Comparing the treatment of foreign journalists in China and in the United States not only is misleading, it is downright insulting.
The news that President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had reached an agreement to restart visas for foreign journalists was greeted by some as an indication that Biden is getting tough on China.
Others correctly argued that progress on visas is not even close to dealing with the problems foreign journalists face when attempting to cover China.
The Biden-Xi agreement, reached during the two leaders’ videoconference summit Nov. 16, reverses the tough action taken by President Donald Trump in March 2020 against the Chinese media presence in the United States. That move restricted Chinese state media journalists—the only kind there is—to 90-day visas to the U.S. It also restricted their number to 100.
Trump’s action was in response to the expulsion from China of 13 reporters for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal over their reporting on the origins of the coronavirus.
Under the Biden-Xi agreement, according to the State Department, the People’s Republic of China will extend visa validity for U.S. journalists to one year. In return, the U.S. committed to do the same for Chinese journalists. (However, according to Chinese state media, the U.S. is supposed to take the first step.)
Beijing also has said it will permit U.S. journalists already in the country to freely depart and return, which they previously were unable to do, and the U.S. plans to do the same for Chinese journalists.
Whether or not Beijing intends to honor those provisions, it’s a fact that foreign journalists in China do a difficult and dangerous job. It’s one of the worst places in the world to cover.
Calling the Biden-Xi agreement a “step in the right direction,” Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told Politico that the agreement fails to address that foreign journalists in China are routinely “mistreated, mishandled, and denied visas arbitrarily.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., author of a 2020 bill dubbed the Chinese-Backed Media Accountability Act, called the agreement a “farce.” Blackburn said we need to “create a system that would verify U.S. journalists are afforded freedom of movement and are free from harassment in mainland China.”
Foreign reporters in China have been treated abysmally and frequently are imprisoned. Sometimes they flee as Chinese authorities are closing in on them and face jail time on cooked-up charges.
According to a report by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, growing numbers of foreign journalists have been forced to leave China, including Americans, Australians, and Britons. Last year, 20 foreign journalists were forced to flee, subject to intimidation simply for doing their jobs. BBC correspondent John Sudworth left China for Taiwan with the state police hot on his heels all through the airport.
When it comes to media and information, open societies are often reluctant to meet head-on the challenge from authoritarian regimes such as those of China and Russia. Our principle of media freedom presents a huge opening for ideological enemies and competitors for whom information is a weapon directed at the heart of our democracy.
Demanding parity in numbers and visa provisions is a start. But we also must demand parity in the way our international journalists are treated.
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