The Government Taking the Easy Way Out

By now, hopefully everyone has heard that Al-Jazeera English has been forced to close its China bureau after the Chinese government refused to renew correspondent Melissa Chan’s visa or grant one to a replacement correspondent. The Committee to Protect Journalists has already issued a statement condemning Chan’s expulsion, as has the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

Chan herself has told reporters she’s not authorized to comment, but I’m sure she will be glad to see the attention Al-Jazeera English’s expulsion is already getting. And we may also take some small consolation in the fact that she herself is apparently moving on to some pretty cool things and will remain with Al-Jazeera English.

That said, the expulsion of Chan and Al-Jazeera is a despicable act of cowardice on the part of China’s government. Although no particular reason was given, this section of the FCCC’s statement provides some clues as to the motivation behind denying Chan’s visa:

Chinese officials had expressed anger at a documentary the channel aired last November. Melissa Chan did not even play a part in making that documentary. They have also expressed unhappiness with the general editorial content on Al Jazeera English and accused Ms Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified.

So 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 (that link leads to just a small portion of it). She served as a voice for the voiceless, often putting herself in dangerous positions to get stories of injustice out in the open.

And that’s ultimately exactly why she — and Al-Jazeera English in general — won’t be allowed to continue reporting in China. Al-Jazeera was giving a voice to people the Chinese government doesn’t want heard — prisoners, petitioners, and regular people from all walks of life who had stories they wanted told. In doing this, it really was operating no differently than other foreign media outlets, or even domestic media outlets (especially the gutsier ones like the Caixin and Southern Media publications). That is, after all, what journalists are supposed to do. As George Orwell once wrote:

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.

Of course, there will be some people who will attempt to justify Al-Jazeera English’s expulsion by saying the network was too negative. There will even be people who say that the network is just a piece of the larger Western conspiracy to smear China ((an especially ridiculous claim given that Al-Jazeera is decidedly not Western and still considered the terrorist network by many ill-informed people in the US.)). I find the idea that a media organization should attempt to orchestrate some artificial “balance” between positive and negative stories patently ridiculous ((among other things, whether a story is positive or not depends largely on who you ask)), but even if you believe that, it’s beside the point here.

Because the truth is that kicking Melissa out of China is just the Chinese government taking the easy way out. The coward’s way out. Chan wasn’t reporting about how the government needed to be overthrown; for the most part, her negative reports concerned specific local problems that probably could have been resolved if the central government put much effort into attempting a resolution. Black jails, for example, have been a stain on China’s reputation for years, and both foreign and domestic media have reported on the issue before. I find it impossible to believe that if the government were truly interested in closing black jails in Beijing, it would be incapable of doing so. The government could close all the black jails in Beijing if it wanted. But it’s easier to attack the people who report about it; put pressure on the domestic reporters (or just censor their stories) and threaten or expel the foreign ones. Solving the problem would be harder.

This is an approach we’ve seen over and over again, most recently with the Chinese government’s recent exhortations that the US Embassy must take steps to prevent Chinese citizens from entering its consulates, as if that were the real problem. Chen Guangcheng and Wang Lijun ran to US consulates because, although they came from entirely different backgrounds, both men had no faith in the ability of China’s government to protect them. If China wanted to prevent citizens from fleeing to the US embassy, it might start by reforming its own byzantine petition system, which almost never resolves petitioners’ problems and is responsible for the existence of the aforementioned black jails. But reforming the petition system would be really hard. Writing editorials condemning the US for interfering in China’s internal affairs? That’s really easy.

China’s government is not alone in its pursuit of the easy short-term non-solution over the difficult long-term real solution, but the specifics do make China’s case particularly disheartening. Chan is the first journalist to be expelled from China since 1998 — although China has been expelling journalists since at least the 1980s — but given the way journalists covering the Chen Guangcheng case have been treated ((Cordoned off, press credentials and IDs photographed, dozens called in and accused of breaking the law, etc.)) one wonders if she will be the only reporter forced out this year.

In any event, the expulsion of Al-Jazeera English is depressing and ominous, and it will negatively impact the reporting atmosphere in China. I had the good fortune get to know Melissa a little bit before her expulsion, and China is worse off without her coverage. Her removal is an embarrassment, the childish retribution of a government it seems is perpetually more concerned with silencing problems than with solving them.

29 thoughts on “The Government Taking the Easy Way Out”

  1. more journalists should be getting kicked out of china … they play it waaayy too safe … bo xilai, AFTER a cop tries to defect? c’mon. many many stories waiting in the wings …


  2. Wasn’t aware of the specifics until you brought it up here. But the theme is hardly surprising, and entirely predictable. China has no laws that are worth anything, and even the crappy laws are simply made up as they go along to suit the authorities. When a problem in China is brought to light, they attack those who cast light upon it, rather than addressing the problem itself. As usual, the CCP is nothing more than a petulant 5 year old.


  3. It was already public knowledge that Chan was planning to leave China soon anyways and Al Jazeera English was a small operation (with the bigger Arabic channel still untouched). It seems like this was about taking a calculated risk considering the greatest impact with the least damage more than about any specific coverage Al Jazeera did (although Chan’s coverage certainly didn’t win her any friends in Zhongnanhai). This will be (and already has been) a very turbulent year. Any media thinking of stirring up the Party’s “stability at all costs” by reporting the harsh truth has now been warned by this sacrificial lamb. I just hope other journalists will collectively refuse to be intimidated by it.


  4. Ah, my mistake. I can’t think of many others who put themselves in harm’s way as much as she did to get the truth out. A damn shame to be singled out and punished for it – a damn shame for her viewers and Chinese people in general.


  5. Custer, you really brought the fire with this one – thank you for calling it exactly as it is. Melissa Chan has done some excellent reportage from China. You can see her in action, and get some idea of why her visa might have been cancelled, here:

    Surprised nobody has noted the following yet:

    1) Melissa Chan is ethnic Chinese and the decision to expel her matches a continuing theme of going after ethnically Chinese foreigners harder than those of other ethnicities. The apparent idea – one that may unfortunately have some truth to it – being that foreign governments don’t care so much about their ethnic Chinese citizens.

    2) I don’t know what country Chan comes from (at a guess Canada) but since she works for an agency based in Qatar, a country which China has little in the way of business with and which has very little diplomatic clout, the diplomatic reprecussions of this will be small compared to the expulsion of someone working for, say, the BBC.


  6. Great article- I just wanted to say one thing. You said several times that China hasn’t done things like close black jails because it would be hard. I think the difficulty is actually irrelevant because the central government doesn’t really want to close them. During the height of the Chen Guangcheng affair you could hear people saying the same thing, essentially that Beijing could have solved the Chen issue but thought it would just be easier to ignore the whole thing.

    But Beijing doesn’t want people like Chen to do what they do. It wouldn’t matter if freeing Chen was really easy- even if there was a ‘free chen’ button, no one in Beijing would have pressed it. Because if Chen were freed, or if petitioning worked as a system, then they would have people out there fucking with their bread and butter, even on a local level. Central understands that you can’t tolerate attacks on the grassroots level without eventually seeing the entire tree toppled, and saying that the reason that people like Chen are allowed to be kept imprisoned and black jails are still operating is because it would be too hard to deal with fixing them is ignoring Beijing’s own goals and MO.


  7. @SKC – I will only take issue with one thing that you’ve said:

    “China has no laws that are worth anything, and even the crappy laws are simply made up as they go along to suit the authorities.”

    I’ve seen in my years (both of them – but the plural is still just about justified) of making patent applications via local attorneys to SIPO (the Chinese patent authority) that China, at least in one very small field, is a country of laws and that you can make use of them. The problem comes when you enter the political area – at which point the law essentially evaporates.


  8. agree with FOARP on the legal apartheid the Party applies to foreigners according to their “race”.

    Agree with J: difficulty’s irrelevant when there’s no will. If the Party heard that Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangcheng Liu Xiaobo and the Falun Gong were meeting secretly in a black jail in Beijing, you can bet they’d find and shut down every last one in under a week.


  9. About “race”, FOARP talks about it in terms of political repercussions. That’s like saying the rising PRC (representing China) lets ethnic chinese around the world hold their heads up higher. I don’t believe in this sort of talk.
    However, another foreign ethnic chinese, US ambassador Locke, has been getting some racially based verbal lashing recently. His may be more “grassroots” and not so much things from the ccp (at least the spokes persons seem to talk civilized about him). The words like “banana” and “traitor” (you know, the chinese terms of the english) pops up in regular media. I don’t know if this sort of attitude cames from the years of ccp propaganda or was simply been bubbling in the populace or even both. I do wonder how strong this sentiment is against ethnic chinese working for the “other guys” which brings the hammer down on Melissa Chan when someone gets pissed off.


  10. To FOARP:
    having rule of law hold sway in small segments of society is better than having no rule of law whatsoever. That is the type of damning with faint praise that the CCP richly deserves.

    To J:
    agreed. The bizarre narrative in the past was that CGC’s house arrest was the work of corrupt local wonks, and the politburo was free and clear of any involvement. Such a story beggars belief. The Beijing suits may not have ordered it, but their tolerance of it serves as tacit acknowledgment that they condoned it 100%.


  11. “About “race”, FOARP talks about it in terms of political repercussions. That’s like saying the rising PRC (representing China) lets ethnic chinese around the world hold their heads up higher. I don’t believe in this sort of talk.”

    I just calls ’em the way I sees them – and it seems like every time I hear of an expat catching a harsh punishment in China they’re ethnic Chinese. Like you’re point about Locke, this appears to partly be because ethnic Chinese expats undermine the “us and them” line of rhetoric the CCP rolls out whenever an issue with a foreign country comes up (not that they’re the only ones who do this). The repercussions from doing so also seem to be less – I note there’s been no official protest from the US government on this yet.

    @Pete Arthur – Interesting link, especially the fact that it was left off the official transcript.


  12. To Pete Arthur,
    fantastic link. Hong Lei could easily be replaced with a robot, or perhaps a broken tape recorder that is only capable of repeating the phrase “i have answered the relevant question”. LOL. He sounds as idiotic as that railway ministry spokesman from last summer, which in and of itself is quite an achievement.


  13. anybody else annoyed by the use of the word “relevant” in the ccp spokes person speak? common usage include “relevant question”, “relevant regulation”, and “relevant department”. They might as well as put up a big poster at the front “the relevant department has provided the relevant response to the relevant question” and not show up.


  14. hmm, that doesn’t come out right in chinese. maybe “the relevant department has provided the relevant information for the relevant inquiry”.


  15. cephaloless:

    They might as well as put up a big poster at the front “the relevant department has provided the relevant response to the relevant question” and not show up.

    That is basically what they did do.


  16. The Rectified Name trackback has a link to a GT editorial, which is stereotypically laughable. GT is absolutely priceless crap…GT is to moral and ethical journalism as HH is to sane and logical blog posting, it would appear.


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