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New York Times editor on China visa problem: ‘We’re a little bit hostages’

The troubles of the New York Times in getting China visas for its personnel flashed on the international stage during a Wednesday joint news conference with President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. When asked whether the Chinese government might process a backlog of visa applications, Xi placed the blame with the journalists: “The party which has created the problem, should be the one to help solve it,” he said.

The translation here is that the New York Times reporters with pending visa applications for China should keep their bags in the closet. There are about six such folks, including Philip Pan, Chris Buckley, Austin Ramzy, Javier Hernandez, plus a photographer and a videographer. The newspaper reports no progress in the visa applications for those staffers.

The result is quite a bind.

The New York Times has a number of correspondents now working in China, including Edward Wong, Jane Perlez, Andrew Jacobs, David Barboza (based in Shanghai) and others. The visa backlog places each of these correspondents in an unenviable professional position: Should they leave their posts, they can be pretty sure at this point that their editor won’t be able to replace them. So several are hanging on past the New York Times’s standard four-to-five year foreign correspondent term, according to New York Times international editor Joe Kahn. “We’re a little bit hostages,” Kahn tells the Erik Wemple Blog, referring to the professional pickle of his people (and not using “hostage” in any literal sense). “Some of our correspondents are okay with staying longer, others are willing to stay for a little longer but are also thinking about other assignments.”

The newspaper these days finds itself doing precisely one of the U.S.-China activities it’s seeking to report on — diplomacy, that is. Following the Obama-Xi news conference, the Times issued an official statement from Kahn seizing on the one relatively optimistic note struck by Xi in addressing the journalist-visa issue:

“President Xi said today, ‘We need to step down and see what the problem is.’ We are willing to work closely with the Chinese authorities to resolve the issues that have created a backlog of unprocessed journalist visa applications for our correspondents. China is an important country and a big part of our international report. We are enormously proud of our coverage of the country. Allowing us to have a full complement of correspondents there will enhance our ability to tell China’s story fully and fairly.”

Times leaders turned into small-scale envoys in late 2012, following a big investigative piece by Barboza on the billions of dollars in “hidden riches” commanded by the family of then-Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Flanking the story was a handy graphic — “The Wen Family Empire” — detailing the mess of financial beneficiaries in the Wen group, just the sort of enterprise journalism that despots despise. It’s no secret that Beijing didn’t like the story, which required people like Kahn and his bosses to soften its landing a bit.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding about the story that needed to be cleared up,” says Kahn about an effort to assure Beijing that the story was merely journalism and not an attempt to topple the regime.

Even as the Times hopes for a loosening of visa processing, it has stayed focused on hard-edged stuff, including more on the super-rich and an expose of the regime’s effectiveness in censoring Bloomberg. It also reported that Chinese hackers had attacked its computer systems, an offensive that coincided with Barboza’s story on the Wen family.

A breakthrough on China access was absent from a new visa deal announced this week by the United States and China; it’ll extend to short-term business travelers, tourists and students. Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren criticized the administration for failing to score a victory for U.S. media outlets. “What we have [is] a lopsided deal that favors the Chinese,” argued Van Susteren.

A fine point — perhaps the White House and the State Department should have pushed more forcefully on behalf of the New York Times and other news outlets seeking fuller access to China. Not that an organization like the New York Times specializes in pressuring the government for such considerations: “We’re not kidding when we say we’re not arms of the government,” says Kahn, referring to their message to Chinese authorities. “We have an arm’s length relationship with our own government. For us to go to them hat in hand and say, ‘You have to help us solve this problem’ is domestically a little bit delicate.”