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China pressures US journalists, prompting warning from Biden

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with U.S Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2013 in Beijing, China.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with U.S Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2013 in Beijing, China.

China appears ready to force more than two dozen journalists from American 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 American government's first public warning about repercussions.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. 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 of the websites of American-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," Mr. Biden said in a speech to an American business group.

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At a meeting on Thursday with Beijing-based reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg, Mr. Biden said that he warned Chinese leaders, in a formal session and over dinner, that there would be consequences for China, especially in the Congress, if it forced out the journalists. But he said Mr. Xi appeared unmoved, insisting that the authorities treated reporters according to Chinese law.

Between them, The Times and Bloomberg have nearly two dozen reporters 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 American 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 Mr. Biden's visit — and the countries have sparred over what Washington regards as the organized daily intrusion into United States government and industry computer systems by Chinese entities, mostly to steal intellectual property.

A two-day summit meeting earlier in June between President Obama and Mr. 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.

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The Chinese foreign ministry, responding to Mr. 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 American reporters know what they need to do to get their visas renewed: tailor their coverage.

The New York 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 so far been unsuccessful.

Jill Abramson, The Times's 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."

(Read more: Biden urges Japan, China to lower tensions)

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. Mr. Biden intervened during his trip, his aides said, partly out of a concern that Beijing might be trying to drive entire news bureaus — including 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 stories 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, Mr. Biden offered no specifics about what kind of retaliation the United States government was considering.

(Read more: Joe Biden to discuss 'unsettling' Chinese behavior)

But in interviews over the past several weeks, American 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 it would succeed.

American officials, for example, were stymied on how to help Google after it dropped its practice of censoring its own search-engine results, after 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 relatives of Mr. Xi. 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.

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The Times's website, including its Chinese-language edition, has been blocked since October 2012, when the paper published stories 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, though 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 after the paper reported that JPMorgan Chase had paid $1.8 million to a consultancy secretly run by Mr. Wen's daughter, Wen Ruchun, and that American prosecutors were examining ties between Ms. Wen and the bank as part of a bribery investigation. The government also stopped processing the visa applications of The Times's journalists in China after that report.

While the United States has periodically intervened on behalf of specific American journalists whose visas were denied or who were detained after visiting sensitive places or dissidents, Mr. Biden's comments were the first time a senior American 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 attempted to woo foreign reporters.

(Watch this: China media calls for 'de-Americanized' world)

The turn can be traced to 2008, when many Chinese objected to foreign reporting of protests in Tibet, and what Chinese authorities felt was negative news media coverage of the 2008 Olympics, an event China saw as its coming-out party as the world's rising great power.

New, ad hoc restrictions began to be imposed, especially after 2011, when the Communist Party leadership feared that the Arab uprisings could sow unrest in China, and security authorities cracked down on potential protesters.

"It's looking increasingly like as a media company you have a choice in China: You either do news or you do business," said James McGregor, chairman of Greater China for APCO Worldwide, a consultancy, and former Beijing bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. "But it's hard to do both."

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