For Paul Mooney, an American journalist who had been based in China for 18 years, the issue is personal. Earlier this year, Reuters hired Mooney as a features reporter based in Beijing, but the Chinese government—aware of his reporting on sensitive human rights issues—refused to grant him a visa. In a recent conversation at ChinaFile, Mooney defended reciprocity as the only way to pressure China over its treatment of journalists.
I’m not in favor of limiting the freedom of expression of Chinese journalists in the United States, but if the U.S. State Department also delayed the approvals of visas for Chinese journalists and media executives trying to work in the United States, there’s no doubt in my mind that Beijing would soon get the message, and that Beijing’s unacceptable behavior would stop.
But would this "unacceptable behavior" actually stop? Probably not. The underlying idea—that China bullies journalists because it can get away with it—makes a certain amount of sense, but in practice it ignores how the changing media landscape in the country, rather than old-fashioned chest-puffing, explains Beijing's actions.
First, the rise of Sina Weibo and other micro-blogging platforms has reduced China's ability to control the flow of information, even with the country's increasingly sophisticated censorship apparatus. In July 2011, two high-speed trains collided near the city of Wenzhou, killing 40 passengers and injuring almost 200. Almost immediately, survivors and passers-by uploaded photos of the incident, preventing the government from burying the story. That same year, Beijing watched as regimes across the Middle East fell to spontaneous protests not unlike the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that came within a hair's breadth of bringing down the Communist Party in 1989.
Foreign journalists have covered events in China for many years, enjoying a freedom unimaginable to their Chinese counterparts. But the finances of Communist Party leaders—the issue that landed The Times and Bloomberg is so much trouble—is seen as especially sensitive in Beijing. Official corruption has inflamed public opinion in the country, where the gap between the rich and poor has widened and Party cadres leverage their power to obtain wealth and privilege. President Xi Jinping has cracked down on ostentatious displays of government privilege, but the relationship between money and politics continues to pose an existential crisis to Communist rule. As a result, investigations into the wealth of top Party leaders—even in the English-language press—are considered off-limits.
China's crackdown on The Times and Bloomberg has come at the expense of the country's international reputation, but it seems, as The New Yorker's Evan Osnos has written, that China is less committed to soft power than it once was. As a result, it's unlikely that a reciprocal push against U.S-based Chinese media, while damaging to Sino-American relations, would force any movement on the Chinese side. "We will likely never win a tit for tat against the Chinese government, simply because they are willing to go much further than us," Robert Daly, a China expert at the Wilson Center, told me. "We would be playing the game on their terms." Given their investments in expanding their media presence in the U.S, China would have a lot to lose from reciprocity. But the alternative, Beijing figures, would be far worse.