Al Jazeera Expulsion Still Unexplained

A Foreign Ministry spokesman’s non-answers about the expulsion of Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan this week have prompted widespread mockery. When the official transcript of the press conference appeared, it included only four questions: one each on visits to China by the chairman of the Syrian National Council and the secretary-general of the Arab League, and two on mounting tensions with the Philippines in the South China Sea. Fourteen questions on Chan’s expulsion had been expunged. Nevertheless, while the exact nature of her transgression against relevant laws and regulations remained a mystery, Global Times was confident that Chan must have done something wrong:

China didn’t give a specific reason for expelling the reporter. This ambiguity cannot be criticized. According to foreign journalist sources here in Beijing, Melissa Chan holds an aggressive political stance. According to foreign reports, she has a tense relationship with the management authorities of foreign correspondents. She has produced some programs which are intolerable for China.

Interfering with foreign media’s reporting is a retrograde act, and it is simply impossible to do. However, foreign journalists in China must abide by journalistic ethics. They have their values and reporting angles, but the bottom line is that they should not turn facts upside down ….

According to some Chinese people who work or used to work in foreign media bureaus, it is common practice for some foreign journalists to just piece together materials based on their presuppositions when reporting on China. If a foreign reporter cannot stay in China, we can only assume that he or she has done something cross the line.

The BBC’s Damian Grammaticas described the opacity surrounding the episode in Orwellian terms:

Today Melissa Chan, the al-Jazeera English television correspondent who, it was announced yesterday, had been expelled from China, seems to have become an “unperson” in China.

The only Chinese-language newspapers in which we could find reports on the expulsion on Wednesday morning were the Hong Kong-affiliated Ta Kung Pao paper from Henan province and the Global Times ….

The problem with the head-in-the-sand approach is that China has left itself voiceless, while in today’s YouTube world all Ms Chan’s reports are preserved online. So anyone (outside China, or with VPN technology to skirt the online censors if they are inside China) can access them and judge for themselves.

The South China Morning Post’s lead editorial on Friday also argues that expelling journalists is counter-productive:

Foreign correspondents are the world’s window on a country, witnessing, deciphering and interpreting. When they are denied the right to do their work, as has happened with Al Jazeera’s only English-language reporter in China, there is bound to be a negative reaction. Melissa Chan’s expulsion and Beijing’s refusal to allow the pan-Arab news network to have a replacement has predictably created a storm of criticism. By letting journalists report, a government benefits and presents an image of being open and tolerant; by closing the door, it says the opposite.

There is, at least, little chance of a rift between China and Qatar over the affair, according to Reuters:

A senior Al Jazeera executive said the incident was unlikely to upset ties between China and its biggest liquefied natural gas supplier, even though the two countries are also at odds over Syria, where Qatar has proposed arming foes of President Bashar al-Assad, while Beijing advocates dialogue.

“It would be incorrect to suggest a bilateral rift of some kind,” said the executive, who declined to be named.

China is expected to bid for Qatar’s huge infrastructure projects, including a $36 billion rail network, an $11 billion new airport and a $5.5 billion new deep water seaport.

Chan’s expulsion, the first from China in 14 years, comes just as China is attempting to expand the global presence of its own state media. As Tom Rhodes writes for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Al Jazeera’s success in carving out an increasingly global audience offers a gleaming role model for this project. The network’s place was cemented, however, by its role as what a New Statesman headline called the “Voice of the Arab spring”. This can hardly have endeared the network to a Chinese government profoundly rattled by the slightest whisper of a “Jasmine Revolution” at home, and perhaps already suffering from a sense of betrayed kinship. From The Wall Street Journal:

In a conversation two years ago, Ms. Chan said she believed Chinese authorities saw parallels between main state broadcaster China Central Television and al-Jazeera, which is primarily funded by the government of Qatar.

“I think when China approved al-Jazeera English to start reporting in China, they expected we would be soft on the government because they saw us as being similar to CCTV,” Ms. Chan said when talking to other reporters about the channel’s hard-nosed reporting on a coal-mine disaster in 2010. “They realized pretty quickly that wasn’t the case.”

An illustrative tale appears at Rectified.name:

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. “Thank you?” she replied.

Tsinghua University professor Patrick Chovanec describes Chan’s expulsion as “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.” He has collected a “greatest hits” of her coverage on his blog.

Not incidentally, Melissa Chan is selling a piano: