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Chinese President Xi Jinping blames news outlets for visa problems in China

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping review the honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

What an opportunity for New York Times reporter Mark Landler: A joint news conference in Beijing between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. As China watchers well know, top Chinese leaders aren’t accustomed to providing such openness, and they did so in this instance at the insistence of U.S. officials, with whom China just inked a deal on capping carbon emissions.

The New York Times has had massive difficulties securing visas for its reporters in China, as the newspaper has noted in its own coverage. Earlier this year, for example, the visa of New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy expired, and China declined the renew it, forcing the journalist to report on China from outside of China — an arrangement not foreign to other outlets, including The Washington Post, which faced a well-documented struggle to secure a visa for then-Post reporter Andrew Higgins several years ago.

So Landler seized the moment to ask the Chinese leader directly about the visa problem. Citing a just-concluded agreement between the two countries over visas, Landler asked Xi whether China would go easier on foreign-journalist visas.

What happened next will find a place in the history books. As Landler describes things, Xi at first appeared to ignore the questions. A lifeline for the Chinese leader then came into the picture, as Politico’s Josh Gerstein notes: “[A] Chinese press aide called on a Chinese reporter who asked a stilted question of Xi, producing a protracted, prepared statement from the Chinese leader. The unexpected move produced a quizzical look from Obama, who seemed to think his hosts might have pulled one over on him.”

The charade could last only so long, however, and Xi eventually addressed the matter, in a totalitarian way, as Gerstein writes: “’Media outlets need to obey China’s laws and regulations, Xi said, before launching into a metaphor suggesting that news outlets’ credentialing problems were the organizations’ own fault. ‘When a car breaks down in the road, we need to get off the car to see where the problem lies….In Chinese, we have a saying: The party which has created the problem, should be the one to help solve it.’”

In this case, the “problem” is journalism.