Although Al-Jazeera English is the first news media company to close its China bureau after authorities refused to renew the correspondent’s press credentials, or grant a visa for a replacement, this may not be the start of a clampdown against international journalists. Instead, the Chinese government’s decision may have been triggered by its original expectations for the Qatari royalty-backed news company, which China initially perceived as a close relative to its own state-run media.
Since entering China in 2006, Al-Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan has been recognized for her hard-hitting stories; covering sensitive issues such as black jails, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and land seizures. She’s amassed a significant following on Twitter, and was even granted a 2013 Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.Though she’s often explored controversies that invite official harassmentshe’s not the only Western journalist delving into these issues.
However, the Chinese government expected Al-Jazeera to play a more conciliatory role following its bureau opening in 2006. When Al-Jazeera English launched, government mouthpiece People’s Daily published a glowing assessment of its prospects as the first English-language station with an Arab perspective. The financial backing of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, suggested a less critical stance than that of independent Western media companies.
China’s officials hadn’t considered Al-Jazeera’s aspirations towards becoming a global news source. Though its parent company’s interests and biases are often hotly debated, Chan’s China bureau routinely covered sensitive issues, finding stories that received the attention of the masses on social media in China and abroad.
Aside from reaching out via social media, YouTube and the Roku media player, the station is distributed to the Middle East and Africa – areas in which China has made crucial natural resource investments. Though the Chinese government’s sketchy human rights record isn’t shocking in either region, negative coverage of its domestic issues amidst growing public sentiment against China in Africa is hardly helpful for its interests.
Lastly, pundits point to Chan’s Chinese ethnicity, American nationality, and Qatari employer. Her Chinese-American heritage was problematic: It’s often proven difficult to separate ethnicity and nationality in China. Ambassador Gary Locke,also a Chinese-American, has been criticized as “a foreign devil who can’t speak Chinese” on Weibo. As Foreign Policy’s Issac Stone Fish highlighted in a blog post: “Ancedotally speaking, [executives and reporters with Chinese backgrounds] seem to be given less leniency when they don’t follow China’s laws; like they’re supposed to ‘know better.’”
Regardless, Chan’s expulsion comes at a tense time for journalists. In a controversial move, foreign correspondents who had covered the Chen Guangcheng story were summoned to Beijing’s Public Security Bureau and told that further reporting on Chen would result in their visas being revoked. China has only expelled a handful of journalists since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: hopefully this remains the standard, and while Chan’s reporting will be missed, we can hope that her case is an example and not a precedent.