Journalist Visa Whipsaw: Correspondent Denied HK Visa; US and China Reach Tentative Thaw on Journalist Visas

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.

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]

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. 

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]

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:

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. 


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