Posts tagged: visa diplomacy

Forced Departure of American Journalist Megha Rajagopalan – Is it Really Not About Xinjiang?

By , September 9, 2018

***Correction – After this post was published, a reader with experience on Chinese visa issues informed China Law & Policy that it isn’t always that a news outlet cannot establish a permanent office because of economic costs or means, but also because the Chinese government will not allow certain news outlets to establish a permanent office, thus preventing those reporters the ability to obtain the J-1 visa.  We have corrected the post to reflect this important difference and thank the person who informed us.  EML, Sept. 10, 2018***

Buzzfeed’s Former Beijing Bureau Chief, Megha Rajagopalan

Every three years, the Chinese government has effectively expelled a foreign journalist from China.  It started with Melissa Chan, an American journalist working for Al Jazeera, in 2012.  In 2015, it was Ursula Gauthier, a French journalist for L’Obs.  And last month it was Megha Rajagopalan, the Beijing Bureau chief of the online news magazine Buzzfeed.

With each expulsion of a foreign journalist comes speculation as to why.  Why did the Chinese authorities fail to renew a visa or cancel a press card.  The Chinese government hardly ever explains its reasons, citing that such failure to renew a visa was “in accordance with law.”  But no law or regulation is ever cited, let alone a specific provision.  As a result, most outside of China view the Chinese government’s decision having more to do with the reporter’s coverage of China than with any violated regulation.  With Gauthier, the Chinese government was more explicit about its decision to cancel her press card, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) criticizing Gauthier by name because of her scathing editorial on the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.

Here, there can be little doubt that it was Rajagopalan’s reporting that resulted in her effective expulsion from China.  Under the law, MOFA clearly could have renewed Rajagopalan’s short-term journalist visa.  For some reason, it chose not to

Rajagopalan’s Reporting on Xinjiang – Why Is the Chinese Government So Sensitive About This?

Like Gauthier, Rajagopalan had done some hard-hitting reporting on the Uighers in Xinjiang, with an October 2017 article exposing the Chinese government’s increased surveillance and its mass detention of Uighurs for no other reason than being Uighur. Reporting from Xinjiang, Rajagopalan’s article was one of the first to uncover the Chinese government’s frightening oppression of Uighurs.  It also won her the Human Rights Press Awards’ Best Features Article (English) for that year.  In July 2018, Rajagopalan followed up her ground-breaking piece with another explosive article that brought to light the Chinese government’s pressure tactics on Uighurs abroad, including threats to send their Xinjiang-based family to internment camps if they do not spy on other Uighurs.

Xinjiang has long been a sensitive area for the Chinese government, fearing that the Muslim Uighurs could launch a successful separatist movement.  As a result, for over a decade, the Chinese government has instituted a national policy to “Go West,” encouraging ethnically Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang to develop this resource-rich area.  With the Go West policy, Xinjiang’s population has changed dramatically, with a current Han population of 40%, compared to 6% in 1949.  And with the increase in the Han population has come a decrease in the Uighur’s political clout and self-governance since Chinese Communist Party membership usually means giving up religion.  Few of the ethnically Muslim Uighurs are atheists and hence, unable to join the Party, and thus unable to effect change in their own region.  For example, when, in 2009, the Chinese government decided to destroy much of the the old city of Kashgar, a city that stood for centuries and was perhaps the most Uighur area of all of Xinjiang, the Uighurs were unable to stop it.  Needless to say, such loss of power over their own destinies and the attempted destruction of their own cultural identity has not produced a population satisfied with Chinese rule.

Some of the routes on China’s One Belt, One Road

And Xinjiang’s importance to the Chinese government has only increased in recent years as Xinjiang is central to the success of China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy.  Launched in 2013, One Belt, One Road is China’s very serious and well-funded attempt to exert economic influence globally. Xinjiang is the key land route to Central Asia and Europe, making it even more crucial that the Chinese government subdues the Uighur population.  To do so, in 2015, the Chinese government passed two national laws that had an disparate, negative effect on the Uighurs of Xinjiang: the broadly-worded National Security Law, that equated religious “extremism” with terrorism, and the Counter-Terrorism Law, which gave security forces significant powers to prohibit “extremism.”   Xinjiang was the first province to issue local regulations to carry out the precepts of the Counter-Terrorism law, including mandating governmental “aid and education” for those individuals who, while not convicted of any crimes, were induced into participating in terrorism or extremism, seemingly laying the groundwork for the mass detentions currently occurring. (See Xinjiang Implementing Regs of the Counter-Terrorism Law,  Art. 38)  And Rajagopalan’s article was one of the first to show that Uighurs were in fact being massively surveilled and detained in re-education internment camps without ever being tried – let alone convicted – of any crime.  Instead it was the simple practice of their religion that the government viewed as “extremism.”

Since Rajagopalan’s October 2017 article, both by the United States Department of State and the United Nations estimate that close to a million Uighurs have been sent to these internment camps without any trial, all for the purpose of stamping out the Uighur identity.  And there appears to be no end in sight with satellite images showing the rapid building of what looks like even more internment camps.

Chinese police officer stands guard outside a mosque in Xinjiang.

As more and more information began to emerge in the international media about the depth of the Chinese government’s whole-scale human rights violations against Uighurs, and as foreign governments and international bodies began to take notice and advocate sanctions against China, Rajagopalan’s visa was almost up and the Chinese government was in the midst of determining whether to renew it.  In May 2018, MOFA, the oversight agency of foreign journalists, informed Buzzfeed Rajagopalan’s journalist visa would not be renewed, forcing Rajagopalan to leave China as soon as it expired.

When questioned at an August 23, 2018 press conference, MOFA spokesperson Lu Wei stated that Rajagopalan’s visa issue was handled “in accordance with law and regulation” and, in his remarks, made a distinction, without explaining the significance, between Rajagopalan’s visa – a short-term journalist visa, known as a J-2 visa – and a resident foreign reporter’s visa, known as a J-1 visa.

Are J-2 Visa’s Non-Renewable Under Chinese Law?

Unlike the United States, where there is only one type of journalist visa, Chinese law distinguishes between two types of journalist visas, the J-1 and the J-2.  The J-1 visa can only be issued to journalists whose news agency has a permanent office in China (See Regulations on the Exit-Entry of Foreign Administration of Foreign Nationals (“Exit-Entry Regulations”), Article 6(5)).  Because of the “permanent office” requirement, J-1 visas are increasingly issued to only more traditional outlets; think the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, etc.  J-1 visas also confers residency status, and J-1 visa holders must also apply for a Press Card from MOFA within 7 business days of their arrival in China. (See Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists (“Foreign Media Regulations”), Article 10).

J-2 visas are issued to journalists who come to China for short-term reporting and there is no permanent office requirement. (Exit-Entry Regulations, Article 6(5).)  Traditionally, those are journalists coming to do a one-off story; for example, when a New York Newsday reporter travels to cover the U.S. President’s visit to China, or the Des Moines Register sends a reporter to cover the pork market in China.  J-2 visas are limited to six months (Foreign Media Regulations, Article 2) and J-2 journalists do not obtain a Press Card.

MOFA spokesperson Lu Wei

But increasingly, news agencies are seeking to send long-term reporters to China without establishing a permanent office.  This is especially true of online outlets like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, who, according to a source with knowledge of China’s visa issues, the Chinese government will not permit to set up a permanent offices.  or any agency that just doesn’t have the deep pockets of a Wall Street Journal or a New York Times.  But because they do not have a permanent office, Thus, their China-based reporters cannot obtain a J-1 visa.  Instead, the Chinese government has been providing these reporters with a J-2 visa with the understanding that the visa will be renewed when the initial term is over.  According to the New York Times, this was the deal that Buzzfeed worked out with the Chinese government prior to Rajagopalan’s arrival –a six month J-2 visa renewable upon its expiration. But when Rajagopalan’s six months were up, MOFA failed to renew her J-2 visa.

MOFA’s response to the question about the failure to renew Rajagopalan’s visa – that she was not a resident foreign reporter – seems to imply that the law does not permit the renewal of J-2 visas.  But this is not true.  Article 29 of China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law clearly contemplates the renewal of any short-term visa.  Article 29 lays out the procedures by which the holder can apply for an extension and the only limitation being that the renewed visa cannot be for a longer length of time than the original visa.

Al Jazeera journalist, Melissa Chan, back when she could report from China

In fact, MOFA has renewed J-2 visas in similar situations.  For two years, Matt Sheehan was the Huffington Post’s China-based reporter, meaning that his J-2, short-term visa must have been renewed every six months.  Similarly, Melissa Chan had three J-2 visas, repeatedly renewed until the Chinese government refused to renew her visa for a fourth time.

MOFA had the authority to renew Rajagopalan’s J-2 visa, it just decided not to.  And Rajagopalan’s reporting on Xinjiang was the catalyst that has led to the current international attention to Xinjiang, including the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s public rebuke of the Chinese government’s practices in Xinjiang.  In July, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a powerful hearing condemning China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and calling for the use of the Magnitsky Act against officials involved with Xinjiang.

Going to market in the police state of Xinjiang

Every day there are more and more articles exposing the internment of millions and the efforts to eliminate the Uighur culture.  The international heat is on about the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.  And the Chinese government’s failure to renew Rajagopalan’s visa was not just retribution against her.  Likely it was intended as a teaching lesson to other journalists – report on this and we might fail to renew your visa too.  Fortunately, no one has taken the cue and powerful reporting continues.  What will be the test comes this December, when all resident foreign reporters go through the annual rite of renewing their press cards and J-1 visas.  On some level, Rajagopalan, with her short-term J-2 visa, was low-hanging fruit.  Will the Chinese government conveniently lose paper work of resident foreign journalists, forcing them to leave the country while they wait for their paperwork to be found?  Or will press cards be canceled?  Or even more terrifyingly, will the Chinese government completely close off all access to Xinjiang?

Make no mistake, Rajagopalan was only the start.  Xinjiang – and the Chinese government’s desire to eradicate a strong Uighur identity – is too important for the Chinese government not to ratchet up its game.

But if not the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, Then What?

By , July 18, 2012

Part 3 of a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China
(Click here for Part 1; click here for Part 2)

There is a chance that passage of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act could result in China granting visas to U.S. government journalist, but that possibility is slim.  The effects of passage of the Act mentioned in Part 1 – the eradication of the Chinese press in the U.S., an all out visa war, and greater suppression of freedom of the press – are much more likely and not positive.  But the U.S. does not have to sit back and just watch the Chinese government harass and censor their journalists.  Below are some less extreme alternatives that the U.S. government can conduct to express its displeasure with the Chinese government and perhaps change the current situation.

Alternative #1: Raise the Issue When it Happens

The U.S government’s tepid response to Melissa Chan’s unlawful expulsion was a missed opportunity to underscore the U.S.’ commitment to freedom of the press to the Chinese government.  The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is not necessary if the U.S. government publicly stresses that this is an important issue.  While some may argue that private diplomacy and comments work better with China, the current Administration has publicly censure China when its behavior bucks international human right standards.  As recently as last Tuesday, while on a trip to Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly criticized China for its lack of freedom for its own people.

Similarly, if freedom of the press means something, after Melissa Chan’s expulsion, the U.S. State Department should have issued an official statement from a high ranking official reprimanding China for unlawfully using the visa process to censor foreign journalist coverage.  Perhaps such a statement would have given Beijing pause and might cause it to change from its current course of conduct.  But a mere statement of “disappoint” permits Beijing to continue harassing foreign journalists and interfering with their coverage by threatening to deny visa renewals.  Rhetoric can make a difference or at the very least serve as a signaling device to Beijing that this is an important issue that the U.S. government is not going to take lightly.

Alternative #2: List the Harassment of U.S. Journalists on its Website

The Foreign Correspondent Club of China (“FCCC”) previously posted their members’ incidents reports and the yearly surveys on their website.  But since February 2011, the FCCC is no longer posting the reports or the surveys because of increasing pressure from the Chinese government.  As Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, told China Law & Policy, the FCCC removed mention of the incident reports because “the [Chinese] Foreign Ministry threatened the FCCC president and other officers with unspecified ‘serious consequences’ if the club continued to make public statements that the government regarded as political. To ensure the club’s continued existence we have since limited our public statements to particularly egregious violations of our journalistic rights and freedoms, such as physical injuries sustained by foreign reporters at police hands and Melissa Chan’s expulsion.”

Ambassador to China Gary Locke - can he help protect US journalists?

The public availability of the incident reports provided an important look into the treatment of foreign journalists in China, including their visa issues.  But with the Chinese government’s censorship of the FCCC, that important information is no longer available and it becomes difficult to know the current situation in Beijing.

But the U.S. Embassy in Beijing can serve this function by posting U.S. journalists’ incident reports.  At the very least, they can list the issues that U.S. journalists are having with the visa process serving two purposes: informing its citizens about the j-visa process and highlighting to the Chinese government that this is a serious matter that the Embassy plans to monitor.  The U.S. Embassy in Beijing does something similar for air pollution; the Embassy has a page dedicated to listing air quality reports every hour.  This webpage has  irked the Chinese government since the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection hosts a similar webpage but usually with more positive air quality numbers, making apparent that someone is not telling the truth.  There is no reason why the same can’t be done with U.S. journalists in China.

Alternative #3: Deny a Visa

But another reason why the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is not necessary – and another tool that can be used to protect our journalists in Beijing – is that the U.S. can deny visas under current law.  The Immigration and Nationality Act provides the executive branch with a list of circumstances, which at times are very vague, where the government can deny a visa.  Section 212(a)(3)(C) allows the State Department to deny a visa if there are adverse foreign policy concerns: “An alien whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable ground to believe would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States is inadmissible.”  Within the courts, the executive branch is given almost exclusive deference in immigration and visa decisions.  See Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753 (1972).

If rhetoric does not work with the Chinese government, the U.S. government can threaten to deny a visa to a single Chinese reporter.  This might do the trick without damaging freedom of the press too much.  In “The Visa Dimension of Diplomacy,” Prof. Kevin D. Stringer analyzed the use of visas as a diplomatic tool.  Although Stringer is not keen on the denial of a visa as a sanctioning tool, he does note that on occasion it has produced positive results.  After India unexpectedly conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the U.S. denied a visa to Dr. R. Chidambaram, the Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, who had come to the U.S. multiple times before.

The denial was symbolic but had a larger psychological impact on Indians on work visas or those who wanted to send their children to a U.S. college.; would their visas be denied as well?  How far would the U.S. go?

Similarly, the U.S. government could threaten to deny – or just not process – a visa to a key Chinese reporter.  In February 2012, to much fanfare in China, the Chinese government launched CCTV America, based in Washington, D.C.  A threat to deny a visa to one of their top reporters or directors could put the Chinese on notice that the U.S. is not going to stand for the harassment of U.S. reporters abroad.  Similar to the 1998 India situation, given the large number of political elites’ children who attend college in America, a single visa denial could have a similar psychological impact on influential elites in China.

The U.S. does not have to pass the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, but it does need to communicate its displeasure with the way foreign correspondents are treated in China.  There are other avenues to do that but one thing is clear, the U.S. government must start raising this issue otherwise things will only continue to deteriorate as it has for the past three years.

To see Part 1, click here; to see Part 2, click here

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

By , July 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be concluded in Part 3


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

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