— Melissa Chan (@melissakchan) May 8, 2012
The expulsion this week of Al Jazeera English’s Beijing correspondent Melissa Chan is the first such punishment China has meted out since the end of the 1990s, an unusually harsh measure even against a backdrop of tightening and capricious media controls. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei offered little explanation for the move beyond dogged citation of “relevant laws and regulations”, and even insisted that Al Jazeera English was “still functioning normally” in China. From Voice of America:
Q: Chinese laws and regulations are written down, so even if we don’t know which ones Melissa is accused of violating we know what they say. No where as I know is the Chinese government’s conception of journalistic ethics written down. How can we judge whether our behavior is consistent with Chinese conception of journalist ethics, and can you offer us guidance as to what that conception looks like?
Hong Lei: “I think our policies and laws regarding foreign journalists is very clear. In your work and exchanges with us we have briefed you on relevant Chinese laws and regulations which is also the basis for your work in China. With regard to relevant issue I think relevant media and journalists are clear about that ….”
Q: Where can we see those regulations because we are having some problem in finding which law and regulation was broken. So where can I check the regulation if I want to see some number or article was broken according to Chinese law?
Hong Lei: “I think have answered the relevant question.”
From David Pierson of The Los Angeles Times:
Good thing we don’t have to down a shot every time Hong Lei says “relevant laws”
— David Pierson (@dhpierson) May 8, 2012
The word of the day was “relevant.” “I have just answered relevant questions,” Hong says plaintively at the start of the transcript. “The Chinese government will follow strictly relevant regulations in dealing with foreign journalists.” Then, “With regard to relevant issue I think relevant media and journalists are clear about that.” It was a convenient way to avoid being relevant himself: In the course of nine questions, he used the word 11 times, and we are still none the wiser about why Chan and her news outlet were blacklisted.
Flat denials from the ministry are nothing new. But it is deeply discouraging to hear them over the kind of expulsion not seen in China since the 20th century. The Chinese government issued regulations allowing foreign journalists to work freely before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. CPJ registered concern about the growing pressure on sources and assistants working for them, but the journalists themselves at least had something on paper that justified their right to report.
Chan herself posted a comical example of the vagueness and apparent improvisation of press regulations in March, after two Domestic Security Department officers invited themselves to sit in on an interview with lawyer Pu Zhiqiang:
Plainclothes Officer: I’m not telling you, you can’t be here. This is just my recommendation.
AJE [Al Jazeera English]: Oh! Your recommendation. Well, in that case … I will ask Mr Pu a couple of questions on camera. Thank you.
Plainclothes Officer (PO): No, you cannot.
AJE: Huh!? Um, didn’t you just say that was just your recommendation?
PO: My recommendation is: no.
Pu Zhiqiang: On what basis are you saying this?
AJE: Well – allow me to just show you my press card … and my press credential to attend National People’s Congress events …
PO: Everything has a bottom line.
AJE: Um, what do you mean?
PO [menacingly]: Yes, I mean it. Bottom. Line.
While Chan’s expulsion is part of an ongoing tightening of control, there is some disagreement on the longer-term trend for reporting conditions in China. At The New York Times, Didi Kirsten Tatlow describes the current deterioration as an aberration against a backdrop of general improvement, tied to the looming leadership transition.
Just how bad is press freedom in China? There are different ways of looking at it.
According to Reporters Without Borders, China ranks a spectacularly bad 174th out of 179 countries, when it comes to freedom of the press. But China is undergoing tremendous social change and, as with all change, it helps to view it comparatively. Old China hands — long-term foreign residents and reporters — cited by Mr. [Stephen] McDonell [president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China] believe that overall, press freedom in China is growing, for foreign journalists and for their Chinese counterparts, though there are cyclical rollbacks based on the overall political situation and sensitivities ….
With China about to undergo a once-in-a-decade, thoroughgoing leadership change beginning in October, the situation is tense. My colleague at the New York Times, Michael Wines, reports that “relations between the ruling Communist Party and the overseas journalists who cover it” are “fraying”, partly under the pressure of two major news events this year — the destabilizing fall from power of the Communist Party scion and former party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, and the embarrassing flight to the United States embassy of the blind, self-taught lawyer, Chen Guangcheng.
The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, on the other hand, sees a bleaker picture:
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.
At The Globe and Mail Mark MacKinnon describes Chan’s expulsion as a sign of the failed promise of a “golden time” for China-based foreign correspondents after the 2008 Olympics. Instead of real freedom, he writes, journalists are now faced with invisible and unpredictable 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.
When I got into trouble myself last year with Beijing’s Public Security Bureau over my coverage of a failed attempt to mimic the Arab Spring uprisings in China – as well as an article I wrote about how rich Chinese were cheating the system in order to immigrate to Canada – I turned to Chinese colleagues and legal experts for advice.
They were all sympathetic, but some couldn’t help but find dark humour in my travails. “I’m sorry to say,” a friend told me with a mirthless chuckle, “that they’re just treating you the way they treat Chinese journalists.”
At Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish suggests that this may have been especially true for Chan, an Asian-American, noting that China has often exercised less restraint when dealing with foreigners of Chinese descent.
… Chan … fits into the troubling pattern of the foreigners Beijing has targeted over the last decade: those the Chinese government views of having less protection because of their ethnicity and nationality; often with Chinese backgrounds. It appears that someone in the Chinese government wanted to give a warning to journalists without causing an international incident; Chan, a Chinese-American working for a Qatari-based television station, seemed to be an appropriate target. The thinking seems to be that a foreign government will more loudly protest the mistreatment of a citizen who is both born and raised in its own country and working for a domestic company ….
… Executives and reporters with Chinese backgrounds have many advantages operating in China. Besides language skills and local networks, they can blend in a country where different color skin clearly identifies one as an outsider. Anecdotally speaking, they seem to be given less leniency when they don’t follow China’s laws; like they’re supposed to “know better.”
Many foreign news bureaus are hosted in two diplomatic compounds in the Jianguomen neighborhood. As a reporter based out of the compound for two years, I entered freely, while foreign reporters who looked Chinese (and, of course, those that were Chinese), often had to show their IDs to get in. Injustice in China affects more than just the locals.
On Twitter, New York Times correspondent Edward Wong pointed out a 1987 account by his predecessor John Burns of his own expulsion from China the year before. Burns was deported for allegedly spying on military installations during an unauthorised trip through “an unrehearsed China” during “a brief interlude of the mid–1980’s, when the country seemed more relaxed than at any other time in its modern history.”