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China’s Crackdown on Western Journalists: How Should America Respond?

China uses visa denials as a weapon against critical coverage by Western journalists.

China uses visa denials as a weapon against critical coverage by Western journalists.

Not content with controlling and censoring its own domestic news media, the Chinese government seeks also to restrict international media coverage of China. The methods Beijing employs for this purpose include political and economic pressure on Western news media, cyber-attacks on Western news websites, and harassment or expulsion of Western journalists in China.

Visa denials and refusal to renew visas are Beijing’s most frequent weapon against Western journalists. Since 2012 at least three U.S. journalists have thus been effectively expelled from China for reporting critical of the Chinese government. Now some two dozen New York Times and Bloomberg News reporters face expulsion by the end of the year for investigative reporting on the personal wealth and financial ties of top Chinese government officials.

This crackdown on U.S. journalists was among the issues Vice President Biden raised with Chinese officials during his recent visit to Beijing. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China also meets this week in Washington to discuss the issue. These are hopeful signs that America may be ready to take action in defense of press freedom, fair media access, and U.S. journalists working in China.

China’s state-run news agencies, including the Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, have offices and bureaus in New York, Washington, and other U.S. cities. Chinese media feature increasingly negative U.S. coverage in line with the increasingly nationalistic, anti-Western stance of the Chinese government. Their reporters, however, report what their government tells them to report, free of interference, obstruction, or harassment from U.S. authorities.

In a special report on censorship in China earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists recommended that the U.S. president and the State Department “engage China’s leaders on press freedom,” and that the Senate and House foreign affairs committees and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission “hold public hearings on press freedom” in China. As China’s crackdown on Western journalists worsens almost by the day, following through on these recommendations is more critical than ever.

The Center for International Media Assistance has also recommended that the U.S. and other Western governments “respond vociferously to assaults and visa delays of foreign correspondents” and “consider diplomatic options for signaling that visa delays or denials are unacceptable for a country of China’s international stature.” CIMA noted in its recommendations that “to date, the response from Western governments to growing harassment of international media in China has often been timid.”

A Congressional attempt to address this issue was made with the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act of 2011. This bill failed to pass, however, amid concerns that retaliatory limits on U.S. visas for Chinese reporters might reflect badly on America’s commitment to press freedom or set off a visa war with China. The situation for Western journalists in China has clearly worsened since 2011, however, and shows no signs of improvement.

“If China continues to exclude and threaten American journalists,” suggests a Washington Post editorial, “the United States should inject a little more symmetry into its visa policy.” Elizabeth M. Lynch writes more on the visa reciprocity option at China Law and Policy. France took such measures when its journalists were denied visas by Chinese authorities, according to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, “and the problems disappeared.” A forceful response to its bad behavior is apparently the only kind of response Beijing understands.

Besides visa reciprocity measures, some have suggested that investment and trade negotiations critical to China’s economic development should be linked to fair media access. Beijing-based American journalist Bill Bishop recommends linking negotiations on the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) to equal media access and fair treatment of U.S. journalists in China. “That message needs to come from the White House before the end of the year,” Bishop writes, “If Beijing balks, then the Obama administration should call off the BIT talks.”

In any case, Washington should send a clear message to Beijing that its unfair treatment of Western journalists and efforts to censor international media coverage of China are not acceptable. If China wishes to be treated as a respectable member of the international community, it should learn to act accordingly.



Mark C. Eades
Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades