Why the Chinese government wouldn’t let PAR cover the League of Legends All-Star Game
“I better not mess around with the Chinese government,” I thought as I filled out a visa application that would allow me entry into the People's Republic of China to report on the League of Legends All-Star Game being hosted by Riot Games in Shanghai.
Riot went all-out with this tournament, and seemed determined for this to be a showcase for their efforts to expand eSports in Asia. They had an entire sports arena booked for the event, along with a custom-built stage that rivalled most music concerts, and they were offering to fly journalists from around the world to see the next step in the evolution of eSports.
What I didn't count on was that the Chinese government wouldn't want me there.
“They don't like journalists”
I arrived at the Chinese Consulate early in the morning in my finest slacks to get my Visa application submitted and verified. Riot instructed me to be prepared to conduct a short interview with a Chinese representative in which I would have to promise them I'd be on my best behavior and “practice strong morals.” Riot even gave me a letter to give the consulate from Riot's parent company, the Chinese gaming giant, Tencent, promising that I'd practice those strong morals.
They are big on morals.
I got my visa application submitted at the Chinese Consulate in downtown Chicago early one weekday morning without any immediate difficulties, but I returned home to a phone call from someone higher up at the consulate.
“Is this Andrew Groen,” the woman asked with a thick Chinese accent. “What will you be doing in China?” she asked. Her voice was more accusatory than curious.
The government asks you about the nature of your visit on your application: vacation, business, temporary news coverage, etc.
I checked “temporary news coverage” because I figured it was best to be honest about my activities in the country. I've heard more than one story about overbearing Chinese security forces harassing tourists that were deemed suspicious. In one case, an acquaintance claimed their access to Google was revoked after they searched for information about the Tienanmen Square protests. In another case, an acquaintance of a friend was rumored to have been visited by police after watching the Tibetan national anthem online.
These were anecdotes, sure, but it would be too easy for anybody at the consulate to run a search on my name and come up with hundreds of articles under my byline. It's better to be honest, right?
Besides, I had a signed letterhead from a multi-billion dollar Chinese company vouching for my strong morals! That had to be enough to get me to Shanghai even after declaring myself a journalist, I thought. I underestimated how sensitive the Chinese government is about allowing journalists - even video game journalists - into the country.
State Council Information Office
I explained the situation to the woman from the consulate. I was going to be documenting a big, beautiful event at the behest of one of their more successful corporations! Sure, it was journalism, but it was journalism that was almost certain to capture China in a positive light. I wasn't going undercover to expose corruption, I just wanted to watch a video game being played.
“No,” she said curtly. “You must submit an application to the State Council Information Office.” I asked how long that would take, because there was only a week before the trip. “Depends when you submit,” she said as she hung up on me.
I got in touch with Riot and tried to figure out the best way to proceed.
They determined that I should get the application rescinded, and submit it again without mentioning that I'm a journalist. The hope was that I'd slip back through the system, and we could pretend the first application never happened. I was to become a “businessman” on a “business trip” in order to sneak past the watchful eyes at the Consulate.
When I explained the situation to the visa company I'd been using to navigate this whole process, the man I'd been working with, Rob, was shocked. “Wait, they called you?” he asked with bewilderment. “Wow…they never do that.”
“Oh yeah,” he noted later in the conversation. “They don't like journalists,” thanks for the timely intel, Rob.
Rob was a kindly man though, and he helped me resubmit the new application which no longer mentioned that I'd be doing anything related to journalism. Even though I would have been. That night I had melodramatic nightmares about Chinese secret police dragging me out of bed and hauling me off to secret police prison high in the Himalayas. Probably the same place they took Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins.
International man of business
I got a call from Rob the next day. His tone was cheerful and reassuring so I began to hope that my visa had been approved, and I'd be on my way to Shanghai in a matter of days.
“Everything looks good,” he said. “You and your host company just have to sign and return this document that promises you're not affiliated with any media organization and you wont be doing any journalism in the country.”
Gee, thanks, Rob. Is that all? All I have to do is renounce my new job and swear not to work on a work-trip. Piece of cake!
As tempting as it was to daydream about being a political prisoner for the cause of video game journalism, I draw the line at outright lying to the Chinese government in official documentation.
Ben and I were both excited about the prospect of bringing live coverage of the All-Star game to PAR, and the access I would have had to Riot employees, players, analysts, and Chinese fans would have resulted in some fantastic coverage. But this document was one step too far, and after seeing how vigilant the consulate had been in ensuring they didn't let a journalist slip through the cracks I wasn't willing to test their limits.
It's a strange feeling, knowing that a government is looking at you. It's an even stranger feeling to imagine what it might be like for a government to consider you unwelcome.
Ultimately, I missed out on what would have been an incredible trip both for personal and professional reasons, but in exchange I earned the right to say the Chinese government wouldn't allow me into the country. In some ways that's even cooler.
Ben's note: during a recent event I bumped into a buddy who works in PR, and I mentioned this story. “Oh yeah,” she told me. “You have to say you're an English teacher.” She then shared a few stories about getting journalists in and out of China to cover gaming events. It's apparently always an adventure, no matter what you're trying to cover.