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China's president defends refusal of visas for foreign correspondents

China's president defends refusal of visas for foreign correspondents
Chinese President Xi Jinping answers questions during a news conference with President Obama at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on Nov. 12. (Feng Li / Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Wednesday that foreign journalists who have had trouble obtaining or renewing their Chinese visas might be the cause of their own problems and that media outlets operating in China “need to obey China’s laws and regulations.”

In a rare news conference with American and Chinese journalists, Xi acknowledged that he's aware that China has refused to issue or renew visas for a number of foreign correspondents, but he argued that the burden of fixing any problem is on the "party that has caused the problem."

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"When a certain issue is raised as a problem," he said, "there must a reason."

Reporters for outlets including the New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters and Al Jazeera have been among those who have encountered difficulty obtaining permission to report in China in recent years. Stories by the New York Times, Bloomberg and other outlets outlining the wealth amassed by the families of senior Chinese leaders -- including Xi’s -- have proved a major irritant and embarrassment to Chinese authorities.

After the New York Times published stories on the family wealth of former Premier Wen Jiabao, the government blocked the newspaper's Chinese-language website. (The article by David Barboza was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 2013.) The New York Times’ English-language site is also inaccessible in mainland China, along with those of outlets including Bloomberg and the Guardian.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China in September released an extensive report on the barriers faced by overseas journalists in the country and said "in 2013 it became patently obvious that Chinese authorities abuse the press card and ... visa renewal process in a political manner."

“In rare cases, China has directly told reporters they could not receive a visa; for example, Paul Mooney, a journalist with Reuters, was informed eight months after he applied for a visa that he was being rejected,” the report said. “But more typically, China has engaged in a war of attrition, with reporters eventually giving up and relocating to Hong Kong, Taiwan or other assignments outside of the region.”

Xi’s comments came after a New York Times reporter asked about the visa problems in the news conference following a closed-door meeting between Xi and President Obama

As the news conference opened, the Chinese press secretary explained that each leader would take one question from the reporter of his choosing. Xi rarely holds news conferences, and typically when Chinese leaders meet with journalists, questions are pre-approved.

But the White House had been pushing for weeks for a joint question-and-answer session after the bilateral meeting.

When Obama recognized Times reporter Mark Landler for a question, Landler posed several queries to both leaders -- mentioning both the Hong Kong democracy protests and the issue of media freedoms.
Noting that several news organizations from the U.S. have had problems with their residency permits in China being denied, and that Xi had just agreed to expand visa permits to business people and students, Landler asked, “Isn’t it time to extend that sort of right to foreign correspondents who seek to cover your country?”

At first it appeared that Xi was ignoring the question, as he went on to acknowledge a Chinese reporter and then to give a lengthy answer about China's role in the world.

But then he circled back to Landler’s questions. The Hong Kong protests, he said, are part of an “illegal movement.”

And he compared the journalists' troubles to a car that has broken down. "When a car breaks down on the road, perhaps we need to get out of the car to see where the problem lies," Xi said, through a translator. "When a certain issue is raised as a problem, there must be a reason."

"The party that has caused the problem," he said, "should be the one to help resolve it."

It was unclear what "laws and regulations" Xi believes foreign journalists might have violated. Reforms announced around the 2008 Olympics supposedly give foreign journalists freedom to travel anywhere in China -- except Tibet -- without permission and to interview anyone who consents to be interviewed.

Landler’s question flushed out new information, according to one senior White House official. Xi not only acknowledged that he had personal knowledge of the visa denials and approved of them, but he also linked those decisions to the actions of the journalists.

For more White House coverage, follow @cparsons

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

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