BEIJING—Before I became a mascot for China's new spirit of cooperation with journalists, I first had to get the People's Republic of China to certify that I was legally a journalist.
Resolving that issue in China requires wrestling with questions of being and reality—including, in my case, an argument with a uniformed officer of the Beijing Public Security Bureau about whether or not my pen (my pen, mind you) could be called a "pen."
It was not a particularly cooperative process. I arrived in Beijing in March with a slip of paper stapled inside my passport saying, "The holder of this visa is not allowed to engage in news report activities in China."
I had been carrying that slip back and forth from New York since 2004, through a dozen different tourist visas. To get a Chinese tourist visa, you have to tell the Chinese consulate what you do for a living. If what you do for a living is reporting or editing, you have to hand over a letter from your boss, on company letterhead, saying you won't do it.
So I handed over those letters, over and over again, each time requiring a trip out to the Chinese consulate on 12th Avenue, which is essentially in Weehawken. Some travelers get around the rule by writing on the application that they teach English or do consulting, something nonthreatening. Because I planned to get a journalist's visa someday, I stuck to the procedure. I was a tourist. Any research or writing I might happen to do would not rise to the level of "news report activities."
But this past December, I set out to become an official journalist, by China's definition. Americans, with the blog age in flower, are eager to debate who is or isn't a journalist: Who gets to use shield laws? Who gets to go to press conferences? Are there certain minimum standards of professionalism, epistemology, circulation? The presumption of freedom lasts till the grand jury comes calling, or till you try to get a press pass for a weekly newspaper to write about a Yankees game. Then, conflicting judgments come into play.
China has assigned those decisions to the government. I was about to say it had "centralized" those decisions, but total authority is not the same thing as central authority. Americans tend to picture China as being ruled from the top down, but the system is more a matter of interlaced, layered and competing bureaucracies. To cover the news in any particular city, for one example, reporters were traditionally required to get an invitation from local officials. No invitation, no right to report–in American-media terms, it's as if publicists had the force of law on their side.
Late last year, though, China announced that it would be suspending those travel restrictions on foreign journalists on Jan. 1, as part of a broad set of changes in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The press-visa rules were to be loosened as well.
The timing was perfect: I wanted a visa to report on Beijing's Olympic preparations. I planned to spend as much time here as possible before the Games, watching the remaking—on a rapid schedule and a monumental scale—of an ancient capital into an international showpiece.
I explained all this to the consular press staff. They said they weren't sure if I could get a long-term visa or not. Though the new free-press rules were less than a month away, no one had explained the specifics to them yet. They told me to put together an application, describing the product and my journalistic credentials, and turn it in after New Years. I waited for January, submitted the papers, and waited some more. Eventually, the consulate reported back: I should apply directly to the Beijing Olympic committee. I faxed the paperwork to Beijing. The Olympic committee wrote back: I should apply to the consulate.
Throughout the run-up to the Olympics, protesters around the world have been denouncing the Chinese government's repression of journalists. This month, as the Olympic countdown reached the one-year mark, the Committee to Protect Journalists held a press conference and Reporters Without Borders unfurled a protest banner on Tiananmen Square, calling attention to the detention, harassment and other abuse that reporters regularly encounter here. The Reporters Without Borders contingent was rounded up by the cops and hustled to the airport, proving everyone's point.
But what happens when a journalist tries to comply with the Chinese authorities, instead? I submitted my application to the consulate again. Every week or so, I called in for an update. They had forwarded it to the Foreign Ministry, which would review it and refer it to the Olympic committee. The Olympic committee was reviewing it, and was preparing to refer it to the Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry was …
In March, against the consulate's advice—my journalist's visa was almost certainly going to be ready by next week, or the week after!—I put in for a tourist visa and flew to China. After another month of waiting, my faith in the liberalized visa process was eroding. Finally, I showed up in person at the Olympic media center, in a down-at-the-heel hotel south of the main Olympic construction site. There, an official outlined the problem: The Olympic committee had nothing against my visa request. But new rules or none, the Olympics office was only authorized to grant short-term visas. Long-term visas were the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry. And the Foreign Ministry did not see itself as responsible for Olympics reporters. So my request was being volleyed back and forth indefinitely.
What if, I asked, the Olympic committee were to offer its longest visa, for 90 days, and then follow it up with another 90, and so on? Could I get five or six of those in a row, till the Olympics were over? Certainly, the official said—first, you need give us an application.
I pointed out that I had already done that at least twice. After some searching, the Olympic committee found one of the applications. It was all set, they said, and it was off to the Foreign Ministry for approval. I called the Foreign Ministry to see if it had arrived. A friendly officer, speaking very good English, told me that it had. But, he admonished, I really should have applied in New York instead. Now, he said, the ministry needed to figure out which department ought to handle it.
But the next day, the officer told me he had "good news"—the visa was approved. I needed only to go pick it up from the Public Security Bureau.
The Public Security Bureau, or Gong An, is the police department, among other things. Its visa office is a newish building with an open stairwell and polished stone surfaces, not far from my apartment. It's a quick cab ride, except that taxis are forbidden to drop off or pick up passengers on the block facing the Public Security building.
The visa department was on the second floor, in a room ringed with stations behind counters—like a giant, well-kept bank branch, staffed by uniformed police officers. I had been told to report to Window 19. The officer there asked where my documents were. Having nothing but the passport, I handed it over. She studied my visa. "This is not a journalist's visa," she said. I explained that was why I was there, because I was changing it to a journalist's visa. She asked me to wait while she summoned a case officer to deal with me.
While we waited, the officer at Window 19 said she had another question. What was the difference, she asked, between a "journalist" and a "correspondent"? Well, I said, a correspondent is a journalist, but specifically one who works somewhere other than where his or her employer is based. Satisfied, she turned back to her work.
The case officer arrived. Had I filled out a form? (What form?) Did I have an I.D. photo? (A what now?) Photos were in the back, he said. And I could get the form at Window 38, across the room. Window 38, when I got there, was empty. I turned back to Window 19. In the half-minute it had taken to go back and forth, both officers had vanished, replaced by a different set of people in the same uniforms. Everything else was as before.
I turned around again, to Window 38. To one side was an unattended stack of application forms. Every seat was taken, so I crouched down at the counter, took out a pen, and began to fill one out.
I was halfway through when the case officer reappeared, at Window 38, looking down at me. Did I have a residence registration form? he asked. I did not. If I lived in a hotel, he said, the front desk could provide one. I live in an apartment. Then the local police would have to issue me one, he said, and I would have to come back with it.
Also, he said, you can't fill out the form with that pen. I was baffled. He pointed to the instructions at the top of the form, which said, in English, to use "blue or black ink pen." My pen was black, a medium-point Paper-Mate, the pen I always carry. The ink is black; the plastic casing is black. I held it up. See, I said, it's a black ink pen.
That's not a black ink pen, the officer said.
I handed it over. He took it and made a few test scribbles, black marks on the paper. He handed the pen back dismissively.
This is not a black ink pen, he said. This is a ballpoint.
I was defeated. Back in my own neighborhood, I stopped by the corner store and bought a roller ball—which does count, in the Chinese hierarchy of pens, as an "ink pen." And I went to the local police station to report myself as an unregistered foreigner.
Did I have a copy of my lease? the neighborhood policeman asked. I did not; the lease was a word-of-mouth extension of one signed by my wife three years earlier. Without the lease, he said, I couldn't register myself. I was not allowed to turn myself in.
Luckily, though, we were almost due for a new lease anyway. The landlord worked one up on paper, with my name on it, and I delivered it to the neighborhood police station. The neighborhood cops issued me a residence certificate, which I delivered to the visa office. I filled out the form, in black roller-ball, and attached an I.D. photo, and handed in the papers at a now-staffed Window 38. For the next 90 days, I would be a legal journalist.
So I went out and interviewed people, visited places, attended official press conferences. No one ever asked to see my visa. I began to feel more or less like a reporter in America: an unimportant functionary, watching events from the margins.
Then, after two months, I got a phone call from the Olympic press center. Would I be interested, they asked, in getting a driver's license? It was, as far as I could remember, the first time the media department had offered me something without my asking. Till that moment, I hadn't really planned on getting a license. Beijing's driver's exam involves a grueling and pointless written test; the expat tales about it deal with either brutal cram sessions or well-placed bribes. Since cars are expensive here and taxis are cheap, it didn't seem worth the bother. But the Olympic representative told me I could just bring in my American driver's license and fill out a form. It was a new example of the campaign to make life easier for foreign journalists. I could drop in—by now, the press center had left the hotel for a space in a gleaming municipal office tower, with a wavelike glass roof over a full-height atrium—any time that week.
Maybe I did want a driver's license. I pictured myself renting a car and taking it for a spin out the Liangma Bridge Road, to the neon-festooned drive-in theater I kept seeing out my taxi windows.
I told them I would sign up, then let a few days go by. The press center called again and repeated the invitation: easy license, no hassle, come by this week. They also called to tell me that there would be a press conference—Sunday, 9 a.m.—to announce the opening of a new one-stop media service center. If I applied before then, they said, I could pick up my license at the service center that morning. I would be coming to the press conference, right?
Slowly, it dawned on me that there might something behind the solicitousness. I told them I probably couldn't drop off the application till Saturday afternoon. Would that be OK? The office would be open, they said.
I arrived late on Saturday, in heavy rain, to find four staffers from the Olympics and the Gong An waiting. I gave them my New York license and got to work on the application. There was a space for the duration of the license–that, they explained, would be the same as the expiration period of my visa. When I got my next 90-day visa, I could sign up for a new license to go with it.
Also, it needed a photo—did I have a photo? I dug out some spare I.D. photos left over from the Public Security Bureau's visa office. The Public Security Bureau in charge of the driver's license examined the pictures. They were the wrong size, she said.
There was a moment of mutual dismay. The one-stop media service center did not have a photo department. But! A market in the neighborhood could take the photos for me. Out the door, across Chaoyangmen Bridge, on the left. One of them wrote the size and background color specifications out for me.
Had I been considering only my own interests at the moment, I would have hailed a cab and gone home. But there were greater historical issues at stake. I was the Western media; China was trying to do me a favor. I set off through the downpour.
The market, I discovered, was a 10-minute hike away. With soggy feet, I tramped up and down the escalators, looking for the photo department. I found it in the grocery section-—a tripod, rate sheet, and foamboard backdrop set up by the checkout-line exits. I hunted up a clerk, sat for the pictures, collected them, and sloshed back.
As I handed the photos over, I tested my hunch. How many other journalists would be picking up their licenses the next day? "You are the very first one," the lead media-center staffer said. "So don't be late!"
The next day's program began in the press-conference hall on the top floor, under the swooping glass roof. A banner at the front read "Launch of One-Stop Service for Media during / the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period." A snippet of "The Greatest Love of All" played, then went away.
There were more than 100 people in the audience. About half were from the press, mostly Chinese. The rest represented the agencies, bureaus, and companies taking part in the service center—29 in all, including the Public Security Bureau; the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television; the Bank of China; the State Administration of Foreign Exchange; the People's Liberation Army.
Even by the standards of press conferences, Chinese press conferences tend to be dry affairs. I hunkered down in my seat and tried to take notes, as a series of officials took the microphone and hailed the service center as a "brand-new innovation" and an "unprecedented approach." Invoking the new press-access rules, one declared the center "a solid step forward to implement these regulations and show that we really honor our promise to the media." China, another said, will "bear in mind the principle of treating the media kindly." With a flourish, the final speaker declared that "one-stop service for the media … now starts!"
The crowd was invited, offhandedly, to stop by the fifth floor on the way out and see the center at work.
Whatever was in store for me was about to happen. Rather than waiting for the elevator, I took the stairs. As I hit the fifth floor, my cell phone was ringing: an Olympics official, checking to make sure I was there.
Staffers intercepted me in the crowded hallway and guided me toward the room where I'd been the day before. I went in like a man being escorted into his surprise 50th birthday party.
At the far end, next to the driver's-license station, a mass of photographers and television camera crews was waiting. Someone had put flower arrangements on the table. Behind the flowers was a smiling Public Security Bureau officer, a tiny woman in uniform. My completed application form was presented with a flourish and remarks to me in Mandarin, untranslated. Flashbulbs went off. The Gong An officer held up an I.D. card with my picture on it, in loose plastic, then gave it a ceremonial pass through a laminator, to the rattle of shutters going off. She handed it to me, still warm.
Officials closed in, shaking my hand, with cameras popping all the while. The card had a made-up Chinese name for me—"Tuo Ma Si" in characters—and an expiration date 27 days in the future. It also said, in the fine print, that if the police stopped me, I would need to show them an official Chinese translation of my American license. So, technically speaking, the license did not allow me to drive. Could I get the translation at the one-stop service center? I could not.
The photographers asked to see my license, and began holding it up in the foreground as they kept snapping away. A man on the far side of the table began asking me questions: How long had I been in Beijing? What sites had I seen? Had I eaten Beijing duck? When my answers flagged, he confided, sotto voce, that he was just trying to keep me talking and smiling for the cameras. This is kind of alarming, I told him, grinning. Yes, isn't it? he smiled back. A photographer hollered something. She says, the man said, if you smile bigger, you'll be on the front page. Interview time. Going in, I had resolved not to be a stooge. My talking points would be strictly truthful: that I was glad to see this new emphasis on coordination and convenience, and that I hoped they would follow it up by making it easier to get a long-term visa. As far as I could tell, I repeated the message to everyone I saw. I did an interview for Beijing Television, then one for China Central Television.
In the English translation of the official Olympic Committee news story about the event, I am described as the "most elated" of the journalists at the event. "I am extremely happy," the story quoted me as saying. "I know that traffic management in Beijing is very strict; I'd never have imagined that I'd get my driver's license so quickly. Now I can drive by myself, which will make interviewing a lot more convenient."
The last bit struck me as especially implausible. But who needed to know what I'd said? I was a representative of progress. And I was a picturesque one. Owing to a previous bad experience with the language barrier and thinning shears, I had not had a haircut since leaving New York. People began to stop me and tell me they'd seen me on TV or on the front page of the Beijing Evening News—a teacher at my Chinese school, a nurse at the hospital, the man who sells phone cards outside the corner store. A sports newspaper invited me to write an essay about my observations of Beijing, for 1 RMB a word. Another TV station, Phoenix Television, asked if I would sit for a follow-up interview. I agreed. By text message, they sent an additional request: Could I drive my car to the interview?
With regret, I told them I did not yet have a car. I went to the interview by taxi.