It’s just been revealed that New York Times reporter Chris Buckley failed to get his visa renewed and has been forced to leave the country. This is widely being viewed as retaliation by the Chinese government for an exposé the paper did on the hidden fortune of Premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives.
What’s especially raised eyebrows about the move is that Buckley had nothing to do with the offending report, while David Barboza, the author of the piece, had his visa renewed without issue. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn’t commenting on why it denied the visa, so any explanation is pure speculation. However, this is something I’ve thought for months could happen.
This year, without a doubt, has seen more muckraking from foreign journalists than ever before. Besides the NYT piece, Bloomberg reported bombshells like the wealth of Xi Jinping’s family and the enormous power descendants of the Eight Immortals still wield. And of course, western media reporting was integral to the fall of Bo Xilai.
These reports have proven it possible to dig up dirt on leaders at the very top, so one has to imagine other media outlets (or the same ones) are already working on more of these exposés. There are other very high leaders (who will remain nameless here) with rumors of extensive wealth and links to corruption that are likely even more vulnerable than Wen or Xi. It’s probably only a matter of time before somebody unacceptably high gets implicated in actual wrong-doing.
This leaves the Party with two choices: Address the issue systematically and accept the inevitable heightened scrutiny, or chop at the symptoms and try to scare people away from revealing the truth. Chris Buckley’s ouster makes pretty clear which choice is being pursued.
But why Buckley? It’s probably not as random as it seems. To expel David Barboza would be too explicit and make him a martyr. However, ousting someone at NYT unrelated to the damaging report sends a clear signal to the Western press, yet denies it the satisfaction of running headlines like “Journalist Behind Wen Exposé Expelled From China.”
But perhaps an even more compelling reason for ousting Buckley is the classic dissident’s dilemma. When Barboza started working on his Wen story, he must have known that it could result in his expulsion from China…or worse (Mike Forsythe received death threats after his piece on Xi Jinping). Yet he consciously accepted that risk and went ahead anyways. What’s harder to accept though is risking other people’s necks.
This is a technique the Party wholeheartedly embraces. It’s why Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo’s wife) has been under house arrest for years despite not being charged with any crime. It’s why Chen Guangcheng’s family, right down to his six-year-old daughter, was held with him and virtually starved during his house arrest.
Dissidents and journalists accept (and often relish) the dangers of their work. Were David Barboza to be expelled, he’d have a pretty impressive claim to fame for the rest of his career. It’s much less impressive though to see a colleague pay for it by having to uproot his wife and young daughter from their home of 12 years.
If this is the case though, the CCP has (for the umpteenth time) completely miscalculated western journalists. This type of expulsion is the most it can do to scare them without causing a serious international incident…and it won’t work. Melissa Chan’s expulsion earlier this year obviously had no chilling effect and it’s unlikely Buckley’s will either. Instead, it’s nothing more than another bullet fired by the Party into the foot of its soft-power dreams.
Update: Buckley was quoted in SCMP saying, “It’s a complicated situation, and I am not sure if you will use the word ‘expel’. I did not. My visa expired today and I did not receive a new visa. The situation is that I was working for Reuters until October, and then I took a new job with the New York Times. The visa that I was on was granted when I was working for Reuters, and I was in Beijing waiting for the Chinese authorities to grant me a new visa and accreditation to work for the New York Times. As of today, there was no word of approval.”
It’s within the realm of possibility that this was a bureaucratic trip up rather than a purposeful expulsion, and some folks at NYT have said they’re optimistic Buckley will be allowed back in. But given that NYT pushed the government to settle the issue before Buckley’s visa expired, the obvious political implications of the situation and the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s refusal to comment, it’s very hard to imagine there wasn’t intent to make Buckley leave.