China and the United States reached an agreement to loosen restrictions on journalists operating in each other’s countries, marking one of the first diplomatic breakthroughs between the Biden administration and Beijing as leaders from both countries met on Monday to keep tensions from spiraling into conflict.
Hours after President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in a virtual summit Monday, the official China Daily reported that the two governments had reached an agreement before the meeting. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing confirmed the report, adding that U.S. officials had been pressing for months on media access and visas for journalists working for U.S. media outlets in China.
In March 2020, Beijing expelled more than a dozen American journalists working for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Washington Post, a move China said was in retaliation for restrictions on Chinese nationals working for media outlets in the United States.
Since then, U.S. outlets operating in China have not been granted new visas for journalists. Their correspondents already based in the country were given short-term visas and were unable to leave the country without the risk of losing their accreditation.
Under the new agreement, U.S. journalists in China and Chinese journalists in the United States will be able to travel in and out of their country of assignment. According to the embassy spokesman, China committed to issuing visas for “a group of U.S. reporters,” provided they are eligible under Chinese law and regulations. The spokesman declined to say whether expelled journalists would be able to return but said the affected outlets would be granted new visas.
According to the agreement, the United States will begin issuing multiple-entry one-year visas to Chinese media professionals, up from 90-day visas that were given as part of tit-for-tat measures imposed by the Trump administration in an effort to pressure Beijing and Chinese state media operating in the United States. Zhao said China would give multiple-entry one-year visas to American journalists once the U.S. measures for Chinese journalists are in place.
“This hard-won achievement is in the interests of the media on both sides and is worth cherishing,” Zhao said.
“We welcome this progress but see it simply as initial steps,” the U.S. Embassy spokesman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity according to official policy. “We will continue to work toward expanding access and improving conditions for U.S. and other foreign media, and we will continue to advocate for media freedom as a reflection of our democratic values.”
Chinese authorities have for years sought to restrict the work of foreign media outlets operating in the country, from surveilling and detaining reporters to withholding visas as a way to punish those whose work was seen as too critical of the government.
The Trump administration, in an effort to push back, slashed the number of visas given to Chinese nationals working for Chinese state media in the United States. In response to the expulsion of American journalists in March last year, those visas were limited to 90 days.
Under Biden — who on Monday told Xi that “guardrails” are needed to ensure competition between the two countries does not turn into conflict — U.S. diplomats have begun to walk back some of those policies, engaging with China on trade and climate change. Reaching an agreement on journalist visas was seen as an easier task that could improve chances for other breakthroughs.
The State Department declined to say how many visas would be granted to U.S. journalists. Reporters in China said they continue to face restrictions on their work. Last year, Chinese authorities detained Australian citizen Cheng Lei, who worked for Chinese state media, and later detained Chinese national Haze Fan, working for Bloomberg News.
Last week, the family of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan — detained after filming the struggles of residents under lockdown in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic — said she would likely die soon as a result of a sustained hunger strike.
The agreement to allow more U.S. journalists into China comes two months before Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics. Earlier this month, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a statement based on accounts from media outlets that reporters were being denied access to Olympic events, blocked from venues and berated for coverage that mentioned calls for boycotting the Games over China’s human rights record.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described the statement as “not based on facts,” adding that China’s preparation for the Winter Olympics “follows the principle of openness.”
“We have always welcomed media outlets from across the world for reporting and coverage,” he said.