The New York Times is vowing to not alter its coverage of China, after President Xi Jinping appeared to confirm Beijing is punishing foreign news outlets for publishing critical stories.
President Xi's comments came Wednesday during a news conference alongside President Barack Obama in Beijing. When asked by a Times reporter why foreign journalists had difficulties obtaining visas, Xi suggested the reporters themselves were to blame, saying media outlets "need to obey China's laws and regulations."
"When a car breaks down on the road, perhaps we need to get off the car to see where the problem lies. And when a certain issue is raised as a problem, there must be a reason. In Chinese, we have a saying: ‘The party which has created a problem should be the one to help resolve it.’ So perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies," Xi said.
China has repeatedly failed to issue visas for Times reporters and blocked access to the paper's English and Chinese language sites. The moves followed, and were widely interpreted as retaliation for, a series of New York Times stories that exposed alleged wealth accumulated by the country's leaders and their families.
In a statement Wednesday, the Times editorial board said Xi's message was clear: "He was warning foreign news organizations that their troubles are self-inflicted; they are being penalized for unfavorable or controversial news coverage."
The editorial board said it does not intend to alter its coverage to meet the demands of any government, including China, the United States, or any other nation, insisting no credible news organization would do so.
"Demanding that journalists tailor their coverage to suit the state only protects the powerful and those with something to hide. A confident regime that considers itself a world leader should be able to handle truthful examination and criticism," the editorial continued.
Many foreign reporters interpreted Xi's comments as confirmation that Beijing's official policy is to discriminate against those who write stories critical of China's leaders. Some took to Twitter to mock the president's statement.
Others pointed out that Xi did not specify which Chinese law reporters are breaking when they write such stories.
When pressed about the matter during a Thursday briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei also refused to elaborate on how the journalists broke the law.
"I think the open environment provided by China towards journalists is recognized by all. It is for the doers to undo what he has done. Those people should reflect on that,” said Hong.
In the past, the Foreign Ministry has cited minor bureaucratic technicalities as the reason the visas were not renewed.
The murkiness has left many foreign journalists in China wondering what they can and cannot write and in fear of whether they and their families will be allowed to stay in the country if they cross a certain line.
Peter Ford, the president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, told VOA the president's comments were opaque, but meant to send a clear message.
"Did he mean that reporters should expect to be denied a visa if their newspaper publishes articles the Chinese government doesn't like? If that's the case, I'd say the problem is not so much with the car, it's with the potholes in the road we have to drive on here," said Ford.
The Times says six of its journalists have failed to receive visas in recent years, including columnist Nicholas Kristof, who was denied a visa last week. Other news organizations also have experienced such visa restrictions and are subject to censorship.
China has defended its policies by saying it gives vastly more access to foreign reporters than it did in past decades, before it began its process of opening up to the outside world.
VOA's Shannon Van Sant in Beijing contributed to this report.