China has expelled Al-Jazeera English reporter Melissa Chan from the country, allegedly because of official anger over a documentary the channel produced in November. She is the first foreign correspondent ejected from China in 14 years. Chan worked as Al-Jazeera English’s China correspondent since 2007, filing reports on a wide variety of stories including disasters, ethnic unrest, illegal jails and corruption.
But the story that is reported to have angered the Chinese government is one that she played no role in: a documentary that focused on forced labor in Chinese prisons and accused the Chinese government of state-sponsored slavery.
Some of the interviewees included former inmates of China's extensive prison labor system known as “laogai.”
The report asserted that unpaid prison labor, by inmates who are sentenced without trial, is contributing to China's economic boom.
Peter Ford, the vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, says the documentary is one reason Chan's visa was not renewed.
"As far as the FCCC is concerned, it is unacceptable that the government should use editorial content as a criterion by which it grants or withholds journalist visas," he said.
Ford was among the reporters at Tuesday's regular Foreign Ministry briefing who asked the spokesman to clarify why the Chinese government did not renew Chan's visa.
Spokesman Hong Lei called on foreign reporters working in China to follow laws and regulations.
Hong says China also follows laws and regulations in dealing with foreign journalists. He adds that journalists are clear on which regulations are broken, although, in what has become a standard Chinese answer, he gave no details or further information.
He also gave no answer when asked a follow-up question on where foreign journalists can learn what the government considers "relevant regulations," he said.
Ford says he is concerned that Beijing is apparently blaming Chan for breaking rules and regulations, without explaining what they find objectionable.
"Unless the Chinese government specifies which rules and regulations she broke, and use those as grounds for her expulsion, we are left with the impression that they kicked her out because of her coverage, because of her channel's coverage, of Chinese affairs. So, that is certainly our fear, that the government is using this to intimidate correspondents and warn them that if they cover Chinese affairs in ways that the Chinese government does not like, that their visas may be a risk," said Ford.
Al-Jazeera English issued a statement expressing disappointment. It says it is closing its Beijing bureau because China is not renewing Chan's accreditation or approving the application for a replacement correspondent. Al-Jazeera's Arabic bureau in Beijing is unaffected.
This is the first expulsion of a foreign reporter from China since 1998, when the government did not renew visas for a Japanese reporter and a German correspondent.