BEIJING — China appears ready to force nearly two dozen journalists from U.S. news organizations to leave the country by the end of the year, a significant increase in pressure on foreign news media that has prompted the U.S. government’s first public warning about repercussions.
Vice President Joe Biden raised the issue here in meetings with President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese leaders, and then publicly chastised the Chinese on Thursday for refusing to say if they will renew the visas of correspondents and for blocking the websites of U.S.-based news media.
“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 in a speech to a U.S. business group.
At a meeting Thursday with Beijing-based reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg, Biden said he warned Chinese leaders, in a formal session and over dinner, that there would be consequences for China, especially in Congress, if it forced out the journalists. But he said Xi appeared unmoved, insisting that the authorities treated reporters according to Chinese law.
Between them, The Times and Bloomberg have nearly two dozen journalists whose visas are up for renewal by the end of the month, and China has declined to act on them.
The growing tension with China over its treatment of U.S. news media outlets comes at a moment when Washington and Beijing are increasingly at odds and publicly more critical of each other than at any time in recent memory.
The Obama administration has refused to recognize China’s recently declared “air defense identification zone” over disputed territory with Japan — a subject that dominated Biden’s visit — and the countries have sparred over what Washington regards as the organized daily intrusion into U.S. government and industry computer systems by Chinese entities, mostly to steal intellectual property.
A two-day summit meeting in June between President Barack Obama and Xi, intended to calm the tensions, was followed by a series of actions that have accentuated the rivalry between the world’s established superpower and its fastest-rising competitor.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, responding to Biden, said Thursday that it managed foreign reporters “according to law and regulations.”
A spokesman, Hong Lei, said, “As for foreign correspondents’ living and working environments in China, I think as long as you hold an objective and impartial attitude, you will arrive at the right conclusion.”
Chinese officials have all but said that U.S. reporters know what they need to do to get their visas renewed: tailor their coverage.
The Times has been in regular contact with the Obama administration on the issue; with time running out on the current visas for its correspondents, repeated efforts to obtain new ones have been unsuccessful.
Jill Abramson, The Times’ executive editor, said in an interview that “unfettered coverage of China is a crucial issue” and that she was determined to continue “the highest quality journalism about China,” whether or not the visas were renewed.
Asked about the Chinese argument that its authorities were enforcing laws that apply to all journalists in China, she noted, “Our laws make clear there is respect for freedom of expression.”
A spokesman for Bloomberg News declined to comment.
Over the decades, there have been periodic crackdowns on news organizations in China. But the pressure has increased since China emerged as the world’s second-largest economy, and scrutiny of its government and business practices — and Western-style investigative reporting — has led the Chinese government to both protest and threaten foreign news organizations.
Chinese officials have privately told reporters that the refusal to deal with their visa applications was linked to their reporting. Biden intervened during his trip, his aides said, partly out of a concern that Beijing might be trying to drive entire news bureaus — including those of The Times and Bloomberg — out of the country and harm their business prospects in one of the world’s most booming news markets.
Tensions worsened last year, after The Times and Bloomberg ran extensive articles about the wealth accumulated by the families of China’s leaders. In Washington, Chinese diplomats have also complained about coverage of Tibet, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and reports linking units of China’s People’s Liberation Army to cyberattacks.
In his public comments, Biden offered no specifics about what kind of retaliation the U.S. government was considering.
But in interviews over the past several weeks, U.S. officials have acknowledged that their options for pressuring the Chinese are limited. While they could cancel the visas of Chinese correspondents, one administration official said “that could be counterproductive, because we want more reporting about the United States to become available in China.”
Visa approvals for Chinese news media executives trying to visit the United States could be slowed, officials say, or the administration could initiate trade actions in response to China’s decision to block the English and Chinese-language websites of Western news organizations. Yet so far there appears to have been little work done on preparing such actions, and it is unclear whether they would succeed. U.S. officials, for example, were stymied on how to help Google after it dropped its practice of censoring its own search-engine results following a Chinese-originated hacking attack on the company. Its share of the Chinese search market has plummeted to 3 percent.
Bloomberg’s English-language website was blocked after it published an article in June 2012 on the fortunes amassed by Xi’s relatives. Sales of Bloomberg terminals dried up in China, and the government issued no further residency visas to Bloomberg reporters.
Pressure from Beijing, some Bloomberg employees said, played a role in its decision not to publish a subsequent article investigating the ties between Wang Jianlin, one of China’s wealthiest men, and Communist Party leaders. Bloomberg’s editor in chief, Matthew Winkler, has insisted the article was not published because it was not ready.
The Times’ website, including its Chinese-language edition, has been blocked since October 2012, when the paper published articles about the enormous wealth accumulated by the family of Wen Jiabao, then in his last months as China’s prime minister. Traffic to the Chinese-language site has dropped substantially, the company has said, although a growing number of Chinese have learned to evade the electronic blockades.
Last month, the authorities also blocked access to an online Chinese-language lifestyle magazine started weeks earlier by The Times. The paper had just reported that JPMorgan Chase had paid $1.8 million to a consultancy secretly run by Wen’s daughter, Wen Ruchun, and that U.S. prosecutors were examining ties between Wen and the bank as part of a bribery investigation. The government also stopped processing the visa applications of The Times’ journalists in China after that report.
While the United States has periodically intervened on behalf of specific U.S. journalists whose visas were denied or who were detained after visiting sensitive places or dissidents, Biden’s comments were the first time a senior U.S. leader had publicly accused the Chinese of aiming at entire journalistic institutions. Until now, such issues have usually been dealt with quietly.
His decision to go public was a reflection, officials said, of the far more aggressive posture China has taken toward foreign journalists over the past two or three years. To some degree that reflects a shift in Chinese diplomacy: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Japan began its slow decline and a large international press corps began to migrate to Beijing and Shanghai, the Chinese often tried to court foreign reporters.