Under Cover

Why are we giving visas to Chinese spies?


In early January, Chris Buckley, a Beijing correspondent newly hired by the New York Times, was forced to leave China along with his family after his visa was not renewed. Philip P. Pan has also been waiting for more than 8 months for a visa to work as the Beijing bureau chief for the Times. These follow a similar incident in May 2012 when Melissa Chan, a Beijing-based reporter for Al-Jazeera and a U.S. citizen, was effectively kicked out of China when her visa was not renewed. China also denies and delays visas to limit the number of reporters and the effectiveness of the work done by the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America, and many journalists from prominent international publications have had to wait several months for their Chinese visas to be approved.

It is clear that the Chinese Communist Party controls and manipulates domestic and foreign media operating within its country to maintain its illegitimate grip on power. But why does the U.S. government look the other way and allow numerous Chinese state media organizations to operate in our country without requiring any reciprocity?

The U.S. State Department has issued, and continues to issue, hundreds of international journalist visas (I-visas) to Chinese media workers, while only two Voice of America reporters are allowed to operate in mainland China, despite longstanding requests for two more. In 2011 alone, 811 Chinese nationals entered the United States on I-visas, according to figures provided to our office by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which regulates immigration.

In response, in September 2011 I introduced the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, designed to enforce existing legislation in the Immigration and Nationality Act stating that nonimmigrant visas for members of foreign press shall be issued upon a basis of reciprocity. My bill requires visas for reporters who work for state media organizations from China to be issued on a one-for-one basis. This would force China to issue visas for Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in a timely manner.  

To control the media and information space in China, the Communist Party does more than deny visas; reporters and those who cooperate with them are harassed, sometimes violently. The situation is far worse for Chinese journalists, but the party’s harassment still hamstrings foreign reporting in the country. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia cannot place any of their television or radio products on Chinese stations, and their radio transmissions from outside China are jammed. The government heavily censors the Internet in China, and those two American news organizations’ websites, like those of the New York Times, Bloomberg, and social media such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are routinely blocked.

In contrast, no fewer than 14 different Chinese state-owned media organizations operate freely in the United States, according to figures from the Congressional Research Service. The North American headquarters and the 60-foot-tall billboard promoting Xinhua, China’s official news agency, are located in New York City’s Times Square. The Communist Party is free to hire employees in the United States and to distribute its multimedia and print propaganda.

Of the hundreds of Chinese nationals sent to the United States every year, some may be real reporters, but many function as intelligence officers; they report on what’s happening in the United States on issues of concern to Chinese leaders — including the movements of Tibetan activists and Chinese dissidents — and write secret cables accessible only to a select few.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the congressional body responsible for monitoring national security issues between the two countries, reported in 2009 that "China’s official Xinhua state news agency also serves some of the functions of an intelligence agency, gathering information and producing classified reports for the Chinese leadership on both domestic and international events." Furthermore "the Ministry of State Security [A Chinese ministry roughly equivalent to the CIA and FBI] also makes extensive use of the news media covers, sending agents abroad as correspondents for the state news agency Xinhua and as reporters for newspapers such as the People’s Daily and China Youth Daily."

The United States has hoped that by unconditionally giving China our most preferential trade status, engaging diplomatically as an equal, and turning a blind eye to its Soviet-like human rights conditions, an increasingly liberal middle class would emerge. That has not happened. The Communist Party has grown more confrontational in the seas off its coast, threatening U.S. allies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Self-immolations in Tibet have reached crisis proportions; more than 90 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since February 2009. Chinese economic espionage costs the United States billions of dollars a year, and that’s not even including the negative effects of Beijing’s currency manipulation.

If China wishes to be treated as the aspiring world power that it is, it is long past time we demand it act like one.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats.