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.
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,
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).
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
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.
Similarly, 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.”