I just read this farewell article by recently-expelled Al-Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan (which you also need to read). I’ve always had huge respect for Melissa Chan and now regret that I never got to meet her while she was in Beijing – especially after reading this piece.
Chan was often accused of only showing the negative side of China, which, if you line up all the reports she did, might seem true. Shan Renping from Global Times admonished her this week saying, “Foreign media should reflect on China’s complexity, which is well-known to almost all foreigners in China. However, some media are only keen to show the wickedness of China to the world.”
This implies a willful bias with the aim of slandering the country – a common accusation leveled against “Western” reporters who don’t play cheerleader to China’s re-emergence on the world stage.
But if you read Chan’s farewell message, it’s quite clear she understands the complexity of China more than people like Shan Renping ever will. She describes one of her best and worst experiences in China, which happened to both fall on the same day. In the morning she drove through a festive village where the unusual degree happiness compelled her to pull over. “You could somehow sense that everyone was excited for the future, that things were changing, and that this was the little town that could,” she said.
Later that day, she met a fisherman who had shared their optimism and recently found his own success. But a local gang had had other plans. It paid local officials to turn their heads as it violently stole the man’s property, killing his son in the process.
For me, that story summed up perfectly the kind of outlook you develop after living in China for so long – especially if you do reporting on it. You meet people that put you to shame with their determination and ability to “eat bitterness.” People that work twice as hard as you just for the chance at getting one-tenth of what you have. People that just want to live a peaceful life and make an honest living.
But then you meet those who’ve taken advantage of the political situation to exploit these people at every turn. You meet others who want to be good, but the system won’t let them. You meet brilliant people who have the capacity to do amazing things, but never will because their fate was decided before they were even born. You see innocence punished and evil rewarded so often that it begins to turn your conception of the world upside down.
So yes, there is good and bad in China, but they’re inexorably linked. When you begin to form an emotional attachment with the country and develop relationships with people inside it, you become inclined to report the bad in order to protect the good.
There are of course reporters who sensationalize the bad in China in order to boon their own careers, but Melissa Chan was not one of those people. The work she did was fair and significant; and I’m sure far from enjoyable at times. I can only imagine the emotional toll it takes on you to spend so much time with the disenfranchised people Chan gave voice to – which ultimately got her booted from the country. But China needs people to shine light on the injustices that undermine its ascent to greatness and its opportunities for happiness. What Chan got expelled for, Chinese reporters would be imprisoned for, or worse.
It’s a terrible shame the powers that be saw fit to make Melissa Chan leave. China is worse off for it.