China's mounting reluctance to issue visas to anyone is starting to bite: the cull of IELTS examiners I anticipated a couple of months back has just started getting under way; and I myself will have to leave next week. But China will not be much compromised by our loss, either in its internal functionality or in its external perception by the world at large.
When, on the other hand, the government chooses to expel one of the smartest and most respected foreign journalists working here, it does enormous harm to its international reputation.
For the past couple of years there have been intimations of a clamping down on foreign reporting here: many journalists, freelancers in particular, have found themselves facing longer and longer delays in getting their journalist's accreditations and visas processed, and sometimes being granted only short-term rather than full-year visas amid intimidatory rumblings about the record of their past coverage of China, or their employer's record, possibly having a bearing on the approval of their applications.
But no-one had had their journalist's status revoked... until last week, when Melissa Chan, an American Chinese reporter who has for nearly 5 years been the English-language correspondent for Al Jazeera in China, found her accreditation cancelled, making it impossible for her to get a new visa and thus obliging her to leave the country at short notice.
It's not clear why Melissa has been singled out for this treatment. The authorities mutter darkly about her having failed to "respect China's laws", without - of course - mentioning which particular laws she might have infringed. It's possible that their wrath is directed more against Al Jazeera than against her personally, since they have also declined to accredit a replacement for her, thereby forcing the news channel to close down its English-language bureau in Beijing for now. It's possible that it's part of the tense diplomatic manouevring between China and the US over the Chen Guangcheng case. Or perhaps it's just a brutally random gesture of intimidation, a pour encourager les autres warning to the rest of the foreign press corps to back off from 'negative' stories in this sensitive period of the leadership transition. Melissa herself declines to speculate openly on the reasons, and - in her inspiringly upbeat farewell piece a few days ago - she refuses to feel bitter or sorry for herself. [Do go and check out that article, and the archive of the rest of her reporting from China, to see what a fine writer we're losing.]
Many of my journalist friends are shocked and disgusted by this news, and depressed at what it seems to signal about the way China is heading this year. Evan Osnos in the New Yorker, mostly a fairly optimistic commentator on this country, has written bitterly that the expulsion of Melissa Chan by the Chinese government "revives a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine its own efforts to project soft power and shows a spirit of self-delusion that does not bode well for China’s ability to address the problems that imperil its future."
Quite so. I am glad to be getting out of the place this month. And increasingly doubtful whether I shall ever be coming back.