I applied for a passport in early April of this year, because I was planning the trip to Hong Kong I described earlier, and wanted to take a tourist side-trip to China in June 2011, while I was there. I knew that they required a passport valid for at least six months from the date of entry. My old passport was set to expire in September 2011. I gave myself this extra time because I had two other trips abroad planned in between and wanted time to get the visa before those trips, since I wasn’t sure how long it would take, and I had rather small amounts of time between those trips and my departure for Hong Kong.
After receiving this passport, in early May, my partner and I applied for visas through It’s Easy, describing exactly the same plans on each application and showing, of course, the same home address. When I looked at the It’s Easy website on Monday May 9, his visa was listed as having been granted. Mine was not. So I called It’s Easy and, eventually, after several calls, I was told on Tuesday afternoon that the Chinese embassy had said that it had mislaid my passport. I was told that they had also said they would return it if and when they found it. I was due to go to the Istanbul Seminar the next Monday, so, with It’s Easy’s assistance, I immediately applied for an expedited new passport, which was returned to It’s Easy that Saturday, May 14th. I was able to collect my new passport on the Monday morning and flew with it to Istanbul until the next Sunday.
On Monday May 23, a day later, my partner took a new application with the new passport to It’s Easy and I reapplied. (I was off early that morning to give a lecture and some seminars in Seattle.) When I looked on the website on the Wednesday—by which time, they had assured me, the visa would be back—I discovered that it was not. After calling and talking to them and visiting their office, they told me that the visa had now been officially declined. And they returned to me my current passport and the application form I had issued on Thursday May 26. They did not then say anything about my old passport.
As I examined the returned visa application on the train back to Princeton that afternoon, I noticed that it had been altered after I had given it to them. The form now applied for multiple entries—which had not been my intention—and also, under the part of the form that requires you to list relatives living with you, someone had added in clumsy block capitals the word “John Appiah, Brother, Student.” Now I don’t have a brother. In fact, though I have lived in Ghana, where the name Appiah and the given name John are both quite common, I have never met a John Appiah. And, in any case, the only person living with me is my partner. So I called It’s Easy to ask about this and they said they could only respond if I came in again.
I went in again, therefore, on the afternoon of Friday May 27, on my way to the airport to give a lecture in Canada. They said they had changed the application to one for multiple entries because I might not have been aware that each trip from China to the mainland required a new visa. I regret that they did this, since, as you’ll see, I had some reason to avoid drawing attention to my application, and my only aim was to make one visit. But the owner of It’s Easy said the other change—the addition of John Appiah—was not in a hand of anyone working for them … and, indeed, it did look like the handwriting of someone whose first script was not English, and so might well have been done in the consulate. And they also told me that the Chinese consulate had now returned my original passport, which they gave to me.
Naturally, the Chinese consulate has given no reason for the denial of a visa. My main theory about this is that, as the President of the PEN-American Center, as one of the nominators of Liu Xiaobo for the Peace Prize, who published his letter of nomination and a defense of it in Foreign Policy magazine, and as someone who has appeared on CNN Asia criticizing the policies of the Chinese government in relation to free expression, I was denied a visa as part of the ongoing closing down of debate in China. (All these facts about me are available, of course, at the click of a Google search button.) This theory appeals to my ego; though it makes the Chinese government look paranoid, since I do not suffer from delusions of grandeur about my ability to challenge the Communist Party regime. But, bureaucratic incompetence is no doubt also a possibility: it is conceivable that a John Appiah caused some problem for them at some point and that they decided, in their ignorance that Appiah, like John, is a common enough name, that he must be connected with me.
In any case, while Henry was able to visit Beijing and Shanghai, I had the pleasure of an extended stay in Hong Kong, including a very interesting lunchtime discussion with the excellent U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong, and of a visit to Macau. I have no plan to apply for a Chinese visa any time soon again.