Even before Guangzhou was gripped by a mystery virus scare and its citizens began to clear the shelves of antibiotics, gauze masks and vinegar, the city had an image problem. In fact, Guangzhou has no real public image, and in those rare instances when it does accidently stumble into the limelight, more often than not it is for unflattering reasons - such as this week's scare or its recently completed four billion yuan (HK$3.8 billion) white elephant convention centre. Some blame for this widespread ignorance falls on the international media. Guangzhou may be one of China's top three commercial, economic and cultural centres and the epicentre of a region that accounts for 40 per cent of China's exports and 33 per cent of its foreign direct investment. But in the three years that I worked in the South China Morning Post bureau there, the city's foreign correspondent population never exceeded three, each of us working in a different language (Chinese, English and Japanese). By the end of my tour, there were only two of us. Ours was one of the loneliest outposts in journalism. One foreign editor once aptly characterised the Pearl River Delta and South China as the 'black hole' in the international media's China coverage. While in Guangzhou, I thought the main reason I had no English language competition was because my Hong Kong colleagues could not drag themselves away from the Foreign Correspondents Club bar in Central. It turns out, however, that there is another culprit - the central government, which makes it difficult for Hong Kong-based journalists to travel to the mainland. I discovered this after relocating to Hong Kong and losing my 'J-1' journalist's accreditation, which allowed me to come and go as I pleased. Now every time I want to cross the border I have to apply for a one-off 'J-2' visa. This happened to me a few weeks ago, when I applied for a visa to attend an annual dinner hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Guangdong. It was clearly not the type of visa application Chinese officials are used to dealing with. First came the response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 'You work for a Hong Kong newspaper, so you have to apply through the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office.' To which the office replied: 'You are an American, so you have to apply through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.' To be fair, when I explained the Catch-22 situation they had put me in, Hong Kong and Macao officials processed my application. But if the Chinese government would like to increase international media coverage of South China, it might consider relaxing, or even abolishing, its existing restrictions. Who knows? Some of the resulting coverage might even be positive for a change.