When Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson left Beijing, the city that had been his home for eight years, he had no idea that he would be banned from re-entering the country. He has never been given an explanation, and cannot even visit on a tourist visa.

Olsson had left Beijing for a routine visit to Sweden, a trip he makes every year to renew his business visa.

“For eight years, it was never any problem for me to renew my visa,” he told HKFP.

jojje olsson
Photo: Jojje Olsson.

But last July, his passport was held for over a week – longer than the usual few days – by the visa office that handles the applications on behalf of the embassy. When he called the visa office, they promised to contact him upon any updated from the embassy. But such news never came. Not until Olsson wanted to cancel his application was he told it was rejected.

“I asked them: ‘do you know what is the reason for the application being denied?’ They said: ‘no, we don’t know, but it’s very rare that any Swede gets his application denied. But if there is no reason stated, you probably know the reason yourself.’”

He then called the Chinese embassy in Stockholm and was told that it was a decision from Beijing and there was nothing they could do. No reason was given and staff could not tell him when he would be able to get a visa again.

Olsson did not know the reason, but he had his suspicions.

He had been writing a book about current political and cultural development in China, including sensitive topics such as corruption, the environment and human rights issues. He had also written about the detentions of Swedish citizens Peter Dahlin and Gui Minhai in Swedish media, and talked on Swedish radio about the the South China Seas dispute.

Peter Dahlin is an activist who was detained by Chinese authorities a year ago on charges of threatening national security. Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong publisher, disappeared from Thailand in October and appeared on Chinese state TV to “confess” to a drunk driving accident.

Visa controls

China has been accused of using visa restrictions as a way to control foreign media reports. In 2013, visas for about two dozen reporters at the New York Times and Bloomberg were delayed until less than two weeks before they would be expelled from the country. The two media outlets were not given new journalist visas for more than a year after they published stories about the wealth of the families of top officials.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found in its 2015 Visa Survey that “While less than 4% of respondents reported problems renewing their press cards or visas, Chinese authorities continued in 2015 to abuse the press card and visa renewal process in a political manner, punishing reporters and media organizations for the content of their coverage if it has displeased the government,” naming French journalist Ursula Gauthier’s case as the most glaring example of this phenomenon.
Ursula Gauthier
Ursula Gauthier.

In 2015, China refused to renew press credentials for Gauthier after she wrote a column questioning the government’s policies in the restive region of Xinjiang, effectively expelling her from the country. Unlike Gauthier – who was asked by the authorities to publicly apologise for her article – no reason was ever expressed to Olsson.

See also: HKFP Interview: China’s ‘regression’ a result of Party infighting, says expelled French journalist

Olsson found that the Chinese authorities had not only rejected his new application, but also cancelled his old visa, even though he always kept extra entry quotas unused as an emergency measure. So, he applied for the shortest tourist visa from Hong Kong with a new Swedish passport so that he could go back and pack up his belongings, but it was also denied.

This meant that he had lost his job, the apartment he had lived in for six years near the historic drum and bell towers, along with most of his friends and possessions.

“There’s so many friends, and especially local friends that you have in China, that you know that you’re probably never going to see again, and you didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to them – that was probably the worst thing.”

Photo: GovHK.

Olsson has never had a journalist’s visa (J visa) – like most freelancers, he depended on business visas sponsored by friends’ companies or agencies and tourist visas. He had also never been questioned by police, like some journalists, nor received any other signals that the authorities were watching him.

“That’s why I was so surprised that my visa was denied,” he said.

He also assumed that, as he wrote mostly in Swedish and did not report on sensitive issues in English, his work would pass by authorities unnoticed. It seems that Chinese authorities are increasing their scrutiny of less-spoken languages like Swedish and French, Olsson said. Olsson said that he spoke to friends, Swedish journalists and diplomats, and most of them believed that Swedish media is now more scrutinised because of the cases of Swedish citizens Peter Dahlin and Gui Minhai.

“We are not aware of any increased scrutiny of Swedish journalists in particular, but the overall climate has become more restrictive,” a spokesperson from the Swedish Embassy in Beijing told HKFP when asked to confirm this.

Gui Minhai
Gui Minhai. Photo: CCTV screenshot.

Peter Dahlin told HKFP that Swedish media traditionally did not pay much attention to China.

“Gui Minhai’s case was largely ignored by Swedish media, but with my own detention media had to start paying attention to China, and by extension also to Gui’s case.”

Since Gui Minhai’s daughter’s activism has also brought more attention to his case in Swedish media, “it’s only natural that China will start to pay attention more,” he said.

Regarding coverage on Gui, Olsson “was the only one pushing it in Sweden,” Dahlin said, and his reporting game him a name. “[S]o I think it’s safe to assume his work on Gui’s case was what attracted attention to him, and got him booted out.”

Holding journalists ‘hostage’

Olsson has written about the issue himself while writing his latest book on China. “It seems that issuing visas has become a more common method to try to keep foreign journalists in line. And visas are being used more or less to hold some foreign journalists hostage, in the sense that if you write things that are really negative – or if you write things that the Chinese government doesn’t approve of – you might not get a new visa.”

xi jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Kremlin.ru.

“The paranoia, or the will to control foreign media, has definitely increased in the past two or three years, since Xi Jinping took power as well, of course. And the resources that are being spent, not only to control foreign media but also to expand Chinese state media, have increased a lot.”

When asked if he saw his ban as a badge of honour, Olsson expressed ambivalence.

“In one sense, it’s not a badge of honour, because if you are clever enough, you should be able to avoid being blacklisted. And at the same time I also think that, yeah it might be a badge of honour, because for me, I decided very early on when I started to write that self-censorship is not something that I would ever do.”

He has talked to many journalists since he was blacklisted, and many are careful what they say or write about China, he said.

“It’s not only journalists, it’s also academics, business people, people working for NGOs – they are actually already doing a certain degree of self-censorship because they are afraid that they will never be able to get into China again.”

“So maybe yeah, I am more proud that I followed through on that promise rather than the actual act of getting blacklisted.”

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.