Two more reactions to her expulsion from China, first from Rectified.Name:
Some might see it as a badge of honor to be the first foreign journalist in 15 years to be kicked out of China – and I suppose on some level, like Dan Schorr being included on Nixon’s Enemies List – it is. But for those journalists who remain, and the world at large who depend upon them to make sense of the rapid changes in China today, the decision is a chilling reminder that the government knows its attempts at managing China’s international image are flailing badly. Since 2008, when new regulations were announced – if not always followed – allowing greater freedom for international organizations to report from China, the government and its representatives have been barely tolerant of coverage they deemed damaging to their own national self-interest and self-image. In several cases, especially those involving the thugocracy which passes for ‘local administration’ in many areas of China today, that tolerance has crumbled into threats and acts of violence and intimidation against foreign journalists and their employees.
One question nobody seems able to answer though is: Why Melissa?
Certainly the timing wasn’t great. The government has had to deal with a number of embarrassing incidents in the past few weeks. Never a good time to apply for a visa. Melissa was also one of the most active correspondents in the foreign press corps. Never content to report “Dateline: Jianguomen,” she spent a large amount of her time in the field, often tweeting about another narrow escape from the forces of Public Insecurity or of being rousted from hotels in the middle of nowhere as she bravely covered stories few others would. It is also one thing to cover a story with a notebook and pen, quite another to do so with cameras, lights, and sound equipment. Officials hate reporters with notebooks, but the sight of a camera in the hands of a professional journalist will generally cause even the sternest cadre into a sudden involuntary fecal event.
I remember an anecdote Melissa once told a group of my students. She said that when she first arrived, the Ministry folks were all smiles, figuring that any network which plays Osama bin Laden’s mix tapes must be alright. Six months later the same ministry folks complained to her that she was just as bad as CNN and the BBC. She replied, “Thank you?”
Melissa is a friend of mine, who has interviewed me for several of her reports, most notably her pathbreaking report on the “ghost city” of Ordos, and her follow-up two years later. Although I know she’s disappointed to leave, I told her that being expelled was sort of like China’s version of the Pulitzer Prize — tangible recognition that the work she was doing was important and powerful enough to strike a very high-level nerve.
If you only have time to watch one video, check out Melissa’s recent report (in March 2012) on China’s secret “black jails.” It will give you an idea of the kind of courageous reporting she has been doing, and I suspect it was one of the things that got her kicked out of the country. I also suspect that her story, in January, interviewing farmers who knew Xi Jinping as a sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution, was one more thing that helped wear out her welcome. While there was nothing really negative about it — in fact, it was quite complimentary — it trespassed over strict (and rather paranoid) rules barring anyone from discussing any aspect of the biography or personality of China’s next leader.
Just a guess, but somehow I’m pretty sure that kicking Chan out won’t help the tone of China coverage. Hopefully we’ll see a few other journalists going for China Pulitzers of their own in the days and years to come.