White House Press Corps Detained in China

Demonstrating the public relations prowess for which they’re known, Chinese authorities detained the White House press corps for nearly three hours upon its plane landing in Beijing.

The flight crew of the Northwest Airlines 747 had been expecting to park at a VIP terminal, but after landing was instead directed by the control tower to a normal international gate.

White House officials would say only there were “logistical problems” getting clearance to unload the aircraft. The flight crew was told the Chinese were insisting that all luggage be inspected.

Typically, the White House press charter receives the “custom of the port,” meaning reporters, photographers and camera crews are able to get off the plane right after landing, board buses and head to their hotels and work areas while U.S. State Department officials process immigration and customs details.

For whatever reason, I was until now unfamiliar with this custom. Then again, one presumes that people with passes to follow the president around have been rather thoroughly screened.

Am I surprised by this incident? Not at all.

UPDATE: Retired diplomat John Burgess provides some interesting background on this practice in the comments.

Photo: White House Correspondents Association

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eric J says:

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that Helen Thomas was on board.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    My guess is that the members of the fourth estate will say little about the matter.

  3. dutchmarbel says:

    Didn’t they confiscate all laptops & pda’s to read all emails and other information on it? I though that was the latest fashion in custom inconvenience?

  4. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    I blame Bush.

  5. sam says:

    I blame Bush.

    I know you meant that as snark, but there might be some truth in it:

    BANGKOK, Thailand — With all eyes on Beijing, President Bush bluntly told China that America is strongly opposed to the way the communist government represses its people, a rebuke delivered from the heart of Asia on the cusp of the Olympic Games.


    Since the Chinese seem to think that the press is just another arm of government (from their own experience, of course), somebody probably thought they’d could stick it to the president by hassling the press corps. They’re all suffering from POS over there.

  6. rodney dill says:

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that Helen Thomas was on board.

    Then they’d be accused of stealing the corpse of Mao Tse Tung.

  7. John Burgess says:

    ‘Custom of the Port’ (usually, ‘Courtesy of the Port’) is one of the things I had to deal with frequently with VIP visitors and traveling press. Normally, it’s not a big deal and it’s done as both a courtesy and to improve efficiency.

    The media that travels with POTUS can be an ungainly herd, but a selected group among them, known to themselves as the ‘death watch’, normally is included in presidential motorcades. They need to be off the plane and into cars as quickly as possible. Normally, this group flies in AF-1, deboards through a rear entrance, and makes the connection without much problem.

    The rest of the herd–who all pay the going rate for their transportation and other costs, btw–normally get off their own chartered plane, get into their own chartered buses, then head off either to their hotel(s) or the first stop of the visit. They are, to a large extent, spoiled by very convenient arrangements, so get prickly if they have to contend with the hoi-polloi in a commercial terminal.

    Luckily for embassy personnel, when something gets screwed up (in the journalists’ opinion) they have a group of WH staff on which to heap their abuse. Ultimately, they blame ‘the Embassy’ for not meeting their needs, but ‘the Embassy’ is anonymous and Embassy staff rarely gets the opprobrium.

    Instead, Embassy staff get flack for not having a press room, with two phone lines/reporter and broadband Internet up and running when the reporters run in. They’re responsible, too, for the food and drinks (paid for by the media, eventually). And there’s always someone on call, 24-hours, to take care of tech problems that may arise… like figuring out how to use a thermostat or set up an Internet connection through the hotel’s switchboard.

    Sometimes, depending on just what the trip is about and where, the Embassy might be required to obtain cell phones that work locally/internationally for the reporters. Always, the Embassy is responsible for obtaining transportation, though not private taxis and the like.

    The host country generally takes for granted that presidential security has vetted the luggage and equipment, at least for the airport. But not always. Some countries insist on doing their own baggage checks, as is their perfect right. The country’s security services also do checks if the press is going to be interacting in any way with high level host country officials. That bums out some reporters, but nobody loses any sleep over their unhappiness on this count.

  8. John425 says:

    The Media Elite runs into totalitarianism and is “inconvenienced”. Ho hum.

  9. Triumph says:

    This is the funniest story I have seen all day! Maybe now these liberal media types will realize what life would be like every day should their communist fantasies of a B. Hussein presidency come true.

  10. Sam says:

    Would it be too much ask that the Chinese keep them? They send us toys with lead paint, it’s a fair trade that the Chinese should have to keep our “journalists.”

  11. Spoker says:

    Lions and tigers and being treated like everyone else. Oh my! Watch for the spike in the Big Bad Reds vs. the Lil ‘Ol Press Is Me stories in the next couple of weeks.

  12. Badtux says:

    I’m baffled. This sounds like a normal international flight at LAX. Yes, your luggage is searched and it usually takes three hours to clear customs at LAX. And that has been true for *years* — even in 1991, LA tourism officials were whining about how tourists were being inconvenienced by three-hour waits at LAX. It sounds like the Washington press corps got the same treatment from the Chinese that the Chinese get from the Americans when they land at LAX. Oh wah, I’m just so upset that the Chinese treat Americans as poorly as Americans treat Chinese. Why, don’t they know that we Americans are the chosen race, and Chinese are mere untermenschen? Sheesh, next thing you know, somebody will write some silly document that starts “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …”, which clearly would be a Communist document and anti-American.

    – Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  13. Floyd says:

    There is a touch of “pot/kettle syndrome” here, isn’t there?
    The question is, who is smoking which??

    There was,however, a bit of undiplomatic hubris on the part of the Chinese IMHO.