Why China ejected Melissa Chan

Sending a message to the foreign press

Is this the kind of reporting that got Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan expelled from China last week? The foreign ministry did not give an official reason for the first expulsion of a journalist in 15 years, except to say that “the media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong.”

Chan’s probe into “black jails”—detention centers where whistleblowers are often held without charges—was only one of several probing stories that she had done. Peter Chovanec, a professor at Tshingua University who knows Chan well, says, “She wasn’t trying to make China look bad, although sometimes the truth wasn’t pretty.”

According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, officials had been angry over a documentary that was shown in November on Al Jazeera English about the alleged use of prisoners to manufacture export goods. Chan was not directly involved in the production of this documentary, but she had separately been accused of violating unspecified rules and regulations.

As the foreign press zeroed in on the story of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, Chan was told that her press credentials would not be renewed. The Foreign Correspondents Club says the expulsion was the “most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China.”

Communist Party officials have been feeling the heat lately from the increased foreign press scrutiny. The Bo Xilai scandal has been playing out in western media, revealing deep divisions in the top rungs of the party. The headlines over Chen Guangcheng pushed China further, and it seems to have retaliated against Chan, meanwhile sending a strong signal to other foreign journalists. Ironically, this comes at a time when China’s official media is trying to expand its own reach across the world, aiming to change the “wrong perceptions” of China that the western media projects.

And as China engages with the world more than ever, the government’s way of doing things will come under more intense examination by foreign journalists. Meanwhile, Chan’s stories online will likely get more views now that she has been expelled.

Melissa Chan summed up the duality of China in her final post as she left the country after five years and almost 400 reports. “China is a country of contradictions. One minute you marvel at the speedy transformation, the new wealth, the great hope of many. Another minute, and in this case powerfully felt because it can all happen in one day, you’re disgusted by the corruption, the systemic problems of a one-party authoritarian state, and the trampling of individual human rights and dignity.”

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Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Fellow with Swaniti Initiative based in Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @some_buddha Tags: , , , ,