Posts tagged: foreign reporters

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.

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