Monday, May 14, 2012

Forced departures

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.


John said...

And I'm finally back up-to-date! Well I say that, I haven't read anything on BSB yet and ignored all of the links you've linked to but apart from that I'm sort of up to speed again! Which means I can quickly summarised my responses:
1) I read about this a few days ago, Damian Grammaticas (BBC) still has to bat away the arms of those trying to save face but I think he's still safe for the time being, we'll see. Sometimes I fall into the trap of being compassionate towards the Chinese preferred view of "stop sticking your nose in and let us get on with things and we'll get back to you when we have something to tell you" but then I remember that my country has a social culture and moral code of its own and I feel a lot better about the whole thing.
2) Get well soon Froog! What with your sickness, knee and now sudden impotence you've had a rough time of it recently. May you live in not so interesting times for a bit now.
3) So this might be it eh? I'll still follow the blog, I wasn't here just because you live(d) in China. Which leads me to...
4) Hope my very long computer advice was useful, let me know if you need more; I see it as a thank you for all your writing here (which I still need to catch up on). When I have time I'll leave a comment on what I've found out about Titanic but I don't think that's your immediate priority right now is it. Hope the (possibly permanent) excursion goes well.

Froog said...

This week is already panning out much better than last.... how could it not!

But with less than 9 days to pack, clean the apartment, buy some new clothes and shoes (haven't got around to that in two years now; situation getting critical!), investigate visa renewal possibilities, get hold of some foreign currency, try to pin down my friends overseas on offers of places to stay, etc., etc.... it's all getting a bit stressy.

JES said...

"Less than 9 days"? Holy moly, I had no idea the end was that close!

Under the circumstances, it seems silly -- fatuous -- to counsel setting aside some wind-down time. I do hope you pause a couple times to catch your breath, though, to be sure you're not overlooking something flat-out critical. (Are you a checklist-maker?)

FOARP said...

If I might offer some advice:

1) Taiwan has all the advantages of mainland China with very few of its draw-backs. The food there is better, the bars are even more committed to all-night boozing, the mountains are the tallest in East Asia outside the Himalayas, and the East coast is simply one of the most magical places I have been. It also the advantages of being a gorgeous place with a democratic political system. I'm pretty sure you can find an examiner's gig there if you look.

2) That said, given your apparent yen for statuesque ladies of European descent, Eastern Europe might also be a good bet. I currently live in Poland and find that, as well as a solid drinking culture and a temperament perhaps more suited to the intellectual (but not so much myself), it is also a place with much in the way to explore. The wave of accessions to the EU in 2004 also means you will not need a visa to get work.

3) After ten+ years in China I would have thought you a lifer, but then I guess everyone has their limits. The political situation in China is not likely to improve (something which would have been heresy to the Beijing crowd if I'd said it back in '06, but which is now orthodoxy), and if this really is what is getting to you, it may well be time to go.

4) If you need a quick 3-month gig and the times match up, try Westgate in Japan. Yes, it has many drawbacks - but if you think you might be interested in finding work in the land of the Rising Sun, it's as good a way of doing it as any, and you won't be left out of pocket by doing it.

5) There's always the UK - why not?

Froog said...

I fear Taipei might be a bit too humid for me. I'd like to check out the rest of the island at least for a holiday sometime. I think Eastern Europe's the likeliest destination, though.

Checklist? I knew there was something I'd forgotten!

FOARP said...

Taipei does get a bit humid, but no more so than, say, Nanjing, Shanghai, or similar cities in the centre of the mainland coastal region.

As a destination for a holiday you'll find varying opinions - in the opinion of myself and my folks when they came to visit it's perfect but a lot of people say otherwise. For me it was perfect because so few people (then - this was in 2002) visit there, but the transportation network is first-class and the people outstandingly friendly. However, the (then) lack of visitors meant that few places were especially prepared to receive tourists or give them guidance on where to go.

Taiwan must-dos/don'ts:

1) Visit Taroko Gorge, stay at the Grand Formosa at the top of the gorge (or the neighbouring hostel if budget is tight), bathe where the natural hotsprings pours into the river running at the bottom of the gorge, looking up into a canopy of trees populated by colourful birds and monkeys.

2) Go to Tainan and visit the forts, enjoy the best Chinese sea-food anywhere, drink until mid-day the next day with the Taiwan rugby team (who only speak local dialects), chill with local artists.

3) Visit an aboriginal festival and get wasted on Xiao Mijiu - preferably the one where they dance for three days straight.

4) If you can't manage 3), go during Spring Scream or attend the "Firework Battle".

5) Attend at least one Taiwanese night market, have at least one Manguo Bingsha and one Jingji Limon Cha, try everything of interest at a 7-11.

6) Visit the Zhipen/Chihpen Hotsprings. Get wasted singing karaoke next to a sheer drop surrounded by green countryside, then get over the hangover in the hotsprings the next day.

7) Unless staring at endless bronzeware is your thing, avoid the National Palace Museum.

John said...

Some handy tips here you might not find in a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide; I'll have to remember this thread if I ever decide to visit. Thanks.

Froog said...

Hmm, bronzeware...

Thanks for the tips, FOARP. I guess the national rugby team can't be relied upon to be always on hand in Tainan. (Although it would be a nice addition to the collection for me, since I have drunk with the PRC rugby team. They toured the UK a few years ago, and I happened to know one of the families treating them to an at-home lunch buffet. At that time, they were all students from the Beijing Agricultural University.)

John said...

Awesome, the same dedication to sport by a country as Jamaica's Bob-Sled team or Ghana's Downhill Slalom entrant (Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, he's actually pretty good.)