Posts tagged: J-1

Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone

By , December 4, 2013

Part 2 of a three part series on American journalists’ difficulty in obtaining visas to China.  For Part 1, click here.

While the New York Times might still be on a path to publish at all costs, other news organizations might not be so immune to the Chinese government’s attempts to muzzle more critical voices.

Bloomberg-News-logoLast month, Hong Kong-based Bloomberg New reporters leaked to the press allegations of self-censorship at the organization.  According to the staff’s accounts, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler killed an explosive investigative piece that revealed the financial ties between one of China’s wealthiest men and the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, one of the “redlines” that often leads to visa troubles.  These Bloomberg reporters told the New York Times that Winkler’s concern was that if they published the story, his journalists might be kicked out of China altogether, leaving the organization unable to cover anything.  Bloomberg has denied the allegations and has stated that the story is still active.  It has yet to be published.

But if these allegations are true, Bloomberg would not be the first major U.S. news organization to participate in eyebrow-raising and possibly self-censoring behavior.  The Washington Post had a similar curious event, where the long arms of the Chinese censors potentially reached the Post‘s headquarters in Washington.

An Example of Self-Censorship in the U.S. Capitol?

In late 2009, Peter Manseau was studying for his doctorate in religion at Georgetown University.  Manseau was far from a China hand but through his religious studies became intrigued by Eastern religions, in particular the use of qigong in traditional Chinese religions.  Coincidentally, 2009 also marked the ten year anniversary of the Chinese government’s public crackdown on the spiritual movement of Falun Gong, a movement the Chinese government has long considered a cult and a threat to its rule; it does not like to even be reminded of the group’s existence.  But with the anniversary, Washington D.C. was awash in Falun Gong protests and demonstrations.

Seeing these demonstrations, which usually included qigong movements, Manseau pitched an article idea to the Washington Post for a piece

Author Peter Manseau

Author Peter Manseau

focusing not so much on Falun Gong in China but more on what it is in the United States, in particular the groups that amass on the streets of D.C.  The Post liked the idea and Manseau began writing.  Because the piece was about individuals who lived in the District, it was to be a featured piece in the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine.  Manseau was under the impression that the story, scheduled to run at 4500 words, might even be a cover piece.   “They were entirely supportive,” he told China Law & Policy in a phone interview.

Although the article was to be D.C.-focused, there was no way to avoid the underlying political currents since his interviewees – two North American-born practitioners and one an exile from China – kept raising the issue of the Chinese government’s suppression of Falun Gong.  “I reported the story out and realized that the story couldn’t run without contacting some Chinese official to comment” Manseau said in his phone interview.

On April 30, 2010, Manseau called the Chinese Embassy and spoke with its press person, Wang Baodong.  “He told me that he didn’t want the story to run. It wasn’t threatening in any way, but he did say something along the lines of ‘We would strongly encourage you not to write such a story.’ He then mentioned a top editor at the Post, and asked if the Sunday magazine was in this editor’s portfolio.” Manseau added Wang’s comments to his article and then on May 3, 2010, filed a final draft with the magazine.  Manseau believed that the story would run at the end of that month.

But it didn’t.  Instead, on May 7, 2010, Manseau learned that there was trouble with his article and on May 10, 2010, the Washington Post, once supportive of the piece, killed it.  The article never ran in the Post (an updated version was later republished by Salon as “Falun Gong’s March”).  For Manseau what was interesting was that he wasn’t paid a “kill fee,” a percentage of the full fee, usually 10 to 30%, that is contractually obligated to be paid if the article is cancelled.  Instead, as he told China Law & Policy, he was paid in full.

Was there Chinese government pressure at play here?  Manseau believes so.  He told China Law & Policy that at the time he learned that Wang Baodong, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson, raised the issue of his Falun Gong piece directly with high-ups at the Post.

China Law & Policy‘s calls to the Washington Post to verify or deny these allegations were not returned.

What is curious about Manseau’s story is that its time frame, especially when the article was killed, coincides with the Washington Post‘s struggle to obtain its China correspondent, Andrew Higgins, a journalist visa.  Hired in 2009, Higgins was in Hong Kong, anxiously awaiting to start reporting from China.  But because of his prior work and expulsion from China in 1991, the Chinese government was not moving quickly on his application (although it did give him a temporary visa to cover President Obama’s China trip in November 2009).

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger

In fact, in March 2010, just a little less than two months before Manseau called the Chinese Embassy, the Washington Post enlisted the help of Henry Kissinger in its efforts to get Higgins a residential journalist visa.  In fact, the foreign editor at the time, Douglas Jehl, told the Washington City Paper that the Post was talking to the Chinese Embassy about Higgins visa and found that “[t]he embassy has been very responsive to our requests.”

In 2010, when Manseau was in the midst of writing his piece, Jehl was having conversations with the Chinese Embassy about Higgins’ visa.  Did the Embassy – as a quid pro quo – put pressure on the Post to pull the Falun Gong piece after Manseau showed his hand to Wang?  If it did put pressure on the Post, can the Post be blamed for pulling the article in the hopes that its reporter, desperate to enter China, would be allowed in?  More importantly, how many other editors at different news organizations have had to make similar pacts?

‘Pleased To Meet You, Hope You Guessed My Name:’ The World Media Summit

One such pact that seems to be becoming a regular affair is the “World Media Summit,” an event that the China Media Project aptly described as “the media event all major global media players attend but none bother to actually cover.”

Created in 2008, the year China was to hold its first Olympics, the World Media Summit is the brainchild of Li Congjun, president of the

Protesting the Beijing Olympics

Protesting the Beijing Olympics

state-run Xinhua News Agency and formerly deputy chief of China’s Central Propaganda Department.  With many using the Beijing Games as an opportunity to criticize China’s human rights record, 2008 was the year that the Chinese government was made painfully aware of its image problem in the Western press.

Enter Li Congjun.  According to the Summit’s English website, Li held conversations with many of the top movers and shakers of the Western media who were in town for the Games: Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, Tom Curley, President of the Associated Press, David Schlesinger, Editor-in-Chief of Reuters and Mark Thompson, Director of BBC.  These conversations allegedly resulted in everyone agreeing to “enhance cooperation in a win-win context” and the creation of the World Media Summit.

Since those first formative talks, there have been two World Media Summits, with the list of significant media outlets in attendance increasing.  This past October, the World Media Summit’s presiding members, which according to Chinese news reports include executives from News Corporation, the Associated Press, Reuters, ITAR-TASS News Agency, Kyodo News, BBC, Turner Broadcasting, Google, Al Jazeera, the New York Times Company, NBC News, MIH Group, and Kasturi & Sons Limited, held a meeting in Hangzhou, China to discuss the next summit and the possibility of creating an international prize for journalism.

China's World Media Summit

China’s World Media Summit

It not out of the ordinary for the Chinese government to create an alternative reality, a sort of cocoon world.  Largely its internet is sealed off from the rest of the world – while everyone else is on Twitter, the Chinese are on Weibo – and in response to some of the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s choices, in particular the selection of human rights activist and current prisoner Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government created the Confucius Peace Prize.  Vladimir Putin was the 2011 winner.

Thus, the idea of creating an international journalism prize without acknowledging the existence of already established journalist prizes is not necessarily bizarre for China.  But it is a bit curious that media outlets like the New York Times and the Associated Press, would be on board with such a prize.  And who would determine the criteria?  Unfortunately  the World Media Summit is not a transparent event, at least not in the Western press.  Agendas, agreements or any other outcomes are not made public.

But what was made public – at least by Xinhua News – is that the New York Times will host the 2014 World Media Summit followed by Al Jazeera in 2016.  Not surprisingly, other than Bloomberg, these two media companies have faced some of the harshest journalist visa treatment.  As recounted in Part 1, two New York Times reporters have been waiting for over a year for their journalist visas.  Al Jazeera’s situation is even worse.  In 2012, it had to completely shut down its China operations when the Chinese government conveniently failed to renew its sole reporter, Melissa Chan’s, journalist visa before it expired.  Chan, who had been covering sensitive subjects like China’s use of “black jails” to quash dissent, fled China in May 2012.

Is hosting the World Media Summit the quid pro quo for positive visa treatment?  Will the New York Times and Al Jazeera reporters now be

Melissa Chan, no longer reporting from China

Melissa Chan, no longer reporting from China

able to get into China?  If Manseau’s tale is correct, the answer is no.  His Falun Gong piece was killed but Andrew Higgins never got his journalist visa.  Similarly, Bloomberg’s recent actions – if true – have not put its journalists in a better position.  At Tuesday’s no-questions press conference between  U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, Bloomberg reporter and U.K. citizen Robert Hutton was blocked from attending.  The Chinese government has denied that this was intentional.

Why does this keep happening?  Why does each media company think that it will be the exception?  It is the lack of unity among the major media outlets in dealing with the Chinese government about their journalists’ visas that is a weakness.  Each thinks it can make its own compromise with Beijing.  And that is their second fallacy: seeking compromise.  Compromise is not usually what authoritarian regimes do.  Control and domination – like the Chinese government’s relationship with its domestic media – is the usual end game.  Even with a united front, this is likely not a battle that the Western media can win on its own.

For Part 3, which examines the U.S. government’s present response and what it can do to change this situation, is posted here.

Another American Reporter Banned From Beijing

By , December 3, 2013

Part 1 of a three part series on American journalists’ difficulty in obtaining visas to China

china media pressIn less than two years, China has effectively banned four journalists – either American citizens or those working for American media companies – from entering and reporting on the country.  Their crime?  None that the Chinese government cares to explain.  But most outside of China believe that it was these reporters’ – or their colleagues’ – critical coverage of China that proved to be their sin.

As China rises, its government has come to realize that it has a bit of a problem: its image.  While the Chinese government can effectively censor its domestic media from reporting on human rights violations, political unrest, corruption, or anything it deems sensitive, its control of the foreign media has long proven less successful.  Until more recently.  For the past few years, Beijing has increasingly used the journalist visa process to try to influence foreign reportage and to signal to foreign media outlets that they better tone down critical coverage.  Unfortunately, it appears that some U.S. news organizations are getting the message and towing the line.

To date, the U.S. government has remained silent about China’s assault on foreign journalists, even as U.S. citizens and news outlets are increasingly targeted.   Last month, when China denied Reuters‘ visa request for veteran China journalist Paul Mooney, the Administration again failed to issue any public statement.

The U.S. government’s silence is not without its costs.  As the world’s second largest economy and an increasingly bellicose nation, accurate reporting on the country is imperative to the United States.  If Beijing is permitted to continue to trifle with foreign journalists’ visas, frank reporting on China will become a relic of the past.  But it is the U.S. government that can prevent this outcome if it chooses to act and not wait for the situation to get worse.  Which it will if the past year is any guide.

Paul Mooney’s Experience Epitomizes Foreign Journalists’ Visa Anguish

Soft-spoken  and unassuming, Paul Mooney is not what you would expect from a former soldier who saw some of the worst fighting of the

Paul Mooney, now in San Francisco

Paul Mooney, now in San Francisco

Vietnam War.  But those familiar with his hard-hitting news reports on China, have little difficulty understanding why he’s been called the bane of Beijing.

Mooney, a freelance journalist in China for the past 18 years, moved back to the United States when his contract with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post expired.  With his in-depth knowledge of China, understanding of its people and politics, and fluency in Mandarin, Reuters quickly picked up Mooney as one of their China correspondents.  Mooney is the type of reporter you want on the ground in China if you want accurate and interesting reporting.  Reuters submitted Mooney’s journalist visa application in March 2013.

In a phone interview with China Law & Policy, Mooney said he figured the Chinese government would make him jump through some hoops to get the visa since some of his articles in the past few years covered more sensitive topics.  In fact, during his last two visa renewal cycles in Beijing – in 2010 and 2011 – the Public Security Bureau (“PSB” – the organization that renews the actual visa) had him meet with officers in an interrogation room in the back of the visa application hall.  In 2010 – in what Mooney interpreted as a power play – the PSB demanded that his wife attend the visa renewal interview with him.

If the 2010 and 2011 renewal processes were difficult, applying for a new journalist visa from abroad just added to Mooney’s struggle.  In April 2013, Mooney was summoned to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for an interview.  But again what should have been a routine affair proved to be a 90 minute interrogation.  Familiar with his articles and prior visa interviews, the consular officer grilled Mooney on some of his more critical articles such as the suppression of Chinese rights activists and the Chinese government’s treatment of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.  According to Mooney, the official ended the interview telling him that if China let him back in he hoped that his reporting would prove more “objective.”  “It is outrageous and unacceptable that they can call you in and tell you how to report” Mooney told China Law & Policy.  “Imagine a U.S. official calling in a German reporter and telling him what to write about?”

According to Mooney, another Reuters China correspondent who applied for a new visa around the same time Mooney did and whose focus was solely economic, received her journalist visa approval in May.  But for Mooney, the wait continued for another seven months. Then on November 8, 2013, Reuters informed Mooney that China had denied his visa application.  According to Mooney, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) did not explain its decision providing only a cryptic written statement to other journalists covering his visa denial that its determination was made in accordance with Chinese law and regulations.  “If they want to reject you, they should give a reason” Mooney said.  “This is not the behavior of a country that wants to be a superpower or a respected power.  It’s childish.”

Mooney believes the Chinese government’s real reason to deny him a visa was to censor his China reporting and potentially chill other foreign correspondents’ China coverage.  Calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington went unanswered.

Harassment of Resident Foreign Journalists in the Visa Renewal Process

visa0309What Mooney labels “childish” behavior – the use of the visa process to ostensibly chill the foreign press – appears to have become a strategy that the Chinese government is more quick to employ.  Which it can do on an annual basis.  For resident journalists in China, the journalist visa (“J-1 visa”) is only good for a year, expiring every December.  Beginning in November, every resident foreign journalist begins the renewal process, first re-applying with MOFA for a press card and then, once obtaining the press card, renewing her J-1 visa with the PSB.  But what should be a routine event has turned into an anxiety-ridden affair.

In the past three 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 its November 2012 survey,[1] the FCCC found that since the end of 2011, at least 29 resident foreign correspondents were threatened with a visa non-renewal.  The respondents’ quotes (119 FCCC members responded to the survey) show that some of these threats were linked to specific reporting or journalists’ “attitude.”

Currently, all of China’s resident foreign correspondents are undergoing the visa renewal process.  In a phone interview with China Law & Policy, Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, said that it was just too early to draw any conclusions from the 2013 process as it is ongoing but he did note that “reporters for media which have displeased the authorities appear to be facing unexpected delays.”

Who displeases the authorities is anyone’s guess although some topics are touchier than others on the Chinese government’s revolving list of sensitive subjects.  But as Ford told China Law & Policy, “it would seem that the red line the government has drawn in the last 18 months concerns finances of senior government officials.”  In line with that assessment is the fact that for the two foreign media outlets that covered that issue – Bloomberg and the New York Times – both have had their websites blocked in China since publishing their reports.  In January 2013, the New York Times reported that Chinese hackers – hackers possibly related to the Chinese military – had attacked its website for many months. Those attacks began on the eve of the Times‘ publication of the first of David Barboza’s Pultizer Prize-winning series on Premier Wen Jiabao’s role in preventing the legally-mandated break-up of one of his family’s lucrative holdings – Ping An Insurance.

Additionally, according to Ford, China’s changed visa regulations, which applies to all foreigners residing in China, makes renewal of the J-1 visa chine mediaprocedurally more difficult.  With the new regulations that went into effect in July 2013, the PSB (which is the entity that issues the visa; MOFA issues the press card which is necessary to obtain to apply for the visa) is now permitted to take 15 business days – basically three weeks – to issue the renewal. During that time period, the PSB holds on to the reporter’s passport, making international travel impossible.  Prior to those changes, the PSB only had 5 business days for the renewal process.  How these procedural changes will affect the J-1 visa renewal process is yet to be seen, but at the very least, it makes an already trying process more difficult.

Foreign Media Outlets Can’t Get Their Reporters In

For foreign journalists living in China, the visa renewal process is certainly distressing.  But for those journalists trying to get into China, the visa process can become a wall.  Included in the FCCC’s November 2012 report, 20 foreign reporters stated that they had to wait four months or more for their J-1 visas to be processed.  According to Ford, the FCCC considers waiting more than three months for a J-1 excessive.  For a temporary correspondent who receives a J-2 Visa, the FCCC believes it should only be a 30 day wait.

Presently, two individuals waiting an excessive period of time for a journalist visa are New York Times’ reporters Philip Pan and Chris Buckley.  Pan, who is ostensibly the New York Times‘ Beijing Bureau chief, has been in a Chinese government-imposed visa-limbo since March 2012.  His colleague Buckley, reporting on China from Hong Kong, has been waiting for his J-1 visa since at least December 2012.

nytBut the New York Times is not alone.  Andrew Higgins, the Washington Post‘s China correspondent waited in Hong Kong for over three years for his J-1 visa.  His crime?  Likely his 1991 expulsion from China for possession of confidential documents concerning the alleged suppression of a Mongolian nationalist movement.  Unable to obtain his J-1 visa, in September 2012, Higgins announced his resignation from the Washington Post.  He now reports for the New York Times from Brussels.

If Higgins’ experience and Mooney’s outright visa denial are any guide, the future does not look bright for Pan and Buckley.  Especially in light of the fact that the New York Times has more recently published another likely sensitive series –  J.P. Morgan Chase’s hiring of the Chinese leadership’s children, including the daughter of former Premier Wen Jiabao.  Luckily the New York Times hasn’t gotten the hint that its coverage isn’t particularly popular with the Chinese regime.

For Part 2, which examines various U.S. media outlet’s possible self-censorship, please click here.


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

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