If you read this blog regularly you should recognize Melissa Chan, whose piece on the difficulty of reporting in China last year was one of the first things I posted here. The news that China has refused to renew her visa and effectively blocked her from returning to China almost feels personally insulting- she has consistently been one of the very best foreign reporters in China, and her pieces have been strong efforts to give voices to the voiceless. Plenty of reactions out there today, first from Custer at ChinaGeeks:
Al-Jazeera’s crimes include airing a documentary that China didn’t like — not one that was factually incorrect, mind you, just one they didn’t like — and violating unspecified rules and regulations. Neither of these are good reasons to expel anyone from any country, but the latter is particularly concerning because it seems to be an increasingly common tactic used by the Chinese government to attempt to bully foreign reporters and keep them from covering certain stories. In 2011, for example, some reporters who covered the “Jasmine Revolution” protests were told that they had broken the law by failing to obtain prior permission to report there. Journalists outside Chaoyang Hospital reporting on the Chen Guangcheng case were recently told the same thing.
In fact, China’s regulations on foreign reporters contain no such requirement as far as I can see (original Chinese version). To conduct an interview or reporting, foreign reporters must have the prior consent of anyone they’re interviewing — which is common sense — but there is no requirement that they must apply to anyone else for permission to cover anything.
Of course, the fact that Chinese authorities are apparently operating outside the framework of their own laws will not be news to anyone, least of all anyone who followed Chan’s excellent coverage of China during her five years here.
Melissa Chan, a courageous correspondent for al-Jazeera English who on Tuesday flew out of China after having her press credentials revoked, tested that assumption as much as – or more – than any of the foreign press corps in Beijing. By reporting on such sensitive topics as China’s secret “black jails,” and drawing such ire from the security services that she was today forced to leave, Melissa showed the world that China’s new openness is not real. The extra space reporters have been given since 2008 – and there is some – was always a gift from the Communist Party and its enforcers. A gift that could be taken away at any minute if you went beyond the invisible and shifting boundaries.
This false freedom given to reporters working in China is much more important than Melissa’s case or the careers of any of the foreign correspondents based in China. What’s at stake is not only the outside world’s (already poor) understanding of this rising but paranoid superpower, but also the future of journalism inside China. Chinese journalists have told me that they watch the foreign correspondents with envy, wishing they could report about their own country as freely as we do. Our fight to do our job is intertwined with their fight to do theirs.
Since Melissa is an American citizen, I hope to see her government put aside its enmity towards al-Jazeera and issue a strong statement regarding her expulsion.
MacKinnon hopes to see the US government have a serious go at China in defense of an al-Jazeera journalist in this day and age? Don’t hold your breath, pal. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:
China is moving backwards. In fifteen years of studying and writing about this place, I’ve rarely had reason to reach that conclusion without one qualifier or another dangling off the end of the sentence—qualifiers that leave room, for instance, for “halting progress” or “mixed signals.”
But this week the evidence is unambiguous: for the first time in thirteen years, China has kicked out a foreign correspondent. In doing so, it revives a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine its own efforts to project soft power and shows a spirit of self-delusion that does not bode well for China’s ability to address the problems that imperil its future.
What’s more, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club says that Chan’s case is part of a trend in which twenty-seven foreign reporters have been made to wait for more than four months for visa approvals in the past two years. In six cases, the club said, foreign reporters were told that their applications had been rejected or delayed “due to the content of the bureaux” or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.
Over that same two-year period, China’s Xinhua news agency has opened a state-of-the-art newsroom at the top of a skyscraper in Times Square, for CNC World, the agency’s twenty-four-hour news channel, which seeks to “present an international vision with a Chinese perspective.” That vision just got a lot harder to sell.
Apparently the foreign ministry briefing today turned into a bit of a circus, with Chan being the subject of the majority of questions. Hopefully other foreign journalists will take this as a call to be a bit more like Chan, and not to back down.