How Should the U.S. Respond to China's Bullying of American Journalists?

Pursuing reciprocal measures against the Chinese media is logical, fair, and justified. Here's why it's a terrible idea.
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 Bloomberg News reportedly spiked an investigation into the wealth of Wang Jianlin, pictured above, due to fear that publication would threaten the company's access to China. (Jason Lee/Reuters) 

With two weeks left in the year, it's safe to say this: For the foreign media in China, 2013 has been the worst year in decades. And things could soon get worse: As of this writing, only some of the 24 China-based reporters with Bloomberg News and The New York Times have received press cards from the Chinese government, and have yet to receive visas stamped in their passports. Should the visa renewal deadline pass, these journalists will be expelled—and two of the world's largest news organizations will not have a single full-time reporter based in the country next year. 

Even if the journalists eventually get their visas renewed, the climate surrounding foreign reporting in China has changed. In November, The New York Times reported that Bloomberg News spiked an investigation into the assets of China's wealthiest man, real estate developer Wang Jianlin, in order to maintain its access to the country. This type of self-censorship exists also for individual journalists, who have an incentive to avoid sensitive subjects that may jeopardize their livelihood.

Within the United States, China's crackdown has forced Americans to come to terms with an unsettling reality: As China grows wealthier and more powerful, it is becoming less tolerant of foreign media. And more broadly, the idea that a developing China would inevitably become more liberal—dubbed the "China fantasy" by author James Mann in his excellent book of the same name—isn't happening. 

So what should the U.S. do about it? Washington has rebuked Beijing for its restrictions on media, most notably earlier this month when Vice President Joseph Biden lectured China on the virtues of an open society. But the U.S. has yet to pursue practical measures to compel the Communist Party to ease its crackdown, for two reasons. First, no one can agree how, exactly, to retaliate. And second, it's unclear that retaliation would even work. 

Washington's principal retaliatory tool would be to restrict Chinese journalists operating in the United States, a process known as "reciprocity." In recent years, the Chinese government has expanded its media presence in the U.S., employing several hundred journalists in organizations like CCTV and Xinhua. This expansion—and others elsewhere—have formed part of Beijing's attempt to increase its "soft power," defined as a country's influence minus military and economic coercion. The logic behind reciprocity is that by expelling Chinese journalists in the United States, Washington would impose a real cost on Beijing, which would then be more likely to compromise.

In September 2011, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) introduced the China Media Reciprocity Act, a new law that would require the U.S. to issue visas to journalists from state-run Chinese media in equal number to journalists working for U.S. government-funded media companies (like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia) in China. But because the VoA and RFA presence in China is tiny (far more American reporters in China work for private companies like The Times), the act would effectively shut down Chinese journalism in the United States. The bill didn't pass—but earlier this year, Rohrabacher again urged reciprocity in an article for Foreign Policy, with the logic that many Chinese journalists are propagandists and possibly spies.

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However, it's far more likely that ejecting practically all Chinese journalists from the United States—the very people most likely to sympathize with the institution of a free press—would backfire. However, Washington has other ways to retaliate. Rather than issue a reciprocal number of visas to Chinese journalists, the government could target particular news bureaus or else match the percentage of total journalists expelled. Alternatively, the U.S. could revoke visas for Chinese academics, business leaders, or diplomats. (It's worth noting that journalists are far from the only Americans who get in trouble with China.) 

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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