Q&A: Paul Mooney on reporting in China

I’ve known Paul Mooney since we worked together at Time Warner’s Hong Kong-based magazine Asiaweek, which closed in December 2001. After that we’d overlapped in Beijing for several stints. A lot has been written about China’s refusal to give him a visa to let him go back to Beijing to work as a features writer for Reuters — a dream job for a reporter with as many clips as he has built up over the years. He’s been quoted widely about what happened, but I haven’t seen his full account anywhere else. So here is an email exchange with him from today (I’ve dropped a reference to some foreign journalists Mooney named who are also having visa problems and most likely wouldn’t want to be mentioned):

Q: Paul, why were you refused a visa to China? You worked there for years, the most recent stint was for the South China Morning Post.

A: I don’t know the exact reason for the rejection of my journalist visa. China didn’t give a reason, which is puzzling. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) issued a faxed statement to one news organization afterwards saying that the decision was in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations. But if that’s the case, why is the government too embarrassed to say what laws or regulations were violated?

Q: How did the refusal to give you a visa play out? Was there much animosity on the Chinese governments part? Or was it more a case of them just not responding, using no response as their response? How did you manage to stay so long in China, anyway? Theyre known to be tough on issuing visas.

A: Reuters offered me a position as a features writer in Beijing in February and they submitted my visa application in early March. I had an interview with the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco in April, which is a now part of the process of getting a journalist visa. After that, the ministry provided no information at all. Nothing. So there was no animosity, from what I know. Reuters checked with MoFA from time to time to see about my visa, but the answer was always that they were working on my background investigation, which didn’t make much sense as I’d lived in Beijing for 18 consecutive years. From their monitoring of me during my more than two decades of reporting on China, they knew quite a bit about me. I assume that MoFA, which actually lacks any real power in things like this, was waiting for security agencies to give their approval for my visa. When MoFA informed Reuters on November 8, which is Journalists’ Day in China, by the way, that they would not grant me a visa, no reason was given, and that’s because they don’t have a valid reason for doing this. In the entire 18 years that I worked as an accredited journalist in China, and during the past eight months, no one from the government had ever made any critical remarks about my work, although, as I said, I’m sure they were not happy with my reporting. The purpose of not giving any justification for the delay in granting a visa is part of their program of intimidation, a way for them to make journalists squirm.

While working in China, I had to renew my visa every year, and each year I expected to have trouble–but I never did. Things are different now, however. The situation around the country is getting worse and the Chinese leadership is getting increasingly nervous. Their decision to keep me out of China now is an indication of how much the Chinese leadership has regressed in recent years.  This is the worst atmosphere for freedom of expression that I can remember since the early 1990s. Also, I believe that they think refusing to renew the visa of someone inside China is far more sensitive than not issuing a visa to someone who is applying from outside the country–I was forced to leave China in September 2012 because I was not able to get a new journalist visa before my previous visa expired. Once I was in the US, Beijing was less afraid of the fallout from not giving me a visa.

Q: Whats it like working as a journalist in China these days? Do you have a sense of increased surveillance? Are other people in the same sort of situation you were in, on tenterhooks, worried about being allowed to stay? Are they being called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be lectured more often? How about staffers who work for well-known companies? Stringers? How closely knit is the foreign press corps now?

A: I believe it’s gotten much worse, but that’s been the trend for several years now. Beginning about three years ago, they began delaying annual visa approvals until the final week of December–visas must be renewed by the end of each year. I know of two people who didn’t get their renewals until December 31, which puts a great deal of pressure on journalists and their organizations. If his or her visa is revoked, a journalist has less than a day to pack up and fly out. This is childish. And Chinese staff are often under pressure as well, with security agents frequently inviting them to tea or lunches, where they are asked, with veiled threats, to report to the police about what their bosses are doing. It frightens many of the staff.

When I renewed my visa two years ago, they asked me to bring my wife for the meeting with the police who oversee visa renewals. I balked, saying my wife is not a journalist. They insisted that she come in. At the Entry and Exit Bureau, the police in charge of foreign journalist visa approvals took us into a small back interrogation room where they asked us intimidating questions. I’m used to such treatment, but it frightened my wife. I can take any kind of abuse, but my family is off-limits. The following year, a police officer responsible for monitoring me told me when I renewed my visa that he’d been tailing me, and he described the Chinese friends he’d seen me with. These are pure scare tactics and really outrageous. I’ve not heard of people being called in more often for lectures, so I can’t comment on that.

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.” I interpreted that as a threat.

While visiting AIDS villages in Henan province in August 2012, I was harassed by local officials and police everywhere I went. In one case, Party officials entered the home of AIDS victims where I was conducting interviews. As I didn’t want to get my sources into deeper trouble, I left immediately. In some villages, I was advised not to even try to enter. One AIDS activist who helped me meet people received a call from her local officials as we were driving in a car. They ordered her to return to the village immediately, and when she went back, they questioned her and asked why she was helping a foreign journalist. I worried about her safety. In the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan, I barely escaped my hotel after AIDS activists informed me the police were going to my hotel to detain me.

In Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province, police forced me to check out of my hotel and to stay in a hotel they designated. Foreign journalists in China all have journalist visas, and our arrival is immediately reported to local security people as soon as we check in. During my three days there, police stayed with me from morning to night and prevented me from reporting. I was not allowed to leave the hotel on my own or to take photographs other than tourist shots. On the fourth day, they escorted me to the train station and put me on a train to Urumqi. I was prevented from doing any reporting while I was there. This despite new rules implemented during the Olympics that made it possible for journalists to travel outside our home cities without government permission. Tibet is the one exception to this rule–foreign journalists cannot travel to Tibet unless they have special permission, which is difficult to get. I applied several times, and was refused permission each time.

In two other incidents, when I was reporting in Tibetan areas, someone entered my hotel room when I was outside reporting and they took things from my room. I interpreted this as a signal to let me know that they were watching me.

I always worried about my photographs being erased from my camera cards, and so I often switched cards, and I frequently put my photos into the cloud so I’d still have copies. Likewise, with my notes. I often wrote on scraps of paper that would be easier to hide, and I had a habit of typing my notes up and sending them to various email addresses so I wouldn’t lose them.
Traveling was always stressful, and when I returned home to Beijing, I often breathed a sigh of relief for getting home without incident, and I wondered if my luck would not run out the next time. My family always worried about me when I traveled in China and so I would keep in constant contact.

Q: Were getting lots of questions along the lines of “Is China cracking down on foreign media?” The FCCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China) released a report in mid-2013 that things were either bad or getting worse for foreign correspondents. Have you noticed a disintegration, or has it just been as difficult for years? Has it gotten worse under the Xi government?

A: I left China in September 2012, before Xi Jinping came to power, so I can’t speak from personal knowledge. However, based on what I mentioned above about people being forced to wait long periods to get visa approvals, my own situation, and based on the steps China has taken to retaliate against media organizations that they don’t like, I feel the situation has gotten much worse. One can also see this in the crackdown on freedom of expression among Chinese citizens. In the past few months, some 300 Chinese rights lawyers, activists, dissidents and others have been detained or arrested, including a 16-year old middle school student who was briefly detained for several days under the new law prohibiting the spread of so-called rumors.

Q: The FCCC also had reports of physical assaults and harassment of foreign reporters. Its a problem, but is that really the primary issue for foreign reporters? Are journalists walking around afraid of getting roughed up?

A: There have been physical assaults on journalists, but only occasionally. That said, it’s something one fears when reporting in out-of-the-way areas or when doing sensitive stories. Despite this happening rarely, I was always conscious of the possibility.

Q: Let me ask, as a former working journalist who hasnt been able to get a visa into China for a while now, to a guy who is still making his living writing and reporting: What are you going to do next? Your expertise is China, it seems like any employer would risk antagonizing China if they were to hire you, especially to cover anything China-related

A: I’ve spent the last 28 years writing about Greater China: Taiwan between 1985-1990, Hong Kong 1990-1994, and Beijing from 1994 to 2012. I’ve occasionally done reporting in Mongolia, Vietnam, and South Korea, but I’ve always considered myself a “China person.” In some ways, I’m more that than a journalist. A lot of people are assigned to China for a few years and then move on to another place. I thought I’d write about China until I couldn’t hold a pen and notebook anymore. I’m 63 now and expected I would do another seven years of the rough reporting around difficult parts of China. I didn’t expect my China career to end this way. Reuters has kindly offered to see if it can find another suitable position for me. Right now I have no idea where that will be. Once a journalist is banned from China, it normally takes three to five years to be allowed back in to work. Some people are never allowed back in. I have no idea when or if I’ll ever return to China.

Q: Is there much interaction between foreign journalists and local Chinese reporters? Are they two separate universes, or do they overlap? Do you get a sense of how they are feeling about the media environment these days? Do you feel they speak frankly with you?

A: These are two separate universes. I had far more local reporter friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong than I had in China, despite spending triple the years in China. The more experienced foreign correspondents who are knowledgeable about China, and who speak good Chinese, have more contacts with Chinese journalists and they benefit from these contacts. I’ve learned a lot from my friendship with Chinese colleagues. I wish there was a lot more interaction. I’ve heard that the government has a regulation forbidding Chinese journalists to mingle with Western reporters, and this may explain the reticence I’ve seen among some Chinese. There’s a real risk for Chinese journalists who are willing to have interactions with foreign reporters. The Chinese reporters that I’ve become friends with have spoken to me frankly. I have great admiration for many Chinese journalists who have risked their jobs and security to write the truth. Despite the controls on the media, there are more and more Chinese journalists who are bravely pushing the line. Even in places like CCTV and the People’s Daily, the main propaganda arms of the Party, there are a growing number of Chinese journalists who are privately critical of the controls on the media. The many Chinese journalists who dare to push the line, despite the risks, are one of the things that give me hope for the future of China. I have tremendous respect for them.

Q: And the classic interview-ending question: Is there anything I have missed? Something you want to say that I havent touched on?

A: The treatment of foreign journalists in China, from visa intimidation to harassment and threats, is outrageous, and it’s gotten worse in recent years. It’s time for foreign governments to stand up to China on this issue. In my country, the United States, there are more than 700 Chinese correspondents working–many of them propagandists or actual intelligence agents. This number far exceeds the number of American journalists in China. Yet, Beijing continues to limit our access. As far as I know, Chinese journalists in the United States are treated with respect and are not made to wait excessively long for visas. Nor are they threatened, intimidated, or prevented from doing their work. It’s time for foreign governments to adopt a tit-for-tat policy in approving visas for Chinese journalists and to speak out forcibly about the abuse of foreign correspondents. Some China experts don’t think this is a good policy as it would mean we were limiting the freedom of the media. But this is already happening in China. There’s no doubt in my mind that if the United States, for example, sat on the visa applications for senior correspondents from CCTV, the People’s Daily or Xinhua News Agency, that Beijing would stop it’s unacceptable behavior and that the result would be more freedom for the media. [This has not been CPJ’s policy. See our June 2012 piece: Don’t punish Chinese restrictions with more restrictions] China has made great strides over the past few decades and people now refer to it as a super power. It’s time for Beijing to abandon its childish policies and act like a responsible state. These are not the policies the world expects from a leading power and they show an extreme lack of confidence.