China Power

Sign of the Times in Beijing?

The expulsion of an Al Jazeera journalist from China suggests real insecurity among the country’s leaders.

U.S. citizen and Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan was recently expelled from China.  This event may have already been lost in the cavalcade of news coming out of that country. It is, arguably, a minor story compared with the remarkable fall of Politburo member Bo Xilai and the ongoing controversy swirling around the fate of activist Chen Guangcheng.  Yet it shouldn’t be overlooked by those with an interest in making sense of the political situation within China, and the state’s relationship with the rest of the international system.

Beijing denied Chan a renewal of her journalist’s visa.  As a result, she was forced to leave the country.  Since she is the network’s sole correspondent within China, and Beijing has stated it can’t send a replacement, this development has shuttered Al Jazeera’s operations in the country.  While most Americans may not be especially concerned about either Chan or her employer’s fate in China, they should take particular note of what this development reveals about the degree of insecurity that has begun to take root in Beijing.  In other words, more is at stake here than simply the issue of press freedom and censorship.

The general motives behind Chan’s expulsion are quite clear. She recently became well known in China watching circles for filing a series of reports that have been quite critical of China’s handling of a variety of domestic issues. Her own network aired a documentary last year that criticized China for the ongoing use of prison labor within its borders.  In other words, it’s not surprising that Chan and Al Jazeera were not especially popular with the Chinese leadership. 

What is unexpected is the fact that Beijing chose to act against them in such a blunt and public manner. It’s true that the Chinese have in the past taken similar actions against foreign reporters who were deemed to be too critical of China. Yet, it has been over a decade since China’s leaders took such an action. For this reason alone, the development is worthy of attention.

More broadly, Chan’s forced exit from China is indicative that the Chinese leadership is deeply uncertain of itself both at home and abroad. Moreover, it’s more revealing of such a state than the Bo and Chen stories. Both those episodes, while raising wide-ranging questions about the stability of China, can also be interpreted as containing positive signs about the direction in which Chinese politics are headed.

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Bo’s spectacular fall from grace uncovered the extent to which there are incipient cracks within the Chinese political establishment. This event may, in the long run, rein in rampant levels of corruption within China and possibly strengthen the hand of more moderate voices within the Chinese leadership. 

In a parallel sense, Chen’s escape from house arrest, stay at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and his future, revealed a gap between the central leadership and local authorities within China, and brought Sino-American relations to a standstill. Yet, the apparent agreement that was eventually reached between Beijing and Washington to eventually allow Chen to leave China to study law in the U.S. may be read as innovative and forward looking. 

Both Bo’s spectacular collapse and Chen’s daring escape hint at weaknesses within China, but also contain signs of a willingness to pursue new strategies for coping with such challenges.  In contrast, Melissa Chan’s plight illustrates only one thing:

China’s willingness to look forward is limited.

Chan was pushed out of China because her writing, and her network, was viewed as threatening to some Chinese leaders. That a single reporter could elicit such a reaction is poignantly suggestive that unease may run more deeply, and be more prevalent, in Beijing than many outside observers have so far realized. 

Only weak, unsure, states feel compelled to silence their international critics in the manner that Beijing has recently done. This doesn’t mean that political upheaval similar to that which has recently unfolded in the Middle East is imminent in China, but it does imply that these are indeed interesting, and possibly transformative, times in the Middle Kingdom. 

Allen Carlson is an Associate Professor of Government in Cornell University’s Government Department.