BEIJING — Casting a spotlight on China’s controls on the media, Vice President Joe Biden met with U.S. journalists working in Beijing Thursday after publicly criticizing how they’re treated by China’s government.
Closing a two-day trip to Beijing, Biden listened to concerns from journalists who may be forced to leave China in what some have perceived as retaliation for stories that have reflected poorly on the government. U.S. news organizations have said China’s actions could have a chilling effect on hard-hitting journalism and the ability of American reporters to operate in the country.
“Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences,” Biden said earlier Thursday as he addressed U.S. business executives in Beijing. “We have many disagreements, and some profound disagreements, on some of those issues right now, in the treatment of U.S. journalists.”
The public rebuke came a day after Biden raised the issue directly in wide-ranging, marathon meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Although the White House did not release a full list of journalists attending the Thursday session with Biden in a Beijing hotel bar, the New York Times and Bloomberg News, in particular, have fallen afoul of Beijing over some of their reporting.
Both American news organizations have had their websites blocked in China since late last year after each published detailed investigative reports exposing the enormous wealth amassed by the relatives of Chinese leaders — including Xi and former Premier Wen Jiabao.
In what appeared to be further official retaliation for their reporting, the two organizations have seen unusually long delays in approvals for visas for their resident journalists — hindering their ability to replace existing reporters or hire new ones. If those visas aren’t resolved soon, reporters may have to leave the country.
“Unfettered coverage of China is a crucial issue,” Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the Times, said Thursday in a statement. “At a time when China is such an important and compelling story, the world needs the highest quality reporting on it.”
Earlier this week, a reporter for Bloomberg was excluded from an event with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, prompting a protest from Cameron’s staff. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the reporter had been excluded to give priority to Chinese and U.K. journalists.
China consistently ranks near the bottom of the list in an annual index of press freedoms compiled by Reporters Without Borders. A 2011 human rights report from the U.S. State Department said China maintains strict controls on foreign journalists, and that local employees of foreign news outlets have reported harassment and intimidation by Chinese authorities.
But the United States — and the Obama administration in particular — has also been criticized when it comes to freedom of the press. A report in October from the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that aggressive prosecution of leaks and efforts to control information are having a chilling effect on journalists and government whistle-blowers.
Among the actions that have drawn recent complaints from the U.S. media was the U.S. Justice Department’s secret seizure of records for telephone lines and switchboards used by more than 100 journalists with The Associated Press. The Obama administration has also targeted government employees and contractors for prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act over accusations they leaked classified information to reporters.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei responded to Biden by insisting that China’s treatment of foreign journalists complies with the country’s laws and regulations.
“Over the past few years, we have provided a very convenient environment for foreign journalists reporting in China,” Hong said during a press briefing. “Everybody can see the progress we made.”
Although Biden’s China visit was intended to strengthen ties with the Asian power, the vice president made a point of nudging China in a more democratic direction as he engaged with citizens in the Chinese capital. A day earlier, Biden urged students waiting to get visitor visas processed at the U.S. embassy to challenge their government and reject the status quo.
Robert Daly, a China expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said the problem seems to be getting worse. Daly has testified about the issue before Congress and said that as China seeks greater clout on the world stage, it’s in Beijing’s self-interest to offer the same type of access that other powerful, confident nations provide.
“China’s soft power is taking a very hard, self-inflicted hit,” Daly said. “It would be helpful to China to get a broader more complete narrative about China out there.”