China's 'memory holes' swallow up Melissa Chan

A picture of al-Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan in their China bureau office in Beijing Image copyright Reuters

The idea of the "unperson", whose existence is erased from all records by the state, comes from George's Orwell's novel 1984.

Today Melissa Chan, the al-Jazeera English television correspondent who, it was announced yesterday, had been expelled from China, seems to have become an "unperson" in China.

The only Chinese-language newspapers in which we could find reports on the expulsion on Wednesday morning were the Hong Kong-affiliated Ta Kung Pao paper from Henan province and the Global Times.

The decision not to grant her a new visa, effectively kicking her out, was made by the Foreign Ministry, and was significant. China has not taken such a step since 1998.

At the Foreign Ministry's daily press conference on Tuesday, 14 out of 18 questions were about the decision, some of which were helpfully recorded by Voice Of America.

Reporters wanted to know why Melissa Chan had been expelled, what rule she had broken and whether this was some sort of warning to all of us.

Today, the Foreign Ministry's own website, which usually carries a transcript of each daily briefing seems to have expunged Ms Chan's case from the official record. There is no English transcript, just a Chinese one, and that makes no mention of any of the questions about her. Only the four other questions are recorded. The video story on the Chinese page is about the Philippines.

So China's government is in the bizarre position of having censored itself.

US 'disappointed'

There wasn't much in China's responses anyway. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei refused to explain why she had been denied a new visa, saying only "the media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong".

That unfortunately isn't much help when it comes to trying to report China's position or to work out where other correspondents might fall foul of the Foreign Ministry in the future.

The most widely circulated idea is that what China really objected to was a documentary, produced not by Ms Chan but a different department at al-Jazeera, about the alleged use of prison labour to manufacture products for export, and she is being punished despite having no link to the story.

China's move has drawn protests from organisations including the US state department. In a regular briefing, deputy spokesman Mark Toner said the department was "disappointed in the Chinese government".

"To our knowledge she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law," he said.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, often the target of official ire itself, said in its own statement that it was "the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China". It details other cases where visas have been delayed, denied or never issued.

In 1984, George Orwell wrote about the "memory holes" down which inconvenient documents were dropped to be erased from history. This case seems to be the equivalent.

The problem with the head-in-the-sand approach is that China has left itself voiceless, while in today's YouTube world all Ms Chan's reports are preserved online. So anyone (outside China, or with VPN technology to skirt the online censors if they are inside China) can access them and judge for themselves.

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