This week I was scheduled to attend a seminar on new and social media in China with other British journalists, but first I needed a visa. It never came. Consular officials told me that I was denied entrance because I didn’t have an appropriate letter of invitation — but others in my party traveled with the same documentation that I provided.
So why couldn’t I visit? I fell back on an explanation that seemed rational: the authorities hadn’t liked my journalism.
I’ve been working for the last three years with a young Chinese journalist on a book about the state of Chinese investigative journalism. Over a year ago, we published a joint piece in the Financial Times in which we argued that the scope of investigative journalism in China has narrowed, and noted the growing list of reporters who have been fired. One of the most famed, Wang Keqin, had uncovered a series of frauds and failures by the authorities that resulted in his sacking, twice — once in 2011, and again, from another paper, in February of this year.
We argued that what had been at least a partial breakthrough to real — if risky — investigative writing was now being suppressed. Because of this, journalists had to turn to activism — bearing witness to protests, environmental and industrial issues and mobilization of disaffected groups.
I may be over-hasty in concluding that I was refused because of my journalism (though two Chinese friends were sure I wasn’t). And I’m aware this might be self-serving: in western journalistic circles there’s more pride than shame in having a visa denied on the basis of publishing something unwelcome. Regardless, the situation my co-author and I wrote about a little over a year ago has become worse. New media, which was to bring unprecedented freedom of expression to authoritarian societies, has been proven no more immune to control than the mainstream media.