A German journalism student is on a flight home today after the Chinese government refused to renew his visa after he submitted a film about human rights lawyers for class.
David Missal, 24, a foreign student at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing under the DAAD scholarship program, told Euronews on Saturday that Chinese authorities cancelled his visa on August 3 and ordered him to leave the country in 10 days.
“[The police] gave back my passport to me and read out some declaration why they can’t give me a new visa … because I took part in some activities that aren’t covered by a study visa,” Missal told Euronews by phone from Beijing.
“I asked: ‘What kind of activities?’ and they said: ‘You know by yourself,’” Missal added, saying he was left “speechless” by the decision.
Missal said he submitted his visa renewal application back in June, a process that usually takes 10 days. After calling officials every week about the status of his application, he was told the delay was due to deliberations between the school and Chinese authorities. He learned of the cancellation last week when he picked up his passport.
“I knew there would be some kind of possibility of this to happen [visa cancellation], I didn’t really think it really would happen,” Missal said.
Missal believes it was his research into China’s human rights lawyers that prompted authorities to refuse to renew his visa.
In May, Missal interviewed several human rights lawyers for a class project and took a journey to the south-eastern city of Wuhan to document lawyer Lin Qilei visiting a detention centre where his client, democracy activist Qin Yongmin, was being held and charged with “subversion of state power”. Qin was sentenced to 13 years in prison last month.
During this time, Missal said he waited for Lin outside the prison and that’s when police officers came by and escorted him to a police station where he was forced to wait three hours before Lin came to collect him.
Upon his return to Beijing, Missal said programme supervisors at Tsinghua’s journalism school approached him twice, signaling their disapproval of his research topic, saying they were not ‘happy’ about his work but didn’t tell him to drop his research. In response, Missal said: “I’d think about it.”
However, former students from the journalism programme said they were surprised by the government’s decision not to renew Missal’s visa as sensitive research topics had been accepted at the university in the past with no negative recourse.
“I did my thesis on how CCP propaganda initiatives in colleges like the ideological courses and military training are losing effectiveness among today’s youth. I half pitched it just to see how my professors (some of whom were CCP members) would justify it …
“To my surprise, they were really supportive and even nominated it for a university-wide award (& we routinely delved into the most sensitive of political topics in class). I never worried about getting kicked out for reporting. That was 2012, seems like an eternity ago.”
Missal said he’s “sad” about not being able to complete his studies, after spending a total of three years in the country. The Osnabruck native said he will return home and do a masters in Chinese studies at Freie University in Berlin and hopes to complete an exchange in Taiwan afterwards.
Missal said he appreciated the opportunity to experience journalism in China in a climate where foreign reporting is getting worse, according to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC). However, he’s unsure if he will be welcome back to the Middle Kingdom again.
“I think if you don’t do any sensitive topics, you can study journalism [in China]. If you want to do anything that goes beyond some easy topics, then probably it’s not the best place,” Missal said, explaining he chose to study in China to gain a deeper insight about the political system and Chinese society.
“I guess after this, I won’t get a Chinese visa in the future. What I did in the last semester was nothing bad. I really appreciated I had the chance to do this,” he said.
Euronews reached out to Tsinghua University for comment but they did not respond before this article’s publication.