‘Meaningless Promises’: Expert Skeptical of China’s Pledge to Ease Journalists’ Visa Restrictions With US

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
November 30, 2021 Updated: December 3, 2021

For years, journalists and experts have complained about the Chinese regime’s tightening restrictions on foreign correspondents in the country—constraints not experienced by Chinese journalists operating in Western democracies with press freedom.

In 2020, the Trump administration sought to confront this problem by imposing restrictions and rules on Chinese state-run media outlets in the United States, a move officials described at the time as an act of reciprocity against Beijing’s continued use of “intimidation to silence members of a free and independent press.”

Now, following President Joe Biden’s first virtual meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in mid-November, the two sides agreed to ease visa restrictions for each others’ journalists.

However, what the communist regime offered in the agreement were simply “vague, meaningless promises,” said Christopher Balding, senior fellow at London-based think tank Henry Jackson Society.

Under the agreement, the two nations agreed to continue issuing new journalist visas to each other’s journalists, and the validity of journalists’ visas would be yearlong instead of three months, according to the State Department. Beijing also agreed to allow U.S. journalists in China to freely depart and return, which they had previously been unable to do.

The ongoing dispute between the United States and China about media access stems from how differently Beijing views journalism—the media is a tool of the Party and doesn’t play an oversight role. Inside China, the media environment is restrictive, and Beijing pressures reporters and media outlets to self-censor. Outside the country’s borders, Chinese media outlets are expected to toe the Party line and promote Party propaganda.

Epoch Times Photo
Journalists watch a screen showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivering a speech during the opening of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2021 in Boao, Hainan Province, China, on April 20, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The State Department announced the move on Nov. 16 after it had “pressed” Beijing for months. However, the deal leaves several unanswered questions, such as when it will officially take effect, and whether foreign journalists expelled by Beijing would be allowed to return to China.

Balding said China didn’t show a clear commitment under the agreement to move away from its current policies, such as allowing far fewer American journalists to work in China than the number of Chinese journalists permitted to work in the United States.

“There is no assurances that the number of U.S. journalists in China will change. There is no guarantee about the actual number, [and] there is no guarantee that they will be free from harassment,” Balding recently told NTD, sister media outlet of The Epoch Times.

“China simply has not abided by its previous promises about journalism in China and how foreign journalists in China are treated.”

In July, Beijing didn’t try to protect foreign journalists when they were harassed and intimidated by angry groups while covering devastating floods in central China’s Henan Province. Instead, the communist regime encouraged the harsh behaviors through state-run media, prompting the State Department to issue a statement condemning Beijing.

Also expressing concerns at the time was the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), which called on China to “uphold its promise to allow foreign journalists unfettered access to report in China’s regions and to maintain its responsibility to protect people’s safety.”

China and the United States largely halted issuing new journalists visas to each other’s journalists in early 2020 after a series of events heightening bilateral tensions.

It started when Beijing expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in February 2020, before kicking out at least 18 foreign journalists in the first six months of last year, according to an estimate by FCCC.

Epoch Times Photo
New York Times Beijing bureau chief Steven Lee Myers (C) speaks with other journalists after the daily Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing on March 18, 2020, when Chinese authorities announced it would expel American journalists from three major U.S. newspapers. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

China escalated its retaliatory actions in September 2020, when it imposed new restrictions against more U.S. journalists by delaying the renewal of their expiring press credentials.

In March 2020, the Trump administration designated five Chinese state-run media outlets as “foreign missions,” identifying them as propaganda organs of the CCP. By the end of October 2020, 10 more Chinese state-run outlets were slapped with the designation.

Also in March 2020, the Trump administration issued a personnel cap, limiting four Chinese state-run media outlets including Xinhua News Agency to reduce their employees in the United States to 100, a decrease from 160.

“So if the Biden administration raises that up to 160, I suspect what you will see is that China will drag its feet, or give one or two symbolic visas … to basically fulfill its obligation, but will basically keep that number pretty constant,” Balding said.

Spies and Censorship

Some Chinese journalists are agents working for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Balding said, recalling a personal experience when he was in China. Balding taught economics at Peking University Business School in Shenzhen from 2009 to 2018.

A few months after the university abruptly released him from his teaching duties, Balding said he was invited by Xinhua to speak at a conference in Hainan, China’s most southern province. He said he was puzzled by the invitation but accepted it anyway.

A young lady in her mid to late 20s met him at the airport and accompanied him wherever he went throughout the conference. As the two talked, Balding learned that she worked for a department in Xinhua that filed reports for the Chinese regime.

“It was eye-opening to hear, confirmed to me, a Chinese journalist says, yes, a major division of our company works for the Chinese government to gather information and provide reports to them,” Balding said.

He said that the way the lady described it to him, the department was a “sizable operation.”

“This is not journalism. This is research intelligence gathering for the Chinese government,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Students for a Free Tibet protest below a new electronic billboard leased by Xinhua (2nd from top), a news agency operated by the Chinese regime, as it makes its debut in New York’s Times Square, U.S. on Aug 1, 2011. (Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has also attempted to turn foreign journalists into Chinese agents, according to Balding.

“There are very credible stories about foreign journalists in China that have been approached by Chinese security or intelligence services, to collaborate with them,” he said.

If they chose to work with the Chinese regime, Balding said the foreign journalists would likely self-censor, or tell “a good story about China” while reporting. In addition, these journalists could potentially pass on information they had gathered in China to the Chinese authorities.

In the United States, self-censorship is also happening among some U.S. media outlets.

“I’ve heard U.S.-based media talk about, well, if we do this story, we’re getting kicked out of China, we’re not going to run, we’re not going to do this story. I’ve been on phone calls where I’ve heard those statements,” Balding said.

“Western media censors itself so that they can be critical enough of China so that they don’t appear like they’re Chinese state media, but not critical enough where they will get asked to leave China. That’s the balancing act that a lot of them are basically trying to operate.”

Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.