Reciprocity and Journalist Visas

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Foreign Policy magazine has been very hit or miss lately when it comes to China coverage. Given that the U.S.-China relationship is so important and that FP is the preeminent foreign policy periodical, this is a worrisome trend. I like to keep an open mind, but I have to admit that I was ready to write a scathing criticism after reading the headline “Under Cover: Why are we giving visas to Chinese spies?” written by U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. The article deals with journalist visas and reciprocity.

Obviously that headline doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Anything with “Chinese” and “spies” in the title tends not to be a serious policy discussion. Even after reading the article and, as you’ll see below, deciding that it wasn’t as bad as advertised, the headline leaves a distinctly bad taste in my mouth, not to mention the suggestion that some of China’s journalists are intelligence operatives.

But of course this sort of thing comes naturally to the author. Rohrabacher is a bit of a loon. I’m embarrassed to say that not only has he represented folks from California in the House for several decades, but he also happens to be the chair one of the House foreign affairs subcommittees. Yikes. This is a an old Cold Warrior nutjob who, I fondly recall, spent much of the 1990s making speeches to an empty House after hours (for the C-Span cameras) about how President Bill Clinton was a secret Soviet agent.

Right. One of those people. Needless to say, he’s a big supporter of defense contractors and not a Panda Hugger.

I have to admit, though, that there’s an actual issue lurking in the FP article. You have heard that several foreign journalists over here in China have had trouble getting their visas renewed. For the reporters over at Bloomberg and the New York Times that have recently done investigative pieces on the personal finances of some of China’s leaders, these visa problems have not exactly come as a great surprise.

Rohrbacher contrasts these problems with the treatment given to Chinese journalists in the U.S., noting that in 2011, the U.S. granted 811 I-visas to Chinese journalists. His conclusion is that the current situation is unfair and needs adjustment:

In response, in September 2011 I introduced the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, designed to enforce existing legislation in the Immigration and Nationality Act stating that non-immigrant visas for members of foreign press shall be issued upon a basis of reciprocity. My bill requires visas for reporters who work for state media organizations from China to be issued on a one-for-one basis.

I’m not going to analyze Rohrabacher’s legislation in detail (it never went anywhere), but the issue itself is a fair one. Moreover, as there seem to be merits on both sides of this argument, I’m not quite sure where I stand on this.

Reciprocity always seems like a fair way to deal with bilateral policy, at least at first. It’s not quite the embodiment of the Golden Rule, but it’s the next best thing (i.e., Do Unto Others What They’ve Already Done Unto You). China for one loves it some reciprocity, particularly when it comes to foreign relations. For example, a large number of its administrative rules governing bilateral relations, including some visa procedures, have been put into place with reciprocity in mind.

So why shouldn’t the U.S. learn a thing or two from Beijing and do business on a reciprocal basis?  My initial response to this would be: Sure, why not? Maybe this would discourage some of the more heavy-handed practices that we’ve seen lately.

However, I have some reservations. For one thing, there is a benefit to taking the high road. Current U.S. policy is fairly liberal (compared to China) when it comes to accreditation of foreign journalists. If you’re a foreign journalist and want to come into the U.S. and report on, well, whatever, then the U.S. will, in most cases, let you in. Nothing wrong with sticking to that policy notwithstanding the treatment U.S. journalists get elsewhere.

Additionally, I’m not so sure that reciprocity would work so well here. We’re not talking about some cut-and-dried trade issue whereby if one country raises tariffs on oranges by 1%, the other country raises tariffs on lemons by the same amount.

Why has China not renewed the visas of some of these reporters? Because it perceived, rightly or wrongly, that the reporter or organization was out to get them (i.e. the country) with negative coverage. Denying the visa sends the clear message “We don’t like what you said about us, and we wish you would stop doing it.”

China cares deeply about its image abroad, and there are folks in the government that sincerely believe that these foreigners are “out to get them.” Given that sensibility, I have a feeling that reciprocity or not, these guys from the NYT or Bloomberg would have been dinged regardless.

Last, there is this issue regarding “State media.” Rohrabacher touched on this in his article, mentioning organizations like the Voice of America. The problem with reciprocity and State media is trying to figure out how to define it. The U.S. just doesn’t have a big government presence here, VOA notwithstanding. In contrast, Beijing exerts a great deal of control over Chinese media, whether directly via organizations like Xinhua or CCTV or indirectly through a wide variety of mechanisms. I have a feeling that a guy like Rohrabacher would classify pretty much all media outlets over here as “State media,” making any reciprocal policies difficult, if not impossible, to figure out.

When push comes to shove, I usually side with liberal policies, so although I see some merits to reciprocity here, I think current U.S. policy is a lot better than what Rohrabacher has in mind. That isn’t to say, however, that someone a bit less Cold Warriorish might not have a better solution.

5 responses on “Reciprocity and Journalist Visas

  1. FOARP

    RE: the title – I always give the benefit of the doubt here. There’s no knowing whether the title was chosen by the editors or the choice of the author.

    As for reciprocity – I don’t like it, at least in this case. Simply deporting reporters who work for state-media in retaliation for a refusal by the PRC authorities to renew PRC visas for non-PRC journalists is something with what people in the world might call “bad optics” – never mind that many of the journalists working for US news outlets in China are not US citizens and some of those working for Xinhua/CCTV may be US citizens. PNG-ing a whole load of ‘cultural attaches’ or even suspected spies amongst those working for Xinhua/CCTV/etc. in retaliation for an actual case of PRC espionage is fair game though, since there is at least some reason to believe that it may deter further espionage, and some grounds on which the selection of who is PNG’ed can be made.

  2. Justin

    Somehow I don’t think the Chinese government would care as much if some of its reporters are denied visas. It’s not waging a softpower campaign in the US or if it has, they are just not a credible critic of US government. But with something like Al Jazeera, a very vocal and very credible critic especially during the height of the Iraq war, we hear the Chinese “they are out to get us” attitude mirrored in speeches in the house (and not to mention deliberate military force being used against its journalists and the organization)

  3. slim

    Another objection: If the US government retaliates against China for its offenses against independent and private American media like the NYT or Bloomies, this reinforces the utterly mistaken belief of many in China, particularly the nationalist camp, that the US media work hand-in-glove with their government, like most of the Chinese media actually do, whatever the ideals of some individual reporters. (Pug_ster has made just that erroneous assertion over that the Wall St Journal in connection with the NanFangZhouMo protest. I know… I know… but he won’t be alone in making that mistake.)

  4. Handler

    Osnos directs readers to Daly’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. While I find his assessment reasonable, his recommendations leave much to be desired.,d.b2I&cad=rjt

  5. Deskhand

    Well, Stan, I wonder how cool and measured your analysis would be if it was corporate lawyers who were subject to this regimen in going about their business in China?
    Or how would it be if lawyers “rightly or wrongly” were “dinged” for taking the “negative” side in, say, a case of copyright litigation?
    I bet we would hear the squealing from AmCham all the way to the Potomac.
    It’s depressing how the commercial and legal community in China, with their own vested interests and expatriate postings, will always find eloquent reasons to do nothing.
    On a whole range of stuff, from copyright to technology transfer, the bill for doing nothing falls due in the end. Journalists are just the canaries in the coal mine here – and by the way, the Chinese visa sanctions are being used against journalists from many countries, not just the US.
    We all know that dealing with China is complicated and that flawed reciprocity legislation is probably not the way to go. What’s needed are smart, targeted counter-measures, not necessarily public, but enough to send a message that the next time the son or daughter of some princeling is up for a cushy job at CCTV overseas, approval won’t be just a formality. That’ll get their attention.