China's Unprecedented Crackdown on The New York Times

A reporter from the newspaper discusses how the delay in issuing journalist visas is an escalation in Beijing's battle to control foreign coverage of the country.

The Chinese government has so far refused to renew journalist visas for New York Times reporters based in the country. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

ChinaFile contacted a New York Times reporter for an update on the situation in the Times’ Beijing and Shanghai bureaus. The following is from an email exchange with the reporter, who asked not to be named to avoid further complicating the visa delays faced by members of the Times’ China staff. —The Editors

After Vice President Joe Biden took a forceful stand on the new threats against foreign journalists by China, some people have asked what exactly is different now. After all, foreign journalists in China have to apply at the end of every year for a renewal of their J-1 visa, which allows them to legally reside in the country, and there is sometimes uncertainty in the process. I recall a few instances in recent years where other correspondents, friends of mine, have had to wait until the last minute, as their visas inched toward expiration, before the authorities decided to process their renewal applications. In each case, the journalist had been given a stern, off-the-record lecture by officials at some point before the renewal process about their recent “negative” coverage or actions. And in each case, the journalist did think that expulsion was a possibility. They said the goal of the authorities was to coerce them into practicing self-censorship.

The actions being taken in recent weeks against The New York Times and Bloomberg News bring those tactics to a new level. For journalists at the Times, issuance of press cards—a government accreditation that must be renewed annually as the first step in the visa application process—stopped around November 13. 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. As Jill Abramson, our executive editor, has said in interviews this week, Chinese officials have in the last year admonished the paper’s correspondents and editors for reporting on the personal lives and family wealth of China’s leaders. Bloomberg News has received the same scoldings, for a series of stories it published last year. And both organizations have suffered what are in effect forms of economic sanctions, by having their websites blocked in China or, in the case of Bloomberg, terminal sales halted.

The process of getting a J-1 visa renewal can be confusing to an outsider. It goes in two stages at the end of every year—first, you get the new press card from the Foreign Ministry, then you apply for the visa itself. A few Times reporters applied for new press cards in the first week of November, when the process began, and received them within a week. In recent years, this has been the standard length of time it has taken foreign correspondents to renew press cards. The next step is to drop off a passport, copy of the new press card and other supporting documents at the Public Security Bureau’s entry-exit office, east of the Lama Temple. Officials there had said it would take 15 working days this year to complete the processing of J-1 visas. In late November, the Times reporters who had submitted their paperwork were called back into the office and told to take back those documents—with no new visas inside their passports. Officials at the bureau told the reporters there was a problem, and that it was impossible to proceed.

This act of returning passports without visas during the renewal process had not happened before to any journalist I know. Along with the freeze on the issuance of press cards for Times reporters who had not gotten theirs earlier, this was a clear sign that the Times was in trouble. One Times journalist who showed up at the Foreign Ministry at the end of November to pick up his press card was told he could not get it, even though a ministry employee had called the bureau weeks earlier, before the publication of the Wen Ruchun story, to say the card was ready. The day he showed up, an employee at the front desk holding a card called out his name in Chinese, looked down at the card when he reached out for it, then scurried into an office and did not return. A second employee told him the card belonged to “another foreign journalist with the same name”—an unlikely scenario, to say the least.

Bloomberg is the other news organization dealing with the same problems right now. Between the two bureaus, two dozen journalists and their families are affected by the visa delay. In its scale, this campaign has no precedent. And officials no doubt intend for it to resonate with all journalists covering China.

Do we fear expulsion? It’s impossible to discount the possibility, given what has happened in recent years to Melissa Chan, Andrew Higgins, Chris Buckley and Paul Mooney. Chris has been reporting for us from Hong Kong because China has yet to grant him a new J-1 visa. Our editors hired him from Reuters more than a year ago, and he was forced to leave China by Dec. 31 of last year when his visa for The Times did not materialize. In the cases of those journalists, there was little public outcry over their predicaments in the weeks before Chinese officials made decisions that forced them to leave the country or remain outside it. That is different now, since Vice President Biden and others have taken a vocal stand and have hinted at deeper repercussions. The United States government has firmly put this issue on the agenda.

We are all still reporting and writing stories. But as Chris did last year, we’re also looking around our homes and wondering what we might have to pack in our bags in the coming weeks, what farewells we might have to say. All of us believe that engagement with China is part of our mission, both personal and professional, and that we are one of many bridges between China and the rest of the world. Our work only reflects the proper nuances, texture and voices—in other words, the true nature of China—if we’re on the ground. Living inside China, we listen to the people here. I’m hopeful there are Chinese officials who see the value in that, and who will make the right decision.

A version of this post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.