In his 18 years as a journalist in Beijing, during which he worked for publications like Newsweek and the South China Morning Post, Paul Mooney went through the same ritual each time he changed employers and needed a new visa. He would prepare five clips of his work, carefully selected to avoid sensitive issues, and send them to the Chinese consulate. And, each time, the consulate approved his application.
In February, Reuters offered Mooney a job as a features reporter based in Beijing, and, as usual, the journalist prepared his five clips for the consulate. But this time, Mooney endured a difficult interview. The consulate had prepared specific questions about his work, even mentioning a 2010 interview he gave with Jeremy Goldkorn of the popular blog Danwei. Mooney was also asked for his opinion on Chen Guangcheng, Tibet, and other controversial issues. “Clearly, they had done their homework,” he said.
A few weeks after submitting his application, Reuters checked with the consulate about Mooney's visa and was told that it was still under review. Subsequent checks—done every few weeks—received the same answer. Finally, Mooney’s visa was ultimately rejected, and his career in China appears to be over. “I am very disappointed,” he told me.
Mooney is only the latest example of a disturbing trend: China’s crackdown on foreign journalists. Last year, Melissa Chan, a Beijing-based reporter for al Jazeera, suddenly had her visa canceled, forcing her to leave the country. And after Bloomberg News and The New York Times published investigative reports into the wealth of two of China’s top leaders (current president Xi Jinping and former prime minister Wen Jiabao, respectively), the two websites were immediately blocked—and neither company has been able to secure visas for new journalists ever since.
Mooney's visa rejection wasn't even the most depressing China censorship story from the weekend. The New York Times reported on Friday that Bloomberg News spiked a long-running investigative report into Wang Jianlin, the founder of the Wanda real estate empire and China’s wealthiest citizen, out of concern that publishing the story would jeopardize Bloomberg’s ability to maintain operations in the country. According to the Times article, Bloomberg News editor in chief Matthew Winkler compared the situation to Nazi Germany, where reporters occasionally engaged in self-censorship in order to protect their access. Winkler and Bloomberg have denied this report, saying that the investigation into Wang Jianlin’s wealth is still “active.” But, if the Times’ story is accurate, Bloomberg’s decision to cave marks a disturbing milestone in Western coverage of China.
The reason for the crackdown is this: In China, the subject of official wealth—and of the murky connections between big business and politics—is a potential source of instability in a country where so many people struggle to get ahead. And while only a small percentage of the population can read English-language newspapers, Melissa Chan told me that the Times and Bloomberg exposés still resonated inside China, where many people learned about the stories from relatives in the Chinese diaspora.
Even still, for a Chinese government concerned about soft power, and whose state-owned media companies have recently opened large bureaus abroad, this crackdown is puzzling. The fact that China makes life difficult for foreign journalists is more damaging to the country’s international public relations than reports on the cozy relationship between money and politics, an issue in just about every other country in the world. So why does China bother?