US and China agree to relax visa and other restrictions on journalists, Tibet still a no-go area

Online meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. (Photo courtesy: AFP)

(, Nov17’21) – One positive outcome from an otherwise not very momentous online meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Nov 16 was that restrictions on access for journalists from each other’s countries will be eased. The reports do not suggest, however, that US journalists will finally be allowed to visit Tibet in the way Chinese journalists are free to visit any US state.

China requires a special permit for anyone wishing to visit Tibet. While for non-Chinese foreign tourists this is granted if they travel in groups, journalists are hardly, if ever, allowed to visit the region by themselves. On rare occasions, they could be taken on tightly chaperoned tours to the region organized by the Chinese government in propaganda exercises.

China’s official English-language China Daily cited unidentified Chinese foreign ministry sources as saying that a consensus on journalist visas, among other points, was actually reached before the virtual meeting between Xi and Biden. It said the agreement was the result of “more than a year of difficult negotiations”.

Both sides will increase the validity of journalist visas from three months to one year, provided they are eligible under all applicable laws and regulations. And both have pledged to allow journalists to freely depart and return, which they had previously been unable to do, noted the Nov 17.

The US state department spokesperson has said his government welcomed the moves as “progress” but saw them simply as “initial steps”.

The spokesman has said the US will “continue to work toward expanding access and improving conditions for US and other foreign media”.

The US has for long been calling for access to Tibet for journalists, diplomats, UN rights officials and others, including with the passage of a Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, but with little success.

In Feb 2020, the US decided to classify Chinese state media organisations as “foreign missions”, which allowed for tighter control to be exercised over them. Under it, five outlets including Xinhua news agency and the China Global Television Network were told they would need to seek approval to buy any property, and would be required to submit lists of all employees on staff, in a move China lambasted as “politically motivated oppression”.

And in Mar 2020. China retaliated by expelling 13 US journalists from major publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The Nov 16 Biden-Xi meeting was seen as a rare opportunity for the two countries to stem rising tensions surrounding trade, cybersecurity, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. It was the third meeting between the two leaders in the last ten months.


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