China’s leader, Xi Jinping, made headlines weeks ago with plans to further open up China’s economy through private investment and adoption of cleaner, greener technology. The United States should welcome this transition, but not if Xi simultaneously cracks down on the free flow of information from China, including coverage by foreign correspondents.
China appears prepared to expel two dozen journalists employed by the New York Times and Bloomberg News by refusing to renew their visas by year’s end. The Times and Bloomberg have reported on the wealth accumulated by Chinese leaders and their families, a topic that Chinese officials view as off limits. Since 2012, Chinese authorities have refused to renew or issue visas for reporters from Reuters and al-Jazeera, presumably because of their human rights reporting.
Vice President Joe Biden, to his credit, made treatment of U.S. journalists an issue during his recent visit to Asia. The United States cannot build a stronger relationship with China – financial or otherwise – if foreign coverage is stifled and information is limited to what Chinese leaders choose to release.
The United States should not respond in kind by denying visas to some of the hundreds of Chinese journalists in the United States, all of whom are employed by government-controlled media outlets. If the United States hopes to present itself as a bastion of press freedom, it cannot engage in a journalism cold war.
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But there are ways the United States and international community can exert pressure. China hopes to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The International Olympic Committee should not consider China’s bid so long as China is limiting access of some of the world’s largest media companies.
China is interested in negotiating a bilateral investment treaty with the United States to make it easier for China to invest in U.S. property and companies and for the United States to do the same in China.
Yet as the China observer Bill Bishop has noted, restrictions on media coverage would reduce information flow between the two countries, and “both sides will be unable to make informed investment decisions.” He advocates that the Obama administration make media and researcher access a condition of treaty talks, and be willing to walk away if Beijing balks.
The U.S. and foreign media are hardly the only victims of the “Great Wall of China,” the People’s Republic’s relentless efforts to control and censor information. U.S. academics – including Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link of the University of California, Riverside – have been denied visas to China for years after they published research on the Tiananmen Square crackdown and other topics China views as sensitive. Numerous books, movies and works of music are banned from the Chinese mainland.
The United States needs to send a clear signal that in an increasingly digitally connected world, China will hurt its own future by exiling nettlesome messengers and trying to embargo information.