Paper trail: Going through the final checklist for each document we needed for our visa application. Image by Mike De Sisti. USA, 2012.

Of the various varieties of visas to enter China – visas for tourists, business travelers and students – the most difficult and bureaucratic to apply for in the best of times is the journalist visa. Twice in the last nine years I entered China with a J-2 journalism visa. On a third occasion a few years ago, I helped a colleague do the same.

I felt pretty confident with the process, as time-consuming as it can be.

But as we learned in reporting on the globalization of the pulp and paper industry – a trade dynamic dominated by China – the visa regulations changed abruptly in recent months. As of Aug. 1, 2012, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry added new layers of approval, making the process to enter China as a Western journalist excruciatingly drawn-out and uncertain.

We began our application in July, a month prior to the abrupt changes. So the new rules, which were not widely announced, felt like China’s visa authorities had moved the goalposts on us mid-game. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photojournalist Mike Desisti and I didn’t know whether we would have a visa until less than 24 hours before we were scheduled to board our Chicago-to-Shanghai flight in September.

There was no official explanation for the changes. But our contacts in China, who needed to endure the protracted process with us, offered the same reason (though none for attribution): Beijing was preparing for a decennial ritual called the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party. After years of secretive compromises between the different party factions – political hardliners versus reformers; those who want more state control of the economy, those who want less – the November congress was meant to anoint those who will be at the helm of national leadership for the next 10 years.

And as was widely reported, the private lives of Beijing’s leadership and their sometimes opulent lifestyle endured unaccustomed scandals, scrutiny and attention in the run-up to the congress.

The most damaging involved Bo Xilai, a powerful provincial leader who was a contender for one of the top jobs at the party congress – until he became implicated in a scandal of personal corruption and allegations that his wife murdered a British businessman. In March, a young man driving a Ferrari 458 with two young women aboard died in a high-speed crash. Information about the incident went viral, even before China’s Internet controllers could shut it down, according to press accounts. The driver reportedly turned out to be the son of a close associate of President Hu Jintao. More recently, The New York Times has reported on the wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao, his family business ties, and his family’s wealth.

These are the sorts of stories that keep China’s leaders awake at night. The Communist Party may have presided over a historic economic expansion in the past 20 years. But China remains two nations – one a world-class economic power, another a third-world developing nation – and the two coexist uneasily. The last thing the party wants is an eruption of social unrest, or another Tiananmen Square.

Those factors were not paramount in our minds as we began the visa process in earnest, as soon as we received word from the Pulitzer Center that it would support our foreign travel. As in the past, the process began with a courtesy call to the press attaché at the Chinese consulate in Chicago, who gave us a familiar laundry list of documents we’d need for the application package. Most of these were pro forma – documents signed by my editor describing the project; a completed four-page application form.

But the most difficult was a formal letter from each Chinese-based organization, individual or company that we planned to visit. These letters, signed on the letterhead of each Chinese source, discloses the dates and places of each visit. The sponsors of our visit need to show they understand the story we’re working on; in our case, it was to write about the globalization of the paper industry. The letters are extensive in their details, including our birthdates; passport numbers; airline reservations.

Most large organizations in China, which have opened themselves to Western news reporters in the past, are familiar with the procedure and go along with it. It means locking in appointments well in advance of the visit. In no uncertain terms, these are a form of press controls – labor intensive but manageable.

The official purpose of those formal “letters of invitation” is never explained. In effect, what they mean is that Western reporters need a sponsor to enter China. Obviously this requirement, which holds someone in China accountable for what we end up reporting, can present heavy or even insurmountable ethical considerations for topics that are overtly political.

For my part, I’ve been spared that particular dilemma.

Economics is one area with far fewer journalistic taboos that could trigger Beijing’s disapproval, at least relative to other areas of civic discourse. China appears to encourage rigorous economic discussion – it keeps the nation connected to global growth ideas, markets and technologies.

Our first sign of trouble came in early August when I began to line up the appointments in Beijing. I asked for an interview at the State Forestry Administration. From previous trips to China, I had kept in touch with contacts in Beijing who made the contact for me – this was to expedite the process and make sure the contact was made at a high level. And so I was disheartened that the word came back:

“The SFA will not be able perform interviews with foreign media over the next months.” They suggested that we try again in November, which would be after the party congress.

Those calls were not for naught, though. I made a slew of contacts to bodies like the Chinese Technical Association of the Paper Industry, which helped us repeatedly – albeit by email. After working for several weeks to line up a full slate of appointments in Beijing, Shanghai and Hainan, I got back in contact with the consulate in Chicago. Exhausted, I was ready to begin turning in those hard-won “Letters of Invitation.”

What came back was a short, blunt and cryptic reply, which unexpectedly told us to get clearance from something called the local Foreign Affairs Office in each province where we planned a visit. It took a number of contacts to China’s embassy and consulate to sort out what this meant. It turned out that we’d now need to send a complete application package to each of these provincial bureaucracies in addition to the original application to the visa authorities in Chicago.

This step was entirely new to the people who until then were willing to help us – and some suddenly didn’t want to go along. That left it to us to contact each provincial Foreign Ministry office – an agency that would have a rough equivalent if each of the 50 U.S. states had their own regional state department to track foreign reporters.

That is, if Madison kept a record of each European reporter who went to Green Bay to write about the Packers.

Another hurdle: we needed to reserve and pay for the airfare in advance – even without knowing if Beijing would allow us into the country in the first place – because a new precondition was to show our air reservations, along with hotel reservations, before we could even submit the application.

In August, the Los Angeles Times ran one of the few stories that tried to explain the changes. It focused on business and tourists visas, which also were tightened, and not journalism visas. But the Los Angeles Times made clear that the new requirements are often ambiguous and subject to interpretation. Some Chinese consulates had not even posted the new rules on their websites.

Even travel agents who specialize in China were caught off guard, the Times reported: “The new requirements have thrown many travelers for a loop, especially those who filled out the four-page visa application form in July but whose documents didn’t reach the consulate until August. The result has been confusion, communication challenges and, in some cases, a scramble to meet deadlines and travel itineraries.”

Long story short: we pressed again at the main companies we wanted to visit. Each had pragmatic and pro-Western staffers who understood by now that we wanted to cover a new facet of globalization – not in this case anything overtly provocative that could boomerang on them. Asia Pulp & Paper Co., the main company that we visited, appeared eager to give Western reporters several days of access to its mills and plantations.

“We have a good story to tell,” said one of the company’s spokespersons who pushed on our behalf at the provincial foreign ministry in Hainan, which in turn gave us access to mills and plantations in southern China.

Each provincial application required a dozen pieces of paperwork. We got the final approval on Friday Sept. 7 – just in time to catch the flight the next morning.

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