Journalist can’t explain expulsion from China

After filing 400 stories from China, reporter Melissa Chan never thought she’d wind up in the headlines herself.

Chan returned to Southern California last week as the first accredited foreign correspondent to be expelled from China in 14 years, an act that sparked a flurry of news reports and expressions of solidarity from fellow journalists.

Chan, who was the sole Al Jazeera English correspondent in China, said she knew she was on shaky ground for most of this year.

She had been working on month-by-month credentials since January, when the government refused a routine visa-renewal request. Ordinarily, journalists are granted year-long credentials, but Chan is believed to be the first foreign correspondent to be given temporary papers.


Interviewed in her hometown of Walnut, Chan, 31, says she’s not exactly sure what prompted her expulsion after five years of reporting in China.

In March, she wrote about a distraught mother seeking a daughter who had been forcibly sterilized and put in an illegal “black jail” for violating China’s one-child policy.

“A lot of journalists have done black jail stories,” she said, but hers “was probably the first” to get coverage on TV. “It’s also the first time that we got a government official to respond to a question about the existence of black jails.” The official denied the black jails existed, “but it was on the record, Chan said, “so that was useful for human rights groups. And that could be one reason why there’s the perception that I’m a go-getter.”

Interference from China’s security apparatus is a fact of life for China correspondents. Chan recalled a nine-day trip in China’s far west to cover a Muslim Turkic ethnic minority community, only to lose every translator she had set up because her phones were tapped and police had intimidated them prior to her arrival.

Frequently, she wrote of her dealings with authorities on Twitter.

There is a “strong possibility” that those dispatches played a role in her expulsion, she said. And after three months of short-term visas, “maybe they were angry that they put me on a tight leash and that didn’t stop me,” she said.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said the Chinese government was angered about a documentary that aired in November about the use of prisoners in forced-labor camps. Chan was not involved in that production.

“My understanding is that the Chinese government chose the temporary visas in this case to allow time for discussions with Al Jazeera” about Chan, said Peter Ford, vice president of the correspondents’ club, “and when those discussions did not bear fruit, they refused to renew her visa.”


Al Jazeera English declined to comment about the expulsion and instead issued a statement. “We hope China appreciates the integrity of our news coverage and our journalism.... Al Jazeera Media Network will continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau.” Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language component still maintains correspondents in China.

The last time China kicked out correspondents was in 1998, when a Japanese correspondent and a German reporter were expelled in separate cases in which they were accused of obtaining secret documents.

At a media conference Tuesday in Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Chan had violated “relevant laws,” but would not say which ones. Chan, who was known to always carry a copy of her Chinese press rights, believes that she broke no laws.

Chan, who is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Hong Kong when she was 3. A U.S. citizen, she graduated from Yale University and earned a master’s degree in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. Chan worked for Al Jazeera since 2007 and misses China, which she considers home. She said it was the longest period of time she had ever lived outside of Walnut. Her parents are relieved she’s back. In the wake of her expulsion, Chan has been variously praised and criticized. Some see her as a human rights activist who has exposed illegal jails and land confiscations. Others consider her an agitator.


But Chan said she doesn’t consider herself the most hard-hitting reporter in China . She admires the many journalists who covered last year’s pro-democracy protests in China, and those who sneaked across the border when Tibetans set themselves ablaze in resistance -- both stories she did not pursue. For all of April, she was stuck in Hong Kong, unable to report on the breaking story of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.

For now, Chan is looking forward to a year of clean air, Whole Foods and Starbucks chai tea lattes when she attends Stanford University in the fall. She was recently accepted for a Knight Fellowship there, where she will be exploring ways for journalists to safeguard their computers from hackers.

Before her fellowship begins in September however, she’ll return to Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar and be assigned another reporting post.

“I have to face the reality, which is I’m not going back to China any time in the near future, not the way that this has played out,” she said. “And I’m sure I’ll be back in China someday. It’s just a question of when.”



Times staff writers Barbara Demick and David Pierson in Beijing contributed to this report