I just got back from a two-week family visit back to the U.S., and things have been anything but quiet while I was gone: naval confrontations in the South China Seas, Chen Guangcheng’s flight to the U.S. embassy, the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Beijing … and now, the expulsion of a respected American journalist from China.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera announced that China has refused to renewed the visa of Melissa Chan, their main correspondent in Beijing — making her the first foreign journalist expelled from China in nearly 15 years. Since the Chinese government also refused to grant a visa for anyone to replace her, Al Jazeera will be closing its English-language bureau in Beijing. (It will continue to operate the bureau for its main Arabic-language channel).
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. She told me about her pending expulsion a few months ago, but asked me not to say anything while they tried to sort things out. 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.
You can see from the list of video links below that Melissa didn’t shy away from some of the toughest stories out there. But she was also fair. She wasn’t trying to make China look bad — although sometimes the truth wasn’t pretty. She was just trying to make sure that the world got to hear all sides of what was often a complex and challenging story.
- Schoolchildren deaths in Sichuan earthquake (May 2008)
- Uighur unrest in Xinjiang (July 2009)
- Problems with Three Gorges Dam (November 2009)
- Tragic aftermath of Qinghai earthquake (April 2010)
- State monopoly resists smoking ban (May 2010)
- U.S. pressure on China’s currency (May 2010)
- Employee suicides at Foxconn (May 2010)
- Knife attacks on schoolchildren (May 2010)
- Impact of China’s gender imbalance (June 2010)
- Secret experiment in one-child policy (June 2010)
- Challenges facing China’s elderly (June 2010)
- Farmer fends off eviction (July 2010)
- Xinjiang security one year later (July 2010)
- Recycling China’s trash (July 2010)
- House arrest of Nobel Prize-winner’s wife (October 2010)
- Late-term force abortion (October 2010)
- Rare earth trade embargo (November 2010)
- Cellar-dwellers fight for homes (December 2010)
- Beijing traffic controls (December 2010)
- Training China’s pilots (January 2011)
- “My Father is Li Gang” case (January 2011)
- China’s water crisis (February 2011)
- Rising affluence drives obesity (February 2011)
- Search for kidnapped children (February 2011)
- Crackdown on house churches (May 2011)
- Hacking attacks traced to China (June 2011)
- Worries over food safety (June 2011)
- Chinese artist documents corruption (July 2011)
- China’s unused Olympic stadiums (July 2011)
- Jade mining in western China (September 2011)
- Limited choice in village elections (November 2011)
- Inside Communist Party schools (January 2012)
- The Party’s reach in the remote countryside (January 2012)
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.
I realise that Al Jazeera is not particularly popular in the U.S. because of the often adversarial perspective it has taken towards Israel and towards America’s role in the Middle East. But I hope that doesn’t obscure the value of the reporting Melissa has done from China, or diminish concern over the Chinese government’s decision to send her packing. What that decision says about China, in 2012, is far more damning than the most critical report any correspondent could file.
Good luck, Melissa. You will be missed.
By the way, those who are interested can follow Melissa Chan on Twitter (@melissakchan).
(Before my vacation, I promised the next instalment of my critical analysis of China’s economic figures, and I won’t disappoint. I will post it ASAP).
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