In May 2012, Melissa Chan, Al-Jazeera’s English language service correspondent, was denied a Chinese visa. After the New York Times and Bloomberg reported on the wealth accumulated by the families of Wen Jiabao 温家宝 and Xi Jinping 习近平 respectively, their websites were blocked. The New York Times has been unable to get visas for its Beijing bureau chief in waiting, Philip Pan, and for correspondent Chris Buckley, who has been waiting for a visa for more than a year. In December 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs delayed granting press cards and visas to all New York Times and Bloomberg correspondents, leading many to speculate that the government might effectively shut down the Chinese bureaux of both organisations. As far as we know, at the time of publishing all currently in-country journalists from the two organisations have received press cards, and its seems that their visas are being processed.
But Paul Mooney, a veteran correspondent known for his reporting on human rights issues, was denied a visa and so could not stay in Beijing to take up a new job with Reuters. Mooney had reported from China since 1985 for Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the South China Morning Post and many other publications. It was his work at the South China Morning Post that saw him gain attention for the wrong reasons, when, in 2012, his contract was not renewed, amid claims that the newspaper’s owners, allegedly sympathetic to Beijing, were suppressing sensitive stories. He found a new job at Reuters but in November 2013, his visa application was denied without explanation.
Beiing-based editor and writer Robert Foyle Hunwick conducted the following Q&A with Mooney via email.
— The Editors
On his favorite memory
I’d done a story on disabled people in China in 2008 and got to know Xi Fu 希福, who was handicapped as a child, but who became an excellent foot painter and modern dancer. I met him in the Jianwai Underpass where he sold his calligraphy and we became friends after I wrote a story about him. One night, he invited me to Jiangjingjiu, a small rustic bar beside the Drum and Bell Towers. There was a Xinjiang band playing that night that used some Uyghur instruments, as well as a musician who played a traditional Shaanxi horn. The music was amazing and people were dancing in between the tables in the tiny bar where there wasn’t an inch of free space, including the ever-smiling Xi Fu.
The mood was ecstatic and I was so happy to see so many young Chinese be so spontaneous, carefree and happy. I sat against the wall with a bottle of beer in my hand, soaking it all in, thinking to myself that this was why I loved being in Beijing.
On his career highlight
When I finally discovered my calling in journalism. I began to write stories that focused on China’s down and out. I sometimes spent months working on articles that took me into out-of-the-way rural areas, often spending my own money because I wanted to get the story. I’m proud of a story I did on the infamous Black Kilns, which employed kidnapped farm kids. I spent several days with nine mothers and fathers of missing boys as we walked right into illegal kilns in the Henan countryside. I also spent several months interviewing dozens of HIV/AIDS victims and activists in Henan province last year, visiting AIDS villages and AIDS wards in hospitals, despite local officials who tried to prevent me from entering these places.
On unusual friendships
About a decade ago, there were quite a few child beggars hanging around the Friendship Store and I spent two months interviewing them, trying to learn their story. I got to know a seven-year-old girl named Nan Nan 楠楠, with an infectious smile, who was the leader of her small group. We didn’t get along at first, but we gradually became friends. She eventually disappeared and I never saw her again. Then one day about two years later, I was walking down the street when a young beggar darted toward me to ask for money. Just as he got close, I heard a little girl bark out for him to stop. “That’s Nan Nan’s friend,” she said sternly. The boy stopped in his tracks and walked back to where he his friends were sitting on the sidewalk. I had a warm feeling as I walked on, thinking that before she left Beijing to return to her village, Nan Nan had given instructions to her colleagues not to bother me. She’d be around 17 now. I wander where and how she is.
On sensitive reporting
I usually travel on my own and I have often felt quite vulnerable, especially as I’ve been a freelancer most of my career, and I had no backup if something was to happen. As has happened to many of my colleagues, I was detained on several occasions.
The most nervous experience I had was when I visited a place called Asbestos County in Sichuan Province to report on the danger of asbestos production. The county was so named because of the concentration of asbestos mines and factories in the area. A French engineer called me while I was on the road in the mountains of Sichuan and urged me to wear an industrial mask, but it was too late to find one. He explained to me that just a few hours unprotected in such a place could put one’s lungs in danger. It was too late to go back, and so I continued my reporting for about 24 hours, obviously exposed to the lethal fibres. They say it takes up to 30-40 years to develop asbestos-related health problems, and so I thought that at the age of 60, I didn’t have much to worry about.
On Beijing’s food scene
My wife Eileen was a food writer and we visited more than 1,000 restaurants when she did the research for her book Beijing Eats. We loved to eat Hakka food in Lao Hanzi in Sanlitun before it shut down. I also liked Din Tai Fung for their xiaolongbao, cairou zhenjiao, and dandan mian. This holds a special place in my heart because I first visited the original Din Tai Fung restaurant in Taipei in the mid-1970s when I was a student in Taiwan. I also loved the Yunnan food in the quaint Xiao Yunnan as well as that served in the old courtyard at Dali. Spicy Sichuan and Hunan cuisines are my favorites, but I never found a favorite restaurant in Beijing.
On advice for young writers
Journalism has changed radically since I entered the field. I tell newcomers to become proficient in the use of digital technology — learn how to shoot and produce short videos and to take digital photos. These are skills that will make you more competitive in the new age of Internet journalism. I would also advise young journalists to master the Chinese language, so that they can make direct contact with society and also take advantage of the wealth of information available on social media. It’s so easy today to have access to some of the most interesting Chinese thinkers on the Internet and to learn what’s happening in China real time.
On China’s opening up
It’s long been argued that once a country develops economically it will become more democratic, but this is just a myth. I don’t think there’s any truth to this, and Singapore is one example. Singapore enjoyed tremendous economic growth, but it’s not moved any closer toward democracy.
On the US adopting Chinese ‘characteristics’
Recent events indicate that the United States might be moving in that direction, but I have confidence that the American people won’t let that happen.
On reporting about China
This is the best time to be a journalist in China, which is why it’s so difficult for me to have to leave now. China is going through dramatic changes and is facing a lot of challenges, but I don’t think the government is taking the right steps to deal with these issues, which means we can expect to see things get worse before they get better. We are seeing a growing number of protests by farmers, factory workers, migrant workers, AIDS victims, urban residents and others. There are so many stories I never got a chance to report.
On ordinary people and one-party rule
Traditionally, people in local villages, towns and smaller cities believed that the central government had their best interests at heart and that it was local officials who were corrupt, not doing their jobs or who were responsible for abuses. The feeling was that the central leaders didn’t know, but if they did, there would be justice. This may explain why so many people risk so much to go to provincial capitals and Beijing to protest. But I think this attitude is changing now because of the Internet. Grassroots people, even those with a limited education, are increasingly savvy and know how to use the Internet to gather information and social media to communicate and learn from one another. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the central government is actually also a big part of the problem.
On the new Xi Jinping administration’s first year
What has struck me the most is the huge step backward China has taken under the new regime, in its first year. We’ve seen an attempt to crack down harder on the Internet, the passage of a law to stop “[false] rumors” from being spread, and the arrest of a 16-year-old boy for allegedly spreading such rumors. We’ve seen prominent Chinese [such as micro-blogger Charles Xue] and foreigners arrested and make confessions on national TV, even before they’ve had the right to a trial. We’ve also seen some 300 rights lawyers and activists arrested in recent months, and in many cases, their lawyers have been prevented from seeing them. Rule of law has suffered greatly under the new administration.
The treatment of the foreign media is the worst it’s ever been in the more than eighteen years that I’ve been working in China. There are a dozen or so foreign correspondents waiting outside China for more than a year for journalist visas, and I myself was refused a visa, which is rare. But far more serious, some two dozen journalists working for the New York Times and Bloomberg News are in danger of not getting their visas renewed, which would mean they could be kicked out of China within a few days or weeks, and that their bureaux would have trouble functioning.
The Chinese government says the police are acting in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations, but they offer no concrete details. It’s obvious that the Communist Party is keen to stop truthful reporting about China. Another worrying trend is China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone, which has raised fears and concern throughout the region.
On ordinary people’s view of the current administration
People are just expressing frustration with the way things are going. Some very prominent Chinese lawyers have been detained or arrested in recent weeks, and Chinese citizens who are aware of such events are extremely worried. I get Skype, Twitter, and QQ messages from Chinese friends every week which express concern about these detentions.
On relations with Chinese journalists
Basically, foreign journalists don’t have a lot of connections with Chinese journalists. For one, Chinese media are prohibited from having contact with foreign journalists. That said, there are those who ignore this prohibition. In one case, I traveled with a Chinese colleague to cover the ‘black’ kilns, and we shared information and details, and worked together on the story from start to finish. She was a big help to me. She told me the story was ongoing, when I thought the problem of kidnapped children was already being dealt with by the government. She helped me to make key initial contacts, which enabled me to dig deeper into the story, and eventually, the two of us traveled to rural Henan in search of kidnapped children in the kilns. In other stories I worked on, from cancer villages to migrant slums, I’ve relied on the help of local journalists who were specialists in those fields.
When I first reported on the Bo Xilai investigation, I met with journalists in the city of Chongqing, who knew things they couldn’t write, but which they were able to share with me. I also worked several times with Chinese photographers, who are very good at digging out stories. In one case, when I was writing about the stick army of Chongqing 棒棒军，a local photographer took me to a slum area where these poor men lived in wooden crates. He also helped me find villages to visit and interview rural people. Another photographer friend in Beijing often told me about news stories I’d not heard about. For example, he took me to a slum area on the outskirts of Beijing where some 50,000 migrant workers lived in dire conditions. I would have never known about this place on my own. I wish I’d had an opportunity to make more such contacts, but I often worried about getting my Chinese colleagues into trouble.
On reciprocal visa denials for Chinese journalists
I don’t advocate this to limit the ability of Chinese journalists to report, but to convince the Chinese government to provide a level playing field for all journalists. Reciprocal visa denials would have a short-term negative impact on Chinese journalists, but I believe China would quickly get the message and would not try to use visa approvals as a tool of intimidation. The result would be even more freedom for journalists on both sides. Right now it’s a one-way street.
On removing bylines to avoid trouble
This is not a good trend. Once we remove bylines, we’re caving in to intimidation and showing that we’re afraid. We have to stand up to such pressure, not bow to it. This can only be justified in very extreme situations.
On what he won’t miss
Surly taxi drivers.
On the future
I spent two years in Vietnam in the US Army from 1968-1970, and that was my first passion. It’s also where I became interested in journalism and Asia, and so it would be fitting for me to finish my career in the place where it all began some 45 years ago at the age of 18. I’ll miss the excitement and adrenaline flow from reporting all over China, and Vietnam could provide me with some of the same opportunities and excitement.
On being mistaken for stand-up comic Paul Mooney
On one occasion, a deliveryman was disappointed when I opened the door and he realized I wasn’t the famous Paul Mooney. I was also disappointed recently to find out that Paul Mooney is not his real name.
— You can read some of Paul Mooney’s work on his website.