On Friday, The Economist issued a press release stating that Hong Kong authorities had refused to renew the employment visa of one of its correspondents, Sue-Lin Wong. An Australian journalist based in Hong Kong, Wong now joins a growing list of Western journalists forced out of China amid one of the most hostile atmospheres for foreign journalists in decades. Under Xi Jinping’s tenure, the Chinese government has weaponized journalist visas in order to combat coverage critical of the government. While Wong’s departure continues this pattern, a tentative agreement between the US and Chinese governments on journalist visas signals a potential political ceasefire on the issue.
Very sad I won’t be able to continue reporting from Hong Kong. I loved getting to know the city and its people. I will miss you all: https://t.co/04GelUc9bq pic.twitter.com/SgSvO2Ai4n
— Sue-Lin Wong 黄淑琳 (@suelinwong) November 12, 2021
The Economist’s press release stated that the authorities gave no explanation for their decision, and the Hong Kong Immigration Department said that it would not comment on individual cases. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian stated that “visa issuance is a matter of sovereignty,” and that since the implementation of the National Security Law “all Hong Kong-based journalists have enjoyed their lawful rights and freedoms including press freedom.” State media chided that Wong “must reflect on what she has done,” and nationalist social media accounts dubbed her a “traitor.” Chief Executive Carrie Lam drew a parallel between Wong’s visa rejection and Lam’s own experience of being sanctioned by the US government and barred entry to the US:
Referring to her own experience, Lam said: “The issue of visas is the autonomy or discretion of any government. For example, standing here as the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, I have been denied a visa into the United States of America.
“Although I would dispute that, that was the autonomy and the discretion of the US government. It is always the discretion of the director of immigration to decide on the circumstances of each case, whether they will grant or extend a visa, or impose certain conditions.”
Without referring to the specific incident, Lam also stressed foreign journalists in Hong Kong should observe the Beijing-imposed national security law, even as she sought to provide reassurance of the city’s status as a regional hub for international media. [Source]
Just a week ago, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that press freedom in Hong Kong “has not been affected at all” by the National Security Law. Foreign correspondents beg to differ. Echoing the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s criticism about shrinking press freedom, a membership survey released by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong (FCCHK) on November 5 revealed that, since the introduction of the new law, 84 percent of respondents believed the working environment has changed for the worse, 56 percent had self-censored, and 71 percent were concerned about being arrested or prosecuted for their work. In a statement regarding Wong’s visa denial, the FCCHK described how visa issues continue to be a major problem for foreign journalists:
The survey clearly illustrated the deteriorating working environment for journalists in Hong Kong, with visa applications emerging as a major problem. In all, 24% of respondents said they had experienced slight delays or obstacles in obtaining visas, while 29% said they had experienced considerable obstacles or delays.
The FCC has previously urged the Immigration Department, in two letters published in 2020, to provide more clarity on its procedures for issuing journalists’ employment visas. So far, we have not received a satisfactory response.
We again call on the government to provide concrete assurances that applications for employment visas and visa extensions will be handled in a timely manner with clearly-stated requirements and procedures, and that the visa process for journalists will not be politicised or weaponised. [Source]
We again call on the government to provide assurances that applications for employment visas will be handled in a timely manner, and that the visa process for journalists will not be politicised. #PressFreedom #HongKong @FreedomofPress @suelinwong @CPJAsia https://t.co/CqNJDOKCzZ
— The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong (@fcchk) November 15, 2021
Here is a new self-inflicted wound by the HK gov’t. Someone should report on the impact that these visa denials have had on journalism and journalists. Fortunately, Chris Buckley has not lost momentum, and I assume Ms. Wong will not be deterred.https://t.co/czWALxFYAj
— Jerome Cohen 孔傑榮(柯恩) (@jeromeacohen) November 15, 2021
The notorious politicization of visa applications for foreign journalists in mainland China has spread to Hong Kong. The first instance occurred in 2018, when authorities in Hong Kong refused to renew the visa of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet after he moderated a speech by a pro-independence politician at an FCCHK-hosted event. In August 2020, Irish journalist Aaron Mc Nicholas was denied a visa to Hong Kong as he was about to begin a new position as an editor at the Hong Kong Free Press; that was the first visa denial for a local Hong Kong newspaper. According to the South China Morning Post, local news outlets have reported that journalist visas are vetted by a national security unit in Hong Kong’s Immigration Department.
3/ Local media report there is a national security unit in Immigration vetting journalist visas. They won’t comment. Inexplicable delays continue.
Situation resembles China, though I don’t know of any other countries doing this to journalists from so called “Asia’s World City.”
— Tom Grundy (@tomgrundy) November 13, 2021
Behind the visa rejections is an ugly tit-for-tat between the U.S. and Chinese governments. In February 2020, the U.S. designated five Chinese state-media entities as “foreign missions,” prompting China to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters; in March, the US imposed a visa cap on U.S.-based personnel of those “foreign missions,” causing China to retaliate by revoking the press credentials of American journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. However, media reports on Tuesday indicate that there may be a cooling of tensions. Chinese state media has given the issue prominent coverage. Mo Jingxi from China Daily described an agreement for reciprocal treatment of journalist visas and travel between the U.S. and China:
China and the United States will permit journalists of both countries to freely depart and return to each other’s countries under strict compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
Sources with the Foreign Ministry told China Daily this is one of three points of consensus reached between the two sides ahead of Tuesday’s virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden.
It was also agreed the US will issue one-year multiple-entry visas to journalists of Chinese nationality, and will immediately initiate the process to address “duration of status” issues.
Based on the principle of reciprocity, the Chinese side commits to granting equal treatment to US journalists immediately after US policies enter into force, the sources said.
China and the US will issue visas to new journalists based on applicable laws and regulations, the sources added. [Source]
The US has pledged to issue one-year multiple-entry visas for Chinese journalists and to immediately initiate procedures to resolve the issue of their stay in the US. China will grant the same visas and treatment to US journalists when the promised US policy is in place. pic.twitter.com/TqL0yOcKsu
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) November 16, 2021
China and the US have agreed to relax visa rules for journalists. Chinese journalists in America will get one-year, multi-entry visa (as opposed to 3 months, single-entry). American journalists in China will get the same visa terms.https://t.co/T8iMoii4Bs pic.twitter.com/3lG011fuyJ
— Zhaoyin Feng 馮兆音 (@ZhaoyinFeng) November 16, 2021
Many Western and Chinese observers praised the positive step forward in restoring fair access to each country for foreign journalists, but some cautioned that the wording of the agreement left much to the arbitrary discretion of Chinese authorities:
and China will reciprocate afterward; 3. Both sides to review future journo visa applications on a basis of reciprocity. https://t.co/1CxXXUnBUn
— Yang Liu (@yangliuxh) November 16, 2021
State #media hailing this as example of new normal between China and US, what can be achieved with good communication, mutual respect, equality, reciprocity. (We American #journalists in #China are on truncated 3-month visas so a return to 1-year visa would be move to normal.)
— Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) November 16, 2021
“Yes, protest will be allowed…in accordance with relevant laws and regulations”
“China enjoys freedom of the press…in accordance with the law.”
These nebulous, unspecified “laws and regulations” can be interpreted however authorities choose and without explanation.
— Eric Fish (@ericfish85) November 16, 2021
… under the condition that they follow pandemic-related protocols. 2. The US has promised to give Chinese journalists a one-year visa that will allow them to enter and leave the US multiple times and immediately initiate domestic procedures to solve the problem …
— William Yang (@WilliamYang120) November 16, 2021
there are J-visa applications in where people have been waiting for literally years, we’ll know very soon whether this is a serious move on the Chinese part because there’s absolutely no barrier other than politics to giving them out immediately.
— James Palmer (@BeijingPalmer) November 16, 2021
Journalist visas aside, changes to Chinese immigration regulations for students and business leaders appear promising. Three days after Wong was denied her visa to Hong Kong, Carrie Lam welcomed JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to Hong Kong and allowed him to skip the mandatory 21-day quarantine rule for all incoming travelers, because, in her own words, he owns “a very huge bank.” Students may have similar luck entering China, as New York University Shanghai and Duke Kunshan University have informed their overseas students via email that they could be allowed back on campus for the spring semester. Many of China’s half-million international students have been stranded outside of the country since the government closed its borders to foreigners in March 2020.