East of the Lama Temple in Beijing sits a typically imposing building just off a busy corridor. It is the entry-exit office of the Public Security Bureau (PSB). A multi-storied, cement building with sharp angles, it is as warm and fuzzy as Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. This is where all foreign journalists must submit their J-1 visa renewal applications annually. And where, this year, reporters from the New York Times first realized they might have a problem.
As explained to the online magazine ChinaFile by a Times reporter who wished to remain anonymous, on November 13th of this year the Chinese government refused to issue new press cards to the paper’s reporters. According to the unnamed reporter, “That was the day that the Times published an investigative story on the business transactions between JPMorgan Chase and Wen Ruchun, the daughter of Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister.” Thereafter, all Times reporters who had applied for annual visa renewals were told that their visas had not been renewed and that they should retrieve their renewal applications from the PSB. Authorities offered no explanation other than that their visa renewals were not possible.
Bloomberg News reporters working in China had a similar experience. In November, reports surfaced that Bloomberg spiked a story tying the richest man in China, Dalian Wanda Group’s CEO, Wang Jianlin, to the country’s top party leaders. Bloomberg’s editor in chief reportedly defended his position by comparing it to the self-censorship media organizations practiced during World War II in order to continue reporting from Nazi-controlled Germany.
Both Bloomberg and the Times, as well as the Chinese-language editions of the Wall Street Journal and Reuters, have had their China-based websites blocked by the government for months. While there has been no official explanation, it’s widely assumed the government is punishing foreign media for investigating, as my colleague Hannah Beech, Time magazine’s Beijing bureau chief, put it, “the cozy nexus of politics and power [in China].”
On December 19th, it appeared the Chinese government may be rethinking whether it will go as far as to deny the Times and Bloomberg reporters the right to work in China or not. Reporters for both the New York Times and Bloomberg were granted press cards, the first step towards receiving the J-1 visa renewal that will allow them to remain in the country. In years past, the J-1 visa renewal period has taken five days. This year, it takes 15 days.
Even if these reporters’ J-1 visas are renewed, the Chinese government has already delivered its message. There are also no indications the government intends to ease restrictions on foreign journalists, as it promised in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. On the contrary, the government has made it clear to the media that they are being watched more closely and that the government is more willing to adopt measures to intimidate reporters and media outlets to soften if not abandon some criticism.
Take, for example, the newly announced “ideology” exam a reported 250,000 Chinese journalists are being asked to take next year. A 700-page textbook extolling the virtues of a Marxist approach to journalism is to be closely studied in order to “increase the overall quality of China’s journalists and encourage them to establish socialism as their core system of values,” according to the General Administration of Press and Publication. The exam was announced before the Times published its most controversial stories.
The guidelines and rules found in the textbook leave little to the imagination as to the Communist leadership’s intent. Reuters, for example, helpfully highlighted the following passages from the book: “it is absolutely not permitted for published reports to feature any comments that go against the party line.” Chances are, exposing corrupt leaders leveraging power for money would likely fall under that definition. But even more telling was this primer: “The relationship between the party and the news media is one of the leader and the led.” Given that attitude and approach, one can only imagine what the New Year will bring for foreign journalists based in China, visas or not.