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.