News yesterday of the expulsion of Melissa Chan, an American reporting for Al-Jazeera in China, brings into stark focus the great disparity between the U.S. willingness to grant visas to Chinese journalists—who are then allowed complete freedom to report in the U.S.—and the difficulty that foreign journalists have in not only getting permission to work in China, but also their ability to work openly and without intimidation once they are there.
Yesterday’s expulsion was foreshadowed last week. Chen Gaungcheng, a blind country lawyer, has been punished with years of imprisonment and beatings by authorities over his opposition to forced abortions under the one-child policy. When he escaped confinement on April 22 and fled to the U.S. Embassy, he drew world attention to an issue altogether embarrassing to Chinese authorities. After Chen was brought from the embassy to a hospital under questionable circumstances, foreign press who attempted to maintain coverage were threatened with expulsion from China last Friday by Beijing police. That threat has apparently been executed on Melissa Chan. Her offense? The Chinese government claims that Chan violated rules and regulations, but it has not identified exactly what those were.
As Keith Richburg of The Washington Post reports, intimidation by the state in China is a regular occurrence: “The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, or FCCC, protested the expulsion, describing it as ‘the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents.’”
The fact that Al-Jazeera, Chan’s employer, is not an outlet native to theU.S.should in no way diminishU.S.concern over her expulsion. The message is clear to all: Open and objective reporting of conditions inChinais unacceptable to authorities, and restrictions are at risk of tightening still further.
China’s calculation may be that, while targeting Qatar-based Al-Jazeera is limited and won’t draw meaningful first-world criticism and retaliation, it is more than enough to stifle press activity. But theU.S. should stand up in principle against the tactic. If theU.S. won’t stand up for its own principles, who will?Qatar?
It is likely thatChinais on the cusp of a much wider clampdown on dissidents. All that the Chinese are waiting for is attention to die down, and it’s much easier for that to happen if the press can’t or won’t cover further developments.
The United Statesshould act. In response to criticism of the Administration’s handling of the Chen Gaungcheng affair, Vice President Joe Biden sought to express that “standing up for freedom” is more important than simply maintaining a good relationship with China.
If theU.S.wishes to be taken seriously as an advocate for liberty, it must not only support the rights of individual dissidents like Chen Guangcheng, but also actively support development of an open and objective press corps that works to hold governments accountable. It must act definitively in response to the expulsion of Melissa Chan. In retaliation, theU.S.should revoke the visa of a Chinese journalist, ideally one whose work has prominence inChina, or a commensurate group of journalists.
Further, Congress should speed through the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act. It is about time for some level of parity between the numbers ofChina’s state-sponsored media who are allowedU.S. visas and theirU.S. government-employed counterparts. In 2010, theU.S. allowedChina’s state press 650 visas to work in theUnited States. CCTV’s brand new North American broadcast center opened for business this past January, working its way to about 100 staff, about half of whom will be Chinese. This increase represents just one state-run outlet.
Currently,Chinaallows only twoU.S.government-employed reporters. Just two.