Wearing his best straight face, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney lectured China on press freedom yesterday. In a redundant official statement, he accused Beijing of restricting “the ability of journalists to do their work” and “imped[ing] their ability to do their jobs.”
If the Chinese cared about public opinion, they would have called a news conference of their own and read aloud from former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.’s comprehensive October report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which cataloged the Obama administration’s hostility toward the press. Downie found that although President Barack Obama promised a more open government, his administration has prosecuted sources under the Espionage Act, imposed delays on and denials of FOIA requests, and closed its doors on reporters, systematically blunting the press. And recent revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and the secret subpoena of reporters’ phone logs and emails have contributed to a climate of fear in some newsrooms.
Carney’s jawboning, in which he also called for the unblocking of Western news sites, was precipitated by the slowdown game China’s visa offices have been playing with U.S. foreign correspondents. Two New York Times reporters have had to leave the country in the past 13 months because their visa applications went unprocessed, and Bloomberg News’s China-based reporters “have also experienced visa delays,” the Times reports today. Nearly all observers agree that the slowdowns and denials directed at the Times can be attributed to its aggressive coverage of crony capitalism in China.
But Carney isn’t the only member of the Obama administration agitating for freedom of the press in China. The Times also reports that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “warned” Chinese leaders during his visit there last month that there would be consequences if the country continued its efforts to oust U.S. reporters. What consequences? Congress might get mad about it, Biden told the Chinese, and retaliate somehow.
The stifled laughter of the Chinese was not recorded, although I’m sure the country’s leaders and diplomats made Onion-esque jokes about Biden and his rhetorical pop-gun after he left earshot. It’s not much of a threat to tell the leaders of the world’s second-most powerful economy that your legislature, which can’t agree on anything, will soon arrive to tickle them if they don’t behave.