U.S. and Chinese officials agreed in Beijing on Wednesday to a new round of inspections to allow a reporter to get access to Xinjiang, the region of China gripped by a decade-long drive to stamp out religious and cultural practices deemed aberrant.
“We agreed to remove barriers, remove threats and remove barriers of intimidation and harassment,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a critic of the crackdown in Xinjiang, who met with U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad after the two governments arrived from the funeral of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
In a statement, Branstad called the agreement a “major breakthrough” in allowing “an appropriate level of press access to Xinjiang,” but gave no details.
Still, a top-level State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post that “all these blocks will end” as soon as the inspection process begins. He declined to say how soon, nor detail any conditions of access being lifted.
The official said it was not known how many reporters from Xinjiang were currently kept out of the region by travel restrictions, one of the items discussed during Wednesday’s meeting.
The official did not make clear which countries would conduct the inspections.
In a separate statement, the Xinjiang administration said last week that officials would “determine the primary reason the journalist wanted to visit Xinjiang” and then “certify” its news value.
Human rights groups have said that China has placed travel restrictions on journalists from European and American news organizations. In 2014, Beijing began barring reporters from foreign news organizations from traveling to Xinjiang, citing the need to “guarantee the security and stability of the region.”
“The Chinese government’s lack of transparency, its increasing misuse of the visa application system to detain journalists and its conduct of mass surveillance and censorship make it impossible to treat China as a normal democracy,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement last week calling for the visas to be reinstated.
The number of foreigners with visas to report on Xinjiang has reportedly shrunk since Beijing issued its new “security action guidelines” last year that prohibited reporters and other foreigners from gathering information on what the government calls terrorists, religious extremists and separatists in the region.
The new measures, which restrict travelers to only a handful of Xinjiang cities, also limit the length of interviews with reporters and forbid them from doing coverage outside their hotels. The changes have been criticized by some local journalists.
Reporting restrictions in Xinjiang have triggered a swirl of criticism from US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Rubio, who has said China is part of a global effort to gag the press. In April, Rubio introduced a bill calling for “the elimination of all remaining travel and visa restrictions on journalists and other members of the public wishing to visit China for independent media purposes.”
The State Department official said the U.S. had pushed China on the issue of travel restrictions in the past as it “has made it a national priority.” In addition to Rubio, administration officials said that they welcomed broader communications and relationships with China on freedom of the press.
Wednesday’s deal, they said, was “part of a wider effort to deepen our engagement and relationships on what we view as important issues that are facing both the United States and China.”