Anti-foreign attitudes bode ill for China correspondents

The story of Al-Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan‘s expulsion from China has a disturbing coda. 

“We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing,” CCTV talk-show host Yang Rui posted to his personal Weibo account last week. The post was translated late Friday by The Wall Street Journal.  

It is troubling enough that the English-speaking figurehead of a show titled “Dialogue” should launch an offensive personal attack against an international colleague. What’s even more concerning is that, as the employee of a state media outlet, his comments are apparently sanctioned.

Beijing announced a 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners–those living or working without visas–last Tuesday, according to the BBC. (Chan and other Al-Jazeera English correspondents were repeatedly denied journalist visas this year, resulting in her departure and the closure of the English bureau; the Arabic bureau remains open.) Yang Rui’s comments about Chan appeared the next day, in the context of an unusually extreme rant against “foreign snake heads” coming to China to “grab our money, engage in human trafficking, and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration.” 

Vitriol directed at foreign journalists in China is nothing new; before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hostility against the overseas press corps ran particularly high. At the time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took care to describe the aggression–which included death threats against some correspondents–as “spontaneous” and beyond official control. “This could by no means be instigated by the government,” a spokesperson said.

This situation is quite different: A foreign journalist can only be denied work permission by the Ministry, a fact which left the latest spokesman tongue-tied when Chan’s colleagues in the press corps demanded an explanation for her exit. When the Public Security Bureau tightens visa controls, it is acting for the government, not the people. When Yang Rui offers advice on how best to “clean out the foreign trash,” he is addressing law enforcement, not the rabble.   

Need further evidence that Yang’s bile has high-level approval? In a land where Weibo posts are subject to continuous, often immediate censorship, his “foreign bitch” comment remains available for all to see. In case that doesn’t reach a wide enough audience, the state-run English-language Global Times also ran the comment in a section titled “Celebrity Voices,” rendering the description of Melissa Chan as the fractionally less offensive “crazy foreign journalist.”

In the wake of Chan’s departure, Chinese official voices are openly instigating anti-foreign sentiment against journalists and others. The climate for international reporters is already challenging, and likely to worsen amid preparations for a sensitive leadership handoff. If it does continue to deteriorate, the safety of foreign journalists may come under threat. The fault will lie with Chinese Communist Party leaders.