"You're lucky," one of my colleagues told me soon after I first arrived in Beijing, "I think you're arriving at the start of a golden time to be a foreign correspondent in China."
My friend's optimism excited me. It was the fall of 2008 when we had the conversation. Beijing had just hosted the Summer Olympics, a period during which the ruling Communist Party had been forced to give unprecedented access to international media.
The games were over by the time I got accredited as The Globe and Mail's new China correspondent, but there was still a sense that the new openness couldn't be undone. New, looser, boundaries had been set and those of us assigned to cover China post-2008 would be able to travel more freely and speak to more ordinary Chinese than any of the correspondents who preceded us. (The Globe and Mail has had an office in Beijing since 1959.)
Melissa Chan, a courageous correspondent for al-Jazeera English who on Tuesday flew out of China after having her press credentials revoked, tested that assumption as much as – or more – than any of the foreign press corps in Beijing. By reporting on such sensitive topics as China's secret "black jails," and drawing such ire from the security services that she was today forced to leave, Melissa showed the world that China's new openness is not real. The extra space reporters have been given since 2008 – and there is some – was always a gift from the Communist Party and its enforcers. A gift that could be taken away at any minute if you went beyond the invisible and shifting boundaries.
According to al-Jazeera, Melissa's visa and press accreditation were not renewed in part because of a documentary that the channel aired exposing the use of forced prison labour in some Chinese factories. Melissa didn't play any role in that piece, but the Chinese government targeted her anyway for de facto expulsion because she had violated "rules and regulations" that haven't been specified. (Melissa once tried to ask about the rules and regulations. See her blog post from a few months ago, " Chatting with China's security apparatus."
And therein lies the problem with the new "freer" media environment in China. The new rules are left intentionally imprecise. You can speak to anyone and report anything until you speak to the wrong people and report the wrong thing. (The biggest taboo topics are Tibet – which is physically off-limits to foreign media – and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, followed closely by the security services and anything that affects their reputation or side businesses.)
This false freedom given to reporters working in China is much more important than Melissa's case or the careers of any of the foreign correspondents based in China. What's at stake is not only the outside world's (already poor) understanding of this rising but paranoid superpower, but also the future of journalism inside China. Chinese journalists have told me that they watch the foreign correspondents with envy, wishing they could report about their own country as freely as we do. Our fight to do our job is intertwined with their fight to do theirs.
When I got into trouble myself last year with Beijing's Public Security Bureau over my coverage of a failed attempt to mimic the Arab Spring uprisings in China – as well as an article I wrote about how rich Chinese were cheating the system in order to immigrate to Canada – I turned to Chinese colleagues and legal experts for advice.
They were all sympathetic, but some couldn't help but find dark humour in my travails. "I'm sorry to say," a friend told me with a mirthless chuckle, "that they're just treating you the way they treat Chinese journalists."
Which is why Melissa Chan's case matters. She's the first journalist to be expelled from China in 14 years, and the clearest sign yet that China will no longer even pretend to honour the promises of greater media freedom it made in order to win the Olympic bid. "[Melissa's case]is the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China," read a statement issued today by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.
Since Melissa is an American citizen, I hope to see her government put aside its enmity towards al-Jazeera and issue a strong statement regarding her expulsion ( al-Jazeera's own statement was rather weak.) Other governments who say they want to see political reform in China should follow suit.
Every journalist in China – and not just the foreign press corps – is watching to see what happens next.