Why China expelled Al Jazeera

Why China expelled Al Jazeera

Yesterday, Al-Jazeera English announced that it would be closing its bureau in Beijing after the Chinese government refused to renew the press credentials and visa of its China correspondent, Melissa Chan. Chan, based in Beijing since 2007, has an excellent reputation as a journalist, reporting hard-hitting stories on black jails, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and Chinese land grabs. (Disclosure: I worked with Chan on the board of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China and consider her a friend.)

Chan’s expulsion is believed to be the first for a foreign journalist based in China since the 1998 deportation of a Japanese journalist; writing in the New Yorker, Evan Osnos described it as the revival of "a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine [China’s] own efforts to project soft power," and a clear step backwards for Beijing.

That it is, no doubt. But Chan also 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.

It’s not just journalists who are affected. In December 2009, China executed Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen accused of smuggling eight pounds of heroin into China. The execution of Shaikh, the first for a European in China in 50 years and despite protests from the British government, came as China wanted to appear tough against crime; Shaikh also happened to have been born in Pakistan.

In 2010 the Chinese government sentenced Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian who formerly ran Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations in China, to 10 years in prison for accepting bribes and stealing trade secrets, in a case widely viewed as political; his former boss said Hu had been "thrown to the wolves." Xue Feng, a Chinese-born American citizen was sentenced to eight years in prison in July 2010 under China’s menacingly vague state secrets laws for purchasing an oil database.

Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, a handful of journalists, including Americans working for American papers and Brits working for British papers, were expelled. British-born Andrew Higgins was expelled from China in 1991 while working for London’s Independent newspaper for supposedly possessing confidential information. Some journalists expelled around that time were let back in, like John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief, kicked out in 1989 for what authorities called "stealing state secrets and violating martial law provisions" and what he called writing "about Tiananmen Square." Unlike Pomfret, Higgins, who now works for the Post, has not been given the standard long-term visa to report in China, and instead covers the region from Hong Kong.

The pattern seems to be that powerful countries like the United States will be less likely to protest the mistreatment of an American working for a non-American company, or a foreigner working for an American organization, when it becomes a more complicated procedure of coordinating responses between embassies and ministries. 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.