Melissa Chan does not compute
It would be a disservice to Melissa Chan, one of the most dedicated journalists covering China, to not to make at least brief mention of the craven and shameless decision by the Powers that Be to deny her application for a new visa, a move which is tantamount to her expulsion from the country.
Some might see it as a badge of honor to be the first foreign journalist in 15 years to be kicked out of China – and I suppose on some level, like Dan Schorr being included on Nixon’s Enemies List – it is. But for those journalists who remain, and the world at large who depend upon them to make sense of the rapid changes in China today, the decision is a chilling reminder that the government knows its attempts at managing China’s international image are flailing badly. Since 2008, when new regulations were announced (if not always followed) allowing greater freedom for international organizations to report from China, the government and its representatives have been barely tolerant of coverage they deemed damaging to their own national self-interest and self-image. In several cases, especially those involving the thugocracy which passes for ‘local administration’ in many areas of China, that tolerance has crumbled into threats and acts of violence and intimidation against foreign journalists and their employees.
Now that frustration has reached higher levels of the government and Melissa is the victim. Of course, this being China, nobody in the government has the actual balls to say why they chose to expel her. That would be too embarrassing. But if you’re going to send your minions out to obfuscate and cover up your own shamelessness, at least send people who can – you know – do a job.
Compare these two press conference transcripts, both starring MOFA spokesperson Hong Lei.
Q: I just want to know whether the expulsion of Melissa Chan should be seen as a warning to other journalists operating in China?
Hong Lei: “I have just answered relevant questions. On the issue of foreign journalists our policies and moves are easy to see. We will continue to provide convenience for foreign journalists reporting in China and we welcome foreign journalists to report in China. At the same time we need to stress that foreign journalists should abide by Chinese laws and regulations, as well as professional ethics of journalists while reporting in China.”
Q: Under what circumstances will Al Jazeera be given press credentials and visas for a new reporter?
Hong Lei: “The Beijing branch of Al Jazeera is still functioning normally.”
Q: Can you tell us who made the decision to deny Ms. Chan, was it the Foreign Ministry or another department?
Hong Lei: “We deal with relevant matter in accordance with law.”
Q: Can you give us any specifics on why Melissa Chan was expelled from the country because there is a lot of confusion here and unless you’re more specific about it it’s very difficult for us to get a picture of exactly what’s going on.
Hong Lei: “I have already answered this question.”
Q: Can you tell us who made the decision to deny Ms. Chan: was it the Foreign Ministry or another department?
Hong Lei: Honestly? Not a clue. I’m gonna refer you here to our mysterious laws and regulations.
Q: Can you give us any specifics on why Melissa Chan was expelled from the country… because there is a lot of confusion here and unless you’re more specific about it it’s very difficult for us to get a picture of exactly what’s going on.
Hong Lei: She was not expelled… as far as I know, she left of her own volition.
Q: I think the main concern of the journalists is that the Chinese government, you use the issue of visa as a way to censor journalists’ work in China. Is this a precedent of how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will behave in the future?
Hong Lei: We do this every 14 years or so. So, yeah. No. Maybe.
Q: What could the Chinese government say if a Chinese journalist was expelled from a foreign country?
Hong Lei: Anybody else going to see Hanggai play this weekend?
One is the China Daily Show. The other is a VOA transcript of an actual MOFA presser from this past week. Once again China’s government teeters drunkenly on that oh so fine line between “self” and “self-parody.”
One question nobody seems able to answer though is: Why Melissa?
Certainly the timing wasn’t great. The government has had to deal with a number of embarrassing incidents in the past few weeks. Not a good time to apply for a visa. Melissa was also one of the most active correspondents in the foreign press corps. Never content to report “Dateline: Jianguomen,” she spent a large amount of her time in the field, often tweeting about another narrow escape from the forces of Public Insecurity or of being rousted from hotels in the middle of nowhere as she bravely covered stories few others would. It is also one thing to cover a story with a notebook and pen, quite another to do so with cameras, lights, and sound equipment. Officials hate reporters with notebooks, but the sight of a camera in the hands of a professional journalist will generally cause even the sternest cadre to experience a sudden involuntary fecal event.
A quotation which was making the rounds on Twitter this past week – and which ended up in a few different posts on the subject – was the old Orwell chestnut: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”
Something rags like The Global Times fail to understand.
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.
We don’t want to see any confrontations between the Chinese government and foreign journalists here in China. Local authorities are more willing to cooperate with them, while foreign media should take an objective and balanced view toward the country. Foreign media should reflect on China’s complexity, which is well-known to almost all foreigners in China. However, some media are only keen to show the wickedness of China to the world.
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.
Finally, Isaac Stone Fish put forward a somewhat controversial theory, that Melissa was the victim of racial profiling.
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.
One wonders – and it helps here to consider the mentality of those officials who make these decisions – if they expected a young woman of Asian descent working for Al-Jazeera to be more…sympathetic, and when she turned out to be tough as nails as well as a highly independent and keen observer of the complexities of China, it was all too much to bear.
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.
Melissa was a journalist who, more than most, gave voice to the voiceless and shone a spotlight on those corners of the country in grave need of international awareness and recognition. A more confident government would applaud her professionalism. By expelling Melissa, however, the Chinese government has shown how little it really knows about ‘soft power’ or, indeed, how little it cares about showing this glorious country – in all of its nuance and complexity – to the world.
She will be missed.
 The further decision to refuse accreditation for a replacement journalist effectively kills the Al-Jazeera English bureau. One of the less reported casualties were the Chinese staff at the bureau, one of whom, who shall remain nameless, is something of a legend among the Chinese news assistants for his long service and professionalism.
 YJ once led a mini-revolt at the compound when she was stopped for the 1000th time while her husband, who had absolutely no business being there except to play basketball, blithely wandered in and out of the gate without so much as a glance.