China Threatens To Expel Reporters After Reports On Leaders' Wealth

Chinese authorities have threatened to toss out all of the reporters for The New York Times and Bloomberg in China after 18 months of blockbuster stories exposing corruption among the elites — including, in the Times case, the family of Premier Wen Jiabao, who ruled for a decade, and Bloomberg's reporting on Li Keqiang, who took over in March. It is a reaction that has not been seen since the earliest days after the thawing of relations between the U.S. and China in the mid-1970s.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We turn now to China, where Beijing has threatened not to renew the visas of two dozen foreign journalists. The reporters work for The New York Times and Bloomberg News. Refusing to renew visas is essentially expulsion, as foreign journalists would have to leave the country. Apparently, Beijing has been unhappy with the reporters' coverage. Vice president Joseph Biden, who is in China, has complained to the county's top leaders. And today, he publicly denounced the practice of intimidating journalists.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik is following this story and joins us from New York. David, what's behind this move by the Chinese government?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, the move follows 18 months of these extraordinary exposés you see these major American media outlets; actually The Wall Street Journal among them as well as Bloomberg and New York Times. In these exposés have focused on the corruption that surrounds the families of key members of the ruling elite, you know, the Chinese Politburo, as it were.

You know, this has opened what journalists who are experienced in China describe to me as basically a new chapter of Western journalism, on the ways in which the Beijing ruling figures have allowed their families to enrich themselves at an extraordinary level, over what is notionally, you know, a Communist Chinese - a Communist regime.

And at this point, the Chinese authorities have said this isn't acceptable. We are not welcoming you here to do this. We expect you to cover business, but not the way in which we operate.

SIEGEL: Well, how unusual is it for Beijing to, in effect, expel large numbers of the press corps? Has it happened before?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, not at this number. You know, and we should stress it's a threat. It hasn't occurred quite yet, although the days are ticking down to the end of the year. But there are incidents and moments where one can look to, you know. If you think of John Burns and other journalists, John Burns famously for the New York Times.

You know, he took a motorcycle, if I'm remembering correctly, and took a jaunt across China into regions that took him to cities that were off limits unless you had specific permission from the Chinese authorities to travel to. So, too, were several correspondents thrown out of China after, you know, Tiananmen Square and coverage there in 1989.

You know, there are moments like this, but nothing at this scale or at this moment, nothing where the Chinese are essentially saying, you know, we're willing to revert to almost conditions before the thaw of these two countries, back in the '70s.

SIEGEL: Well, what do the Chinese want in order to agree to renewing the visas of the Times and Bloomberg News journalists?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they, you know, I talked to Jill Abramson, she's the executive editor of the New York Times. I talked to her earlier today. And she said that ministry officials who deal with the foreign press have conveyed to the New York Times that they just want them to stop reporting in these areas. That's not going to happen.

Abramson said, you know, on the record, the New York Times intends to continue to do this. The real question is whether this is a bargaining chip, whether this is really a shot across the bow. You know, the Times can continue to do coverage as it has done in - even as its website has been blocked in certain ways inside China, as has Bloomberg's, as have others, when they've done this aggressive kind of coverage.

There's certain kinds of concessions that can be made, for example, there are computer codes that can be put in certain stories so they won't be distributed through kinds of dedicated terminals that are leased by business clients of news organizations or, you know, on the websites that are circulated in China.

There's this thing called, of course, the great firewall of China where they intend to block out the entire internet. But, you know, we don't live in Cold War era where you can simply prevent reports from the outside from getting inside and, you know, the Times and Bloomberg and, for that matter, the Wall Street Journal, which is not, so far, affected by this, you know, have conveyed they intend to continue reporting the news.

SIEGEL: David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Folkenflik talking with us from New York and Melissa, news from South Africa.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Yes, as you've been talking, Robert, news from South Africa, from the South African President Jacob Zuma, that the former president and iconic figure, Nelson Mandela has died at age 95. Nobel Peace prize winner, leader of the fight against Apartheid, he has been ill for some time.

President Zuma said, our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father. And we'll have a full tribute for Nelson Mandela coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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