After 28 years of reporting from China, journalist Paul Mooney learned on Nov. 8 that his visa had been denied.
The news came on the heels of a slew of stories on increasing Chinese censorship and how it has begun to affect foreign media. The Center For International Media Assistance released a report last month detailing how China has used a variety of tactics to limit the foreign media, most prominently visa denials.
“Things have been getting worse politically in China … They feel like they are under siege,” Mooney said of the Communist Party’s increased censorship, during a recent phone call with Business Insider.
Mooney’s situation is a fascinating glimpse into the subtle ways China makes life difficult, if not impossible, for foreign journalists.
The veteran journalist left China last September after his contract with the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post ran out. Thinking he would be back within a few months, he looked for new jobs and, in February, negotiated a staff job at Reuters. They submitted his visa application and he began, what has become in recent years, a long approval process.
In April, Mooney had a visa interview with the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco — standard procedure for journalists now. He was asked detailed questions about his views on sensitive Chinese issues — the Dalai Llama, Tibet, and Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist lawyer. He answered frankly but politely and told them that he didn’t see them as threats to the Chinese government. He told them he thought they were being paranoid. The official who interviewed Mooney then quoted lines from Mooney’s articles and questioned him on their meaning. At the end of the interview, the official told Mooney that his approval was up to Beijing. The official ended the meeting with a veiled threat.
“He said, ‘If we give you the visa, we hope you’ll be more objective in your reporting,'” Mooney said. “It was an obvious threat … No government should try to tell a foreign correspondent how to report the news, how to cover things.”
Mooney didn’t hear anything for months, even as other Reuters reporters received visa approvals. China has been known, in recent years, to wait until the last day to issue approvals (a way of flexing their strength and making journalists uneasy) but, even so, Mooney expected to receive the approval.
When a fax came in November from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denying him the visa, he was confused. It gave no reason other than saying the decision was “in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations.” There was no appealing the decision.
When Mooney left China last year, he had an inkling that it might be harder to get back in this time. He’d been reporting on sensitive topics in China for years — Cancer and AIDs villages, environmental problems, corruption — and had watched as other foreign journalists that had tested the Chinese government were kicked out, denied visa approvals, or intimidated.
It did not help that he applying from outside the country. According to Mooney, the Chinese government is more wary of denying visas to journalists who are renewing from inside the country than outside. If China denies a visa to a journalist inside the country, the international media will declare that the journalist has been “kicked out.” China believes the backlash is markedly smaller when they deny a journalist applying from outside the country.
“This was their opportunity to keep me from coming back in,” he said.
Mooney says that the Chinese government’s offensive on foreign journalists began after the Beijing Olympics. Having gotten their spotlight on the world stage, China no longer had to appease the rest of the world by easing restrictions, curtailing censorship, or other measures that they had taken to convince the International Olympic Committee that the time was right for a Chinese Olympics.
“Around that time, they started holding up visa approvals,” he said. “I’ve never known a time where there were so many reporters waiting for approval [as in the last several years]”
In the past few years, China’s visa strategy has verged on outright intimidation. In 2011, during the Jasmine Revolution, the Chinese government contacted foreign journalists to tell them not to cover the riots. If they did, their visas would be denied outright. Mooney says that was the only time he decided not to cover a story because of its potential effect on his status in the country.
It is almost surprising that Mooney didn’t have his visa denied sooner. In a recent Q&A with the Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mooney recounted one of his most harrowing run-ins with the Chinese government:
On the night that Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, I was invited to a dinner with some rights lawyers and other activists who were celebrating the news. More than 40 police stormed into the restaurant and dragged the 17 participants to police stations. I was held for more than three hours and interrogated. I believe that the plainclothes officers who tried to first interrogate me were members of the notorious National Security. They refused to identify themselves and I refused to answer any questions, which upset them. They took off in a huff. Uniformed police with identification badges then interrogated me, trying to get me to reveal information about the people attending the dinner. I refused as there was no legal obligation for me to answer these questions. In the end, I agreed to sign a statement saying I’d neglected to carry my passport with me, which is a law in China for foreigners. When I was allowed to leave at close to 11 pm, one police officer said to me, “We know where you are in case we need you.”
Mooney doesn’t see the situation with foreign journalists getting better without pressure from the United States and other nations. He says that countries should adopt a reciprocal policy — if China won’t process foreign visas, then the U.S. will stop processing Chinese visas.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal proposed the reciprocal policy idea in an editorial and, in 2011, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) proposed a bill to that effect, but it never went anywhere. The Committee to Protect Journalists has said that a reciprocal policy “is more likely to goad Beijing to retaliate than redress an imbalance.”
For now, the outlook is bleak.
“[The Communist Party] thinks that any kind of concession they make might upset their authority,” says Mooney. “I don’t think many people realise how precarious this situation is. The Communist party is incredibly ruthless; I don’t expect it to collapse or fall but things are going to get much, much worse.”
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