Is Beijing about to Boot the New York Times?

The Chinese government's crackdown on Bloomberg and the "paper of record" reaches a head.

Guang Niu/Getty Images
Guang Niu/Getty Images

Before the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, journalists covering China had to make do with peering in from afar. "I would look longingly across the border, and say, ‘Why can’t I be there?’" recalled veteran foreign correspondent Jim Laurie, about his early days reporting from Hong Kong. Today, of course, China is a universe away from the chaotic and autarkic 1970s. As China moved away from the periphery and towards the center of world and economic affairs over the past few decades, interest in the country has skyrocketed: there are now hundreds of journalists reporting in China for Western publications, while countless thousands other foreigners have written about the place. But now, history may be repeating itself: Beijing has threatened to de facto expel roughly two dozen foreign correspondents working for Bloomberg and the New York Times, arguably the two publications who have most successfully covered China over the last few years.  

Two New York Times journalists working in China, speaking on background, described how Beijing is withholding visa renewals for their 12 journalists working in China. Foreign journalists working legally in China need to renew their visa every year, a procedure which usually happens in December. But as of Dec. 10, the Foreign Ministry had not yet begun to process the applications. "Officials said they could not process those visas," one of the New York Times reporters told Foreign Policy. In early December, Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the newspaper, said that what was once "an annual nonevent" has become "a very big worry."

In 1979, after the restoration of U.S.-China diplomatic ties, Beijing opened up to American media organizations, and several newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, established bureaus there. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these operations were generally quite small. But by the late 2000s, even as the financial crisis decimated hollowed-out international bureaus in other parts of the world, China-based newsrooms kept growing. In Sept. 2011, Bloomberg announced the "opening of expanded offices in Shanghai to accommodate expanded news, customer support and regional-specific services to meet growing demand in China." In 2011, the New York Times also decided to enlarge its bureau, and in June 2012 launched a Chinese-language edition. In an interview then, the paper’s foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, said, "We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing."

This turned out to be overly optimistic. While operating a bureau in China had always been complicated, serious problems started for the New York Times after they published an October 2012 story about the shocking wealth amassed by then Premier Wen Jiabao’s family. (Wen’s family claimed the story, which won a Pulitzer Prize, was untrue.) "The authorities took certain punitive measures," one of the journalists told Foreign Policy: the website was blocked and Chris Buckley, a seasoned foreign correspondent, was forced to leave the country after Beijing refused to give him a visa in December 2012. (China’s Foreign Ministry later claimed Buckley hadn’t been expelled — only that he incorrectly filled out his visa application.) 

The current round of difficulties began, the reporters said, after the Nov. 13 publication of a story about J.P. Morgan Chase’s alleged link to Wen’s daughter. "My guess is they concluded in recent weeks that they needed to take another step because they thought we hadn’t gotten the message," one of the journalists said. The other concurred: "Everything was going fine" until the second Wen story came out.

Things have become complicated for Bloomberg as well, but there’s more dirty laundry. Bloomberg had roiled the waters in China for a series of groundbreaking 2012 stories, written by several journalists but headed by veteran Bloomberg correspondent Mike Forsythe, that disclosed the family wealth of two top Chinese officials: disgraced party boss Bo Xilai and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Following these prize-winning investigations, China ordered local financial institutions to refrain from purchasing Bloomberg terminals — the main profit-generating engine of the media empire — and blocked its website. Things got worse in early November, when the New York Times reported that Bloomberg journalists had accused editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler of suppressing an investigation into the wealth of a Chinese tycoon and his links with the Chinese government, for fear it would offend officials in Beijing. (Bloomberg denied this allegation.) Winkler allegedly compared reporting there to reporting inside Nazi-era Germany. 

In mid-November, Bloomberg suspended Forsythe. But things took a turn for the bizarre on Dec. 7 when Leta Hong Fincher, Forsythe’s wife and an expert on gender in China, tweeted "Can anyone recommend a feminist lawyer in Hong Kong?" That tweet was followed by another: "Has anyone heard of a spouse being sued for breaching a company’s confidentiality agreement when the spouse never worked for that company." She later deleted the tweets, but confirmed to Foreign Policy on Dec. 9 that "she is seeing a lawyer"; she declined to elaborate further. Ty Trippet, a Bloomberg spokesman, declined to comment for this story.

While Bloomberg has been quiet about its strategy in dealing with official troubles in Mainland China, the New York Times appears to have made it clear to Beijing that its inability to operate in China would not be taken lightly by the U.S. government.  On his trip to Beijing in early December, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and publicly chided Beijing, sayi
the United States has "profound disagreements" with the "treatment of U.S. journalists" in China.

"I think Biden’s mention helped," said one of the New York Times reporters. "It put it at the top of the agenda, and let the Chinese know that there would probably be repercussions."  

If Beijing actually does plan to expel both bureaus it would constitute the government’s biggest move against foreign reporters at least since the upheaval following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a long-time China correspondent, called this recent move "the Chinese government’s most dramatic attempt to insulate itself from scrutiny in the thirty-five years since China began opening to the world." Paul Mooney, a longtime China-based chronicler of that country’s human rights abuses, had his visa rejected in early November, in another sign of tightening for foreign correspondents in China. Reuters, Bloomberg, and the New York Times "don’t have the ability to influence the Chinese government," said Mooney. "I think we really need to have some kind of action. Maybe against media executives in China, or officials — to give the message that this is not acceptable."

One of the New York Times reporters interviewed for this article suggested that Washington could slow down the approval process for U.S.-based executives for Chinese state media companies, like Xinhua and CCTV. "I would advocate this reciprocal kind of delay, and then if that didn’t work, tit-for-tat visa denial, targeting executives," this reporter said. "After all these years in China, this is what I see as the only thing that works, with the Chinese government. They don’t play nice." 

It’s not too late for Beijing to pull back and allow the bureaus to continue to operate.  "Perhaps they won’t pursue the nuclear option," said one of the New York Times journalists, adding that "it would be a public relations debacle" if the bureau was expelled. "There is talk about contingency plans, but it’s not our priority right now," said the other reporter. "We have until Dec. 17 or 18 before the first of our residency visas expires." If they are expelled, the plan is to continue reporting, but from Hong Kong and Taiwan. "It’s not ideal, but we’re going to have smart and trenchant coverage of China either way," said one of the journalists. An executive at the New York Times familiar with the plans, who asked to speak on background, said reporting on China "is best done from China, but it can be done from elsewhere as well." Hong Kong, where the newspaper has a large presence, is an "obvious" choice.  

The experience of Chris Buckley, the New York Times reporter who settled in Hong Kong after his visa wasn’t renewed last year, has shown that it’s not impossible to cover China internationally. He has continued doggedly reporting from Hong Kong, though his wife and daughter remain in China. "The personal toll on Chris has been immense," said one of the New York Times  journalists. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that Buckley may be the future of China journalism. "I sincerely hope not," he responded. Sadly, that’s looking more and more likely. As for Buckley himself, it doesn’t appear likely he will be allowed to move back to China anytime soon. Just like Laurie and his peers in the 1970s, he is consigned to sitting in Hong Kong and gazing longingly at the Mainland. And if things get worse, he’ll soon have company.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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