Covering China goes far beyond the current visa woes

Everyone agreed at the panel discussion I took part in yesterday in Washington that the fate of about two dozen journalists working for The New York Times and Bloomberg News in China is unresolved. No one knows what will happen by the ostensible deadline of midnight, December 31, 2013, for their expulsion. I say ostensible, because maybe the deadline can be extended under some arcane rule known only to China’s immigration officials. For now, those journalists are dangling in what has come to be called “visa purgatory,” a term attributed to me but which really came from one of those journalists in purgatory, that is to say, waiting in Beijing for his visa to be renewed, with whom I spoke recently.

Yesterday’s discussion is available at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China‘s website. My prepared testimony is available here. I cut it short to allow time for discussion and to avoid repeating points that were well made by the NYT’s Edward Wong, Time Magazine’s Hannah Beech, and Sarah Cook, Freedom House’s senior research analyst for East Asia.

An issue that came up, and one that CPJ is very concerned about, is how the United States will respond if the journalists are sent home. It was reassuring that Vice President Joseph Biden brought up the issue when he was in Beijing earlier this week. It seems to me that that sort of high-level engagement is the most effective way of dealing with the problem.

We strongly advise that Chinese journalists working in the U.S. NOT be treated in the same way their colleagues are being treated in Beijing. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China agrees, but not everyone else does, including people for whom I have a high degree of respect. Paul Mooney, who hasn’t been allowed back into China to take a new job for Reuters, told me in an interview last week he wants to see retaliation. With 18 years’ experience in China, his opinion has to be taken into consideration. A Washington Post editorial soon after Biden raised the issue in Beijing — China’s strong-arm tactics toward U.S. media merit a response  — suggested that, “if China continues to exclude and threaten American journalists, the United States should inject a little more symmetry into its visa policy.”

There is talk of other forms of retaliation, such as linking visa denials and blocked websites to trade violations under WTO regulations, or raising the ante to harassing diplomats and officials instead of making journalists’ lives and careers more difficult. Elizabeth Lynch’s three-part article in China Law and Policy, one part of which carries the sub-title, “Why the U.S. Government Must Act – Protecting an American Brand,” looks at all aspects of the problem, including how the U.S. should respond. It’s well reported and thought out.

Whether or not these American journalists stay in China, the problems of reporting from there remain. Yesterday’s panelists agreed that things have become worse under President Xi JInping’s government for all reporters, Chinese and foreigners. The way the current issue is resolved is important — it can set the tone not just for journalism but for other forms of interaction between these two powerful countries. A front page piece in today’s New York Times, U.S. Colleges Finding Ideals Tested Abroad, deals with the issues confronting U.S. universities that partner with Chinese schools. Both issues — academic freedom and journalism— represent more than just a clash of culture and ideals. There are fundamental rights issues at stake, and the dispute is coming to a head. Cool heads and wise analysis need to prevail.