Will China expel foreign journalists?

File photo: Foreign media in China interviewing French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (C) in Beijing's Forbidden City Foreign correspondents have to renew their press cards and visas each year

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Is China preparing for a mass expulsion of foreign correspondents? Even to ask the question sounds faintly ridiculous. Surely not. Not in this day of the internet and global communications. Not the new, confident, rising China that is opening and interacting with the rest of the world like never before. What could it possibly gain from such a step?

But it is a serious question. Many journalists here are wondering if two major American news organisations are about to be forced to close their China operations. At this time of year, all foreign correspondents in China have to renew first their press cards from the Foreign Ministry and then their visas from the police.

In an unprecedented move, China's authorities appear to be withholding resident journalist visas for the entire foreign reporting staff of the New York Times and the financial news service Bloomberg, up to two dozen correspondents.

The reason is simple. Both organisations seem to be targets for breaking the great taboo of Chinese politics and journalism.

Both have published detailed investigations into the enormous wealth that is being amassed by the families of some of the ruling Communist Party's most powerful families and clans, including those of the former Premier Wen Jiabao and the current President Xi Jinping.

China's displeasure
File photo: Plaque on the wall outside the New York Times office, Shanghai (2012) The New York Times has found it difficult to secure visas for its journalists in China

The sums we are talking about are alleged to be huge, hundreds of millions of dollars, billions in some cases. They are being cornered by a small, new oligarchy, of politically powerful and connected individuals. But it's a subject that is never talked about in China.

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Instead, the Communist Party and its leaders strive to present themselves as the servants of the people, functionaries working selflessly for the greater good. China's own media, scrutinised and censored, are not able to write about this wealth, or do not dare to. Now the Communist Party seems to want to silence foreign media too.

Both the New York Times and Bloomberg have already had clear signals about China's displeasure. New correspondents the Times has tried to bring to China have had visas held up for a year or more. For months, China has been blocking access to both organisations' websites.

And Bloomberg's lucrative sales of its terminals, which provide up-to-the minute financial information to banks and businesses, have been badly affected. But they both carried out more investigations. So now China seems to be going further.

The New York Times' investigation in October 2012 claimed Wen Jiabao's relatives, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law have "controlled" assets worth at least $2.7bn (£1.6bn). China called the report a smear.

When last month, the Times published a new report about links between Wen Jiabao's daughter and the US bank JPMorgan Chase, China's Foreign Ministry halted renewal of press cards for all the New York Times journalists already in China.

Some, who had already been given their cards and submitted visa applications to the police, had their passports returned with no visas in. If the process doesn't restart, they will have to leave China by the end of December.

Waving a big stick
File photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping Bloomberg published an investigative report into Xi Jinping's family last year

Bloomberg published its report in June 2012 claiming the extended family of Xi Jinping had interests in companies with total assets of $376m. There was no evidence Mr Xi or his wife or daughter shared in those assets.

Last month, Bloomberg's reporters had prepared two new, lengthy investigations, one into ties between one of China's wealthiest men and the families of top leaders, another into the children of wealthy Chinese employed by foreign banks possibly in return for lucrative Chinese government business.

Bloomberg's managers suddenly halted publication of both, it's claimed, to try to ensure their journalists were not denied visas to stay in China. Their visas, too, are held up.

China may be waving a big stick, to warn foreign journalists, but quietly preparing to issue visas to the two companies. Or it may be preparing to deny one of the world's leading newspapers and one of its leading financial news services the right to base their reporters in China.

To do so would be extraordinary in an age of globalised finance and information. And it would raise serious questions. Can China be credible as a modern economic and political power if it does not allow such organisations to work freely here? Or is hiding the true extent of the wealth of China's Communist leaders more important?

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