation of the law, as opposed to just these regulations, is because when read in conjunction with China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law (“Exit-Entry Law”), Ramzy’s situation is a little less clear.  The Foreign Media Regs do not address what happens when the prior press card is canceled but the journalist is waiting on a new press card to be issued.  But the Exit-Entry Law permits an individual to stay until the expiration of a residency permit even when an application for a new one was denied (see Exit-Entry Law, Arts.29 & 32).  Additionally, the Regulations on Exit-Entry Aministration for Foreign Nationals (“Exit-Entry Regs”), which further define the Exit-Entry Law, acknowledge that there will be times when the visa and residence permit process is delayed.  In those situations, the foreign national can rely on the “acceptance notice” from the Public Security Bureau (“PSB”) to lawfully reside in China until her visa or residency permit is processed (Exit-Entry Regs, Arts. 13 & 18).

Qin Gang, stepping up the game!

Qin Gang, stepping up the game!

The Exit-Entry Regs do not apply to MOFA in its review of press cards, but did it take a page from the Exit-Entry Reg’s play book?  Did MOFA reassure Ramzy and the New York Times that with MOFA’s acceptance of the application, Ramzy could continue to reside in China on his Time Magazine visa and resident permit until the new press card was processed?  Article 21 of the Foreign Media Regs leaves it within the discretion of MOFA to determine the penalty, if any, for a violation of the Foreign Media Regs.  Unfortunately, emails to the executive and managing editors of the New York Times for clarification were not answered.

But at any rate, what the Ramzy incident reflects is that journalism just got a heck of a lot harder in China, especially for any news agency that seeks to cover sensitive issues.  Back at the beginning of January, Jill Abramson, the New York Times‘ executive editor, seemed to think things had blown over in China, that the earlier problems in securing journalist visas for their reporters had mostly been resolved.  But Abramson spoke too soon because with the Ramzy incident, the Chinese government just stepped up its game.

This is not the first time that the Chinese government has cited to law to provide a veneer of legality in its efforts to suppress criticism (or

Rights Attorney, Xu Zhiyong, recently sentenced to 4 years

Rights Attorney, Xu Zhiyong, recently sentenced to 4 years

more aptly suppress criticism that is not directed by the Party).  Chinese public interest lawyers and activists have been treated in a similar fashion.  Liu Xiaobo is likely the last activist the West will see tried for “subversion of state power” and since the lawless abduction of civil rights attorney  Gao Zhisheng, the recent prosecutions have been “in accordance with law.”  The Chinese government has become increasingly sophisticated in how it handles what it perceives as threats to its one-party rule.   In January, rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong was tried and found guilty for disturbing public order.  Back in 2010, civil rights lawyers Tang Jitian and Liu Wei were disbarred on highly technical regulations that govern the legal profession.  By turning to more administrative and technical punishments, the Chinese government can state that it is merely following the law, a defense it has come to realize the West finds a bit harder to counter.

game-changerSimilarly, the Chinese government now appears to be using the same strategy with foreign journalists and the visa application process.  It’s a labyrinth of regulations, making it easy for the Chinese government to point to a violation.  With the Ramzy incident, foreign media outlets in China can no longer rely on the assurances of MOFA or even how things were done in the past.

Ramzy might have been the sole casualty of the New York Times-China feud for the 2013 cycle.  But his forced departure is a game-changer and should be a warning to the U.S. government and U.S. media outlets that they too need to step up their game; things are far from “blown over.”

Another One Bites the Dust But Does Anyone Care? Congress is Silent as NY Times Reporter Leaves Beijing

By , February 9, 2014

New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy

New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy

Last month, while another U.S. journalist was packing his bags, forced to leave China, the U.S. Senate was poised to hold the confirmation hearing for Max Baucus, the Administration’s nominee to replace Gary Locke as ambassador to China.  You would think that central to the Baucus hearing would be the issue of journalist visas, or at least it would be mentioned by the candidate himself as a troubling development.  But you would be wrong.   Instead, after a December where the issue of U.S. journalists in China reached crisis level, Congress reverted to its shortsighted old ways, barely even raising the issue.

But, as the recent expulsion of the U.S. journalist clearly demonstrates, such a lackadaisical approach is increasingly dangerous as the Chinese government attempts to develop a more sophisticated response to try to maintain control of foreign journalists and U.S. media outlets through the visa process.

New York Times Reporter Austin Ramzy Effectively Expelled from China

For ten years, Austin Ramzy diligently covered Asia and China for Time Magazine, first out of Hong Kong and then since 2007, out of Beijing.  While his pieces were thought-provoking for a Western audience, they were hardly the type that would illicit anger from the Chinese government.  There were no articles exposing government officials’ vast wealth and while Ramzy did report on certain human rights issues in China, those articles were interspersed among other more general pieces.  In other words, he was likely not on the Chinese government’s target list in terms of renewing a visa.

But Ramzy’s status changed when, in April 2013, he took a job with the New York Times.  Since October 2012, when it published a Pulitzer-Prize

Former Premier Wen Jiabao

Former Premier Wen Jiabao

winning series on former premier Wen Jiabao’s questionable role in his family’s lucrative business holdings, the New York Times has become the Chinese government’s Enemy Number One.  Its website, including the Chinese-language portion, has been blocked in China, its U.S. website allegedly hacked from China, and every December, when it comes time to renew their visas, the New York Times China correspondents have faced excessive delays and effective expulsion.  The New York Times Fall 2013 coverage of the U.S. investigation into J.P. Morgan’s cushy ties with the children of China’s government elite, including the daughter of Wen, likely did not help its situation.

Ramzy’s visa troubles began almost as soon as he started working for the Times.  Although Ramzy had a journalist visa good through the end of December 2013, because he switched employer, under Chinese law, Ramzy was required to first apply for a new press card with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”).  Once issued, Ramzy then, with his new press card, would be required to apply for a new journalist visa and residency permit with the Public Security Bureau (“PSB”) to reflect his new employer (see Regulations on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists -”Foreign Media Regs” – Art. 10).

But, according to a source familiar with the matter, MOFA began giving Ramzy a hard time from the beginning.  For two months, the Beijing MOFA office refused to accept his press card application, informing him first that he would have to apply through Hong Kong, and then informing him that it would have to be through the New York consulate.  However, Article 10 of the Foreign Media Regs clearly states that the application can be made within China and directly to MOFA.

As the source told China Law & Policy, it was not until June 2013, two months later, that MOFA finally accepted his press card application.  But MOFA would sit on Ramzy’s application, and come December 2013, Ramzy was part of the New York Times contingent that was almost effectively expelled en mass when MOFA failed to process any Times correspondents’ press card applications and renewals.

Photo from Ramzy's Twitter feed showing that he had mostly packed his things

Photo from Ramzy’s Twitter feed showing that he had mostly packed his things

While the pressure from the Obama Administration, in particular Biden’s December visit to Beijing where he publicly raised the issue, appeared to have averted the de facto closure of the Times‘ China bureaus, Ramzy seems to be the lone casualty.  Ramzy’s vulnerability likely came from the fact that he was the only New York Times correspondent who was hired in the middle of the year.  For some reason, MOFA processes “new” applications for a press card with a news agency differently than a mere renewal of the press card for a reporter that continues to work for the same news agency.  This is what happened to New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley the year before.  Like Ramzy, Buckley took a job with the Times in October 2012 but MOFA failed to process his press card.  When his prior journalist visa and residency permit expired on December 31, 2012, Buckley was forced to leave China.  For the past year he has been reporting for the Times from Hong Kong while MOFA allegedly is still processing his press card application.

Similarly, by the end of this December, without a press card, Ramzy was unable to apply for a new journalist visa.  His prior visa and residency permit was set to expire on December 31, 2013.  At the end of December, MOFA provided Ramzy with a one-month “humanitarian” visa so that after seven years, he could pack up his life and leave.  On January 30, 2014, Ramzy left Beijing and relocated to Taipei, Taiwan to cover China from there.

Stronger Response from Both the US & China

With his departure, the White House issued a strong statement, condemning China on Ramzy’s effective expulsion.  This was a marked departure from the White House’s prior strategy of silence when other U.S. reporters were effectively expelled or banned from reporting from China (Melissa Chan in 2012, Philip Pan in 2012, Andrew Higgins from 2009 to 2012 and Paul Mooney in 2013).

But the U.S. was not the only country with a changed strategy.  For all of these prior expulsions and bans, the Chinese government has never

MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang

MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang

provided a specific reason for its delay or denial.  But in Ramzy’s case, the Monday before his departure, MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang addressed the issue and tried to put a fig leaf of legality over the situation.  While Qin implied that MOFA was still processing Ramzy’s press card application, he accused Ramzy of violating Chinese regulations because he continued to enter and leave China on his old visa connected to his prior employer and never applied for a new visa or residence permit.

Qin was correct that Ramzy did not apply for a new visa and residence permit once he took the job with the Times, but that was not a willful act.  For a journalist visa and residency permit, part of the application is submission of a valid press card (Foreign Media Regs, Art. 10).  Here Ramzy was not able to apply for a new visa where MOFA was sitting on his application for a new press card, failing to process it.

Regardless of that fact, the law does not require Ramzy to apply for a different type of visa (presumably a non-journalist one) while waiting on a new press card.  The only time that a journalist must apply for a different type of visa to remain in China is if his press card has been “canceled,” a decision that must be made public (Foreign Media Regs., Art. 14).  Here, Ramzy’s prior press card was not cancelled; rather he was applying for a replacement.*  Nowhere in the Foreign Media Regs is there a requirement that a journalist change his visa type while waiting on a replacement press card.

PassportsFinally, China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law permits a foreign resident to stay in China to expiration of a prior residence permit even when a new one is denied: “[I]f an extension is denied, the foreigner concerned shall leave China on the expiry of the validity period specified in their residence permits” (Exit-Entry Administration Law, Art. 32).

Ramzy was within the law in entering and exiting China on his prior visa while waiting on his press card.  But MOFA’s citation to the law, even if inaccurate, is an interesting development and not restricted to foreign journalist visas.  Rather, it has been a trend in dealing with criticism from abroad.  An examination of how the Chinese government has dealt with public interest lawyers shows a government increasingly using the law – even if only a fig leaf – to explain its suppression of dissent.  The Chinese government has come to realize that the rhetoric of law is often an effective defense and silencing device in dealing with the West.

The Danger of the Senate’s Silence

It is this more sophisticated response that should put the U.S. government on warning that Beijing does not intend to back down in toying with

The Baucus Senate Confirmation Hearing - Why Bother?

The Baucus Senate Confirmation Hearing – Why Bother?

foreign journalists visas.  That is why the absence of this issue during the Baucus hearing was a dangerous disappointment.  During the hour and a half session, not a single Senator specifically asked what Baucus intended to do about this issue.  Instead, the hearing descended into the verbal embodiment of a high school social studies essay on the “interconnectedness” of the world, how they are like us, and with Baucus addressing human rights only superficially, stating that its protection “is the bedrock of American society.”

By not focusing on the issue of journalists visas during the hearing, Congress has effectively signaled to Beijing that it can go back to the status quo; the Senate is too concerned with how to sell beef in China to pay attention  to one journalist unable to stay there.  This is certainly a missed opportunity because if there is one thing the Chinese government does not understand and fears as a result, it is Congress.  Even if five minutes of the hearing addressed the issue, that might have given the Chinese government food for thought.

And it would also have been useful for Americans to know what Baucus’ strategy will be.  As Ambassador, Baucus will have a lot of power to determine if there should be a policy of visa reciprocity.  Does he think that is an appropriate approach?  Does he think there are other ways to deal with this issue?  How public will he be when the Chinese government again trifles with a U.S. journalist’s visa?

The U.S. government – both Congress and the Administration – cannot allow this issue to slip into the background.  While the White House should be commended for issuing a statement on Ramzy’s expulsion, it needs to use every opportunity to remind the Chinese government that this is a key issue.  Just stating it is not enough.  Last week, when Daniel Russell, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the State Department held a press conference, two reporters in the audience were from Chinese government-run media outlets.  Perhaps starting the press conference with a comment about how the U.S. allows a free foreign vis-a-vis China might demonstrate just how important the issue is to the current Administration.

Goodbye New York Times?

Goodbye New York Times?

Consistent pressure on the Chinese government from all parts of government must continue until Pan, Buckley, and Ramzy’s visa applications are processed.  Back in December, when it looked like the New York Times and the Bloomberg China bureaus would effectively close, the U.S. government was able focus its resources and pressure China to renew the correspondents’ visas.  But here, the danger is no different.  Where the New York Times is unable to get a new press card for any new employees in China, it will be unable to replace its current correspondents.  How long can David Barboza, 10 years in China and Ed Wong, six years, stay there?  It might be a slow death for the Times‘ China offices, but, unless something changes, its end inevitable

 ——————————————————————————————–

* After publication of this post on February 9, 2014, it was brought to my attention that Ramzy’s prior press card with Time Magazine could have been “cancelled” under Chinese law and that Article 14 might apply to him.  A correction in the form of a new post can be found here.  Apologies in advance.  — EML

Fuzzy Jurisdiction & Four Years: The Xu Zhiyong Verdict

By , January 28, 2014
Fuzzy Jurisdiction

Fuzzy Jurisdiction

On Sunday, in a verdict that surprised no one,  the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court found human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong guilty of gathering crowds to disrupt public order (Criminal Law Article 296).  The Court sentenced Xu to four years, only one year shy of the maximum.

The Court’s verdict which runs close to twenty pages when converted to a word document, details the prosecutor’s evidence that formed the basis of the Court’s decision.  The length of the document itself belies a Court confident in its decision on a case that they know the world was watching.

There is certainly much to be parsed out in the decision but one thing that is interesting are the jurisdictional issues that China Law & Policy raised last week prior to Xu’s trial.  Namely, why Xu – who is being accused of the same crimes as many of the other defendants – was being tried in an higher level court, Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate Court, while his compatriots are being tried in the lower level Haidian People’s Court.

The verdict attempts directly answers this question and in doing so present a frightening future for defendants:

对于被告人及其辩护人在庭前及庭审中对管辖及分案审理所提的异议,经查,本案事实涉及北京市海淀区、朝阳区及西城区等属于不同法院管辖的区域,北京市人民检察院第一分院对许志永一案向我院提起公诉后,北京市高级人民法院依照《中华人民共和国刑事诉讼法》第二十六条之规定,指定由我院管辖。鉴于公诉机关在起诉书中明确指控了犯罪事实,并附有案卷材料及证据,符合《中华人民共和国刑事诉讼法》第一百八十一条的规定,我院依法应当受理并开庭审判。对于共同犯罪案件是否并案审理,人民法院、人民检察院、公安机关依法均可以在各自职责范围内决定。被告人及其辩护人所提上述异议不能成立,本院不予支持。

The Court acknowledges defense counsel’s two jurisdictional-based objections: (1) that the Intermediate Court should not hear the case and (2)

Xu Zhiyong, awaiting trial in the detention center

Xu Zhiyong, awaiting trial in the detention center

Xu’s case should be tried with the other defendants.   According to the Court, its jurisdiction is based upon Article 26 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”), a provision that permits a higher level court to re-assign cases to other courts when jurisdiction is unclear.  According to the Court, because the Haidian District, the Chaoyang District and the Xidan District People’s courts all had jurisdiction over the case (presumably because some of the public demonstrations accorded in each of those districts), the prosecutor filed his case with the Intermediate Court and the Beijing Municipal Higher People’s Court determined that the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court could hear the case, thus giving it jurisdiction.

The verdict pays no mind to defense counsel’s objections; it does not explain what these objections were let alone why the Court rejected them. By flat out ignoring these objections, the Court seems to imply that as long as the law was followed by the prosecutor and the courts, then the decision will be permitted regardless of defense counsel’s arguments.  Unfortunately, this does seem to be what Article 26 says although neither the Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court on the Implementation of the CPL (“SPC Interpretation”) nor the Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on the Implementation of the CPL (“SPP Interpretation”)  explicitly permit the prosecutor to file a criminal case with a higher level court.  Although at the same time, it does not forbid it.

It doesn't matter how loud defense counsel gets, his objection is never heard

It doesn’t matter how loud defense counsel gets, his objection is never heard

While there might be a basis in law to permit the Intermediate Court to have jurisdiction, what there appears no basis for is the Court’s cursory denial of defense counsel’s request to try the other defendants with Xu.  In a two sentence analysis, the Court states that under the law it is within the discretion of either the Court, the prosecutor or the public security organs to decide whether joint defendants should be tried separately.  The Court fails to cite any provision of any law or regulation that states that premise.

As for defense counsel’s objection – which convincingly cited to Article 13 of the SPP Interpretation requiring all cases to be joined before a higher court if one is to be heard there – the Court conclusory stated that defense counsel’s objection was “untenable” (不能成立) and therefore the Court was right to reject it.  The verdict provides no reason or explanation as to why the objection was untenable.  Given that defense counsel was able to sight to regulation for its argument and the Court here cites to no law, defense counsel’s objection seems worlds more tenable than anything the Court provided.

But that would be for a trial that was based on rule of law, something that is missing here where the Court rules by executive fiat regardless of laws of regulations.  For all the Chinese Communist Party’s recent rhetoric about the need to have a “strict adherence to legal procedure,” the CCP again chose to ignore that procedure in the one case where it felt like its power was being threatened.

 

Jumping the Shark? Xu Zhiyong’s Closing Statement to the Court & the CCP Reaction

By , January 23, 2014
Xu Zhiyong

Xu Zhiyong

On Wednesday, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court concluded the trial of Xu Zhiyong on the charge of disrupting public order, a crime that can carry up to 5 years in jail.  At the conclusion of the trial, Xu was invited to make a final statement, a right afforded to him by Article 193 of the amended Criminal Procedure Law.  According to his attorneys, ten minutes into his closing statement, Xu was shutdown by the judge.  According to Article 235 of the Supreme People’s Court Interpretation on the Application of the Criminal Procedure Law, the Court is permitted to stop a closing statement:

“After the chief judge announces the conclusion of courtroom debate, the collegial panel shall ensure the defendant’s full exercise of the right to a final statement. Where the defendant in his final statement repeats his opinions several times, the chief judge may stop it. Where the final statement is contemptuous of the court or public prosecutor, harms others or the common interests of society, or are irrelevant to the case, they shall be stopped.” – translation courtesy of China Law Translate

Fortunately, Xu’s lawyers have released his closing statement in its entirety and Yaxue Cao over at the blog Change China has posted the English translation.  The document is an important read in understanding the New Citizens Movement, its principles, and why the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) is so afraid:

“While on the face of it, this appears to be an issue of the boundary between a citizen’s right to free speech and public order, what this is, in fact, is the issue of whether or not you recognize a citizen’s constitutional rights.

On a still deeper level, this is actually an issue of fears you all carry within: fear of a public trial, fear of a citizen’s freedom to observe a trial, fear of my name appearing online, and fear of the free society nearly upon us….” – Read the Full Translation Here Courtesy of Change China.

While this drama was unfolding in the courtroom, a separate drama was unfolding outside with various foreign journalists being physically harassed by both Chinese police and plain-clothed thugs likely hired by the Chinese police.  All of it caught on camera.  Here is Martin Patience of the BBC first harassed by police then by a group of thugs:

And here is Mark Stone of Sky News being manhandled:
Finally, CNN’s David McKenzie pushed into a police van and taken away against his will:

 

On some level, this is comical.  Harassing foreign journalists from filming outside of a courthouse?  The police had already cordoned off the perimeter of Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate Court.  These guys were going to get no where near the courthouse in the first place.  All they wanted was just a backdrop of the courthouse for their story on the trial of Xu Zhiyong.

 

But instead, they got a whole other story – how the thug-like police state is willing to go on camera and push around foreign journalists with impunity.  Granted, with the Chinese government’s fairly strong control of the internet and its ability to prevent videos from getting through firewall, very few Chinese will see these videos.  But the rest of the world will.  The rest of the world will witness the mafioso-mentality, with hooded, hidden thugs, carrying out what are likely the orders from a high-level Public Security Bureau (PSB) official.  Was the trade-off worth it?  I would say no.

 

But does the CCP care what the rest of the world thinks of it?  Is this an arm-flexing exercise of the CCP?  That international opinion does not matter to them?  Certainly these videos are not ones the Chinese tourist industry wants potential tourists to see, but what about Western businesses?  Will they think twice now about betting on China?  If the past is to provide an answer, Western businesses will continue to look to China for their profits.

 

Or does it show a CCP that has jumped the shark?  That its grip on power is so feeble that it will go to any lengths, including ordering thugs to harass foreign journalists?  In his closing statement, Xu Zhiyong seems to think so – that a free society is nearly upon China.  But if history is to serve as any guide, the CCP has an uncanny talent of retaining power even when it looks like it is at its weakest.  This June will mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests.  Twenty-five years later, the Party that ordered the massacre is still in control.  And the people’s protests are still the same.

Why an Intermediate Court? The Impending Criminal Trial of Activist Xu Zhiyong

By , January 21, 2014
Xu Zhiyong in better days - on the cover of Chinese Esquire in 2009

Xu Zhiyong in better days – on the cover of Chinese Esquire in 2009

On Wednesday, the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court will hear the trial of rights-defending lawyer Xu Zhiyong (pronounced Sue Zhi-young).  His alleged crime?  Disturbing public order, a charge that the Chinese government has used with abandon since China’s new president Xi Jinping rose to power at the end of 2012

Xu was not always the Chinese government’s Enemy No. 1.   Early in his career, Xu was celebrated for his ground-breaking work.  In 2003, Xu, along with rights-defending attorneys Teng Biao and Yu Jiang, successfully pushed for the abolishment of China’s custody and repatriation system, a form of extrajudicial detention that resulted in abuse and on one occasion the death of a college student.   In 2008, Xu, through his legal assistance organization the Open Constitution Initiative (“OCI” or in Chinese “Gongmeng”) represented parents whose children were poisoned by contaminated powdered milk, keeping the issue in the press and obtaining some form of justice for the parents.  These cases, in addition to investigations into the use China’s “black jails” – extrajudicial, ad hoc and secretive holding cells used to house government-defined trouble makers – brought both domestic and international fame.  In 2008, Xu was featured in China’s Economic Observer and by 2009, he would grace the cover of China’s Esquire magazine.

But Xu’s success also brought the attention of the Chinese government at a time when it was beginning to look less and less favorably upon the rights-defending movement.  In July 2009, Xu was detained on charges of tax evasion.  After being held for almost a month, Xu was freed on bail and his organization was fined a stunning 1.46 million RMB.  Such was the end of OCI.

Fortunately for the Chinese people it was not the end of Xu Zhiyong or his rights-defending work.  Instead, Xu looked to take his ideas and create

Emblem of the New Citizens Movement - calligraphy of Sun Yatsen

Emblem of the New Citizens Movement – calligraphy of Sun Yatsen

a more organized grassroots movement.  Working with other rights-defending lawyers, journalists, activists and average citizens, the movement called on the Chinese people to uphold the rule of law and seek to protect their civil rights.  By May 2012, Xu named this movement “New Citizens Movement” (in Chinese, Xin Gongmin Yundong) and called upon the new citizens to unite and help to establish a rule of law, protect constitutionally-guaranteed rights, end corruption in government and change the role of the Chinese people from subjects to full-functioning citizens.  Xu’s essay describing the movement was quickly removed from the internet.

Although many describe Xu’s approach as moderate, it is still too radical for the Chinese government, especially a Chinese government with a new president eager to solidify his power.  Over the past year, the Chinese government has detained over 100 activists, many of whom are New Citizens.

In July 2013, Xu’s time had come; the police detained him and various other activists and in August 2013, formally arrested him for disturbing public order.   In its December 2013 indictment, the Beijing police charged Xu with organizing and being the ringleader of protests held in Beijing calling on the government to require that senior government officials disclose their financial holdings and assets (see video below of one of the protests).

The fact that the Chinese Communist Party has recently initiated such a pilot program of asset disclosure is irrelevant.  Last Friday, Xu appeared before the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate Court where he learned that his trial is set for Wednesday, that he will not be permitted to call witnesses, and will not be permitted to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.  As protest, Xu will remain silent during Wednesday’s trial.

There are many things to question about Xu’s impending trial, but one aspect that jumps out as out of the ordinary is the fact that Xu’s trial will not be held in a basic trial court.  Instead, the intermediate court has jurisdiction; many of the other defendants arrested and charged for the same crimes will have their case heard in the Haidian Basic People’s Court.   Why is Xu different?  Why is his case being heard by a higher court?

Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate Court

Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate Court

According to the China’s amended Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”), an intermediate court automatically has jurisdiction if the case involves charges of endangering state security or involves terrorist activities, or if the case has a penalty of life imprisonment or death  (see CPL, Article 20).  Here, the charges do not involve state security or terrorism and the penalty is a maximum of five years imprisonment.

However, according to the Supreme People’s Court’s Interpretation on the Implementation of the Amended CPL (“SPC Interpretations”), even when a case does not involve state security, terrorism, a life sentence or the death penalty, the lower court can ask the intermediate court to hear the trial if (1) the case is large or complex, (2) is a novel and difficult case, or (3) is a case that is significant and thus would provide general guidance to other case (see SPC Interpretations, Article 15).

If Article 15 of the SPC Interpretations is the basis of the Intermediate Court’s jurisdiction, then the Intermediate Court must issue a written decision accepting the transfer and submit that decision to the lower court and the prosecutor.  Article 15 does not require that the written decision be provided to defendant or his attorney (see also SPC Interpretations, Article 14: Higher people’s courts deciding to try a first-instance case within the jurisdiction of a lower people’s court, should send down a written decision to change jurisdiction to the court below, and notify the procuratorate at the same level in writing”).

Unfortunately, none of the articles about Xu trial – either in Chinese or English – explain why his case is being heard by the Intermediate Court and not, like the other defendants accused of the same crimes, by the Haidian Basic Court.

But regardless of the reason why the Intermediate Court is hearing Xu’s case, the SPC Interpretations are fairly clear that where a case involves

Xu Zhiyong, awaiting trial in the detention center

Xu Zhiyong, awaiting trial in the detention center

multiple defendants and the case is elevated to a higher court for one defendant, then all defendants should be tried by the higher court (see SPC Interpretations, Article 13: “For multiple crimes by a single person, joint crimes or other cases that need to be joined for trial, if one person or crime belongs to the jurisdiction of the higher level court, the higher level court has jurisdiction of the entire case”).

New Citizens activist and rights-defending lawyer Xiao Guozhen speculates that the police and prosecutors sought to separate the trials so that the statements of the other participants can be used against Xu in his trial.  According to Xiao, in a trial with multiple defendants, one co-defendant cannot serve as a witness.  But when the trials are separated, the other defendant’s statements and confessions can be used in the trial against Xu.  But this all supposes that the other accused will speak out against Xu.

Hopefully Wednesday we will know although as Prof. Jerome Cohen points out, the authorities has done all that it can, such as using one of the smallest courtrooms in the courthouse for Xu’s trial to guarantee that the trial is all but closed to the public.  Another violation of the amended CPL.

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.

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