Standoff over journalists’ visas: a victory of posture

Standoff over journalists’ visas: a victory of posture

(Image credit: Flickr – Flodigrip’s World)

Philip Pan, The New York Times Beijing bureau chief, walked into his office with his eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed. He had been wearing that look for a whole year, ever since NYT Shanghai correspondent David Barboza’s Pulitzer Prize-winning report, published in 2012, exposed the astonishing hidden wealth amassed by the family of a high-level Communist Party leader. Mr Pan threw himself into the swivel chair, turned on his laptop and started sending out emails to both headquarters in New York and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a move to have the journalistic visas of all eight Beijing-based correspondents renewed. Clearly, a recent series of reports has undermined the already soured relations between Western news agencies and the Chinese government, who, in apparent retaliation, is wielding its right of visa issuance to express its discontent over what they say “sabotages China’s international image”.

Luckily, seven of the correspondents were granted working visas for another year at the last moment, and so did other two Wall Street Journal journalists and several of Bloomberg’s. But Austin Ramzy, former China-based Time magazine contributor who has just joined The New York Times, is still waiting for a response from the authorities. The BBC called this U-turn “a softened stance of the Chinese government”. But is it really so?

Western journalists in China are no strangers to the spate of government intimidation—Melissa Chen, former Al Jazeera journalist, was denied visa renewal and was forced out of China. She was the first of many. Months ago, the authorities rejected the visa application of Paul Mooney, a Reuters reporter who has spent the past 18 years stationed in Beijing. But the government’s move this time is unprecedented. The authorities withheld the visas of the whole The New York Times foreign reporting team and the Bloomberg financial news service. We are talking about as many as two dozen correspondents.

This open standoff has attracted widespread attention. American media and political figures are pressuring the Chinese government. Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, during his visit to China on December 5th, highlighted the lack of press freedom in China and urged Beijing to improve the treatment of US reporters in the country. He also warned China that there would be consequences if the government refuses to make any changes. Two weeks later, Tomas Friedman, a renowned columnist and author, wrote an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping criticising China’s hardline stance on the issue and suggesting that some Chinese leaders and their family members are the ones who “crossed the red line”. But, unsurprisingly, China’s position has remained unchanged.

The reason is simple and obvious. With the volatile social tensions sparked by the economic slowdown and the power struggle within the Communist Party, China is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

When involved in international affairs, China’s role is carefully tailored to the growing tensions among neighboring countries. Hailed as one of the global superpowers by the West for quite some time already, China saw 2013—the first year of President Xi’s expected ten-year tenure—as the time to improve its international status. This is also the year when Xi chose to showcase his power (coincidence?). A sudden announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone, frequent military missions to disputed waters and a complete shutdown of conversations with Japan after Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. All these events depict Xi’s China as a powerful, tough and uncompromising state.

But at home, even the most conservative and most patriotic can get a whiff of the imminent radical social changes. Mixed signals suggest that even those at the helm of the country admit, though to a very limited degree, that China is riddled with corruption (especially the bureaucracy, which President Xi has vowed to clean up numerous times), ethnic conflicts, human rights violations and legal deficiencies. However, China refuses any form of ‘external help’, abiding by the old Chinese maxim: the ugliness at home shall forever stay at home. It is as if to say that I can criticise what belongs to me, but you’d better keep your mouth shut if you are an outsider.

Chinese authorities’ pique over foreign media outposts is because they tapped into the deepest and darkest secrets of the Party leadership, as The New York Times targeted the hidden wealth of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Bloomberg focused on the family of current President Xi Jinping. Such topics are always taboo in China, as they can severely jeopardise the legitimacy of the ruling party and leadership, or to put it in a simpler way: they might make the leaders lose face. According to Chinese tradition,
when you lose face, you lose everything.

But let’s take a look at this from another angle and ask, will China actually expel these journalists? China is nowhere near this outcome. The 2008 Olympic Games earned China a reputation as a well-developed modern state, not least because of the restrained press censorship and openness to the media. Although the atmosphere has worsened since then, China can’t afford to lose this reputation entirely, otherwise the effort it put into the Olympic Games would be all in vain. If these 20 journalists were actually expelled, it would be as if China was announcing its lack of press freedom to the rest of the world, which is precisely what the authorities are striving to avoid.

As a matter of fact, as the Internet has reached every corner of the country, the authorities are aware that hiding the truth is no longer possible. If we rule this option out, the real motive behind this visa crisis becomes self-evident—they do this before they can. This is a reminder to the Western world that the Communist Party still rules China. This is the so-called powerful country attitude, but after all, it is a self-deceptive game.

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