Visas into China have been hard to get since early this year, when new policies were instituted. The tighter restrictions had already hit me in late February, when I tried to get a tourist visa to visit my wife's family in Beijing. I was in Hong Kong to launch the 2007 edition of CPJ's annual report Attacks on the Press, and the timing was perfect for a quick run to Beijing during Chinese New Year.
My last-minute application through a Hong Kong travel agency was turned down, and the agent said they were told to tell me to apply for a journalist's visa once I got back to New York. There are plenty of J visas in my passport and I must have set off alarm bells. I had last been in China in August 2007, to launch CPJ's first edition of Falling Short, our analysis of the Olympics and media in China, entering as a tourist. We carried it off and made a splash with a well-attended press conference, which certainly didn't go unnoticed by the authorities. Still, this turndown was the first time in 20 years that I had been refused entry into China, and it was, and still is, disconcerting.
Back in New York I duly applied for a J visa, which never materialized. No outright rejection, just no answer despite many phone calls and a letter from CPJ's board chairman, Paul Steiger. Other journalists have told us of the same tactic: silence.
CPJ is a known quantity at the New York consulate, where we have had meetings a few times around media issues. Maybe the worst was the tense session in October 2007 surrounding the decision to give a recently released Chinese reporter, Gao Qinrong, one of CPJ's 2007 International Press Freedom Awards. We were told we had intentionally chosen him to embarrass China. We said we admired him, and went ahead with the award. Neither he nor his family could make it to the award ceremony, so we're holding the plaque for him until he is allowed to travel freely to New York to take it in hand.
Whatever the reason, it became obvious I wouldn't be getting to China any time soon, which is why I'm posting from Hong Kong and not Beijing. While there will be about 20,000 accredited journalists and another 6,000 without formal accreditation (Xinhua puts the number closer to 30,000), visas have been tough for a lot of people, not just reporters.
Stratfor, which supplies background information and analysis to business people, says the policy stems from security concerns for the Olympics, but worries that it might be part of a greater problem of erratic economic growth policies and a government increasingly concerned with control of a surging economy, inflation, and the social unrest they brings. CPJ has heard from numerous people--mostly, but not all, freelancers--who said they just couldn't get permission to enter the country during the Games.
One U.S.-based TV reporter (these identities are being protected at their request) wanted only to go the Games with a family member. Part of the person's application process included signing a form promising not to engage in any reporting activities. The person wondered if they would get hauled away if they so much dared to blog on their personal site, rooting for some hometown athletes who had made it to Beijing or doing touristy "sights and sounds" entries. Several said the age-old dodge of entering as a tourist didn't work because of the tightened rules that came earlier this year.
As for those already in China, a few long-time expat Beijing residents said they have been receiving frequent visits for months from neighborhood officials checking on the occupancy of their apartments, where most have lived for years. An overnight guest meant a visit from the minders, asking for their personal details. It was all part of the massive Olympics security blanket that has been thrown across Beijing.
Of course, foreign journalists have known for years that e-mail traffic and phones are likely to be monitored. CPJ asked Jocelyn Ford, a long-time China reporter for her advice for surviving as a reporter. Her tips for reporters on the ground in China, published in Falling Short, are a quick and worthwhile read. And for the record: Jocelyn was not one of the unidentified sources cited here.
(Reporting from Hong Kong)