By Regan Doherty
DOHA, May 8 (Reuters) - China's expulsion of an Al Jazeera correspondent underlines Chinese sensitivity about foreign media coverage, but an official of the Qatar-based network said it would not upset ties between Doha and Beijing, which are major trading partners.
Al Jazeera closed its English-language news channel's China bureau on Tuesday after authorities refused to renew a visa for its Beijing correspondent Melissa Chan, without giving a reason.
"Media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei explained.
Al Jazeera sources said editors link the expulsion to a 25-minute documentary aired in November alleging the use of prison labour to make products sold in Western markets.
The piece, part of a series entitled "Slavery: A 21st Century Evil", said there were "millions of men and women locked up in prisons and forced into intensive manual labour".
Chan had not been directly involved in the documentary, which was produced by a London-based reporting team.
"The Chinese clearly didn't like it," an Al Jazeera source said, noting that they had not pointed out any inaccuracies.
A senior Al Jazeera executive said the incident was unlikely to upset ties between China and its biggest liquefied natural gas supplier, even though the two countries are also at odds over Syria, where Qatar has proposed arming foes of President Bashar al-Assad, while Beijing advocates dialogue.
"It would be incorrect to suggest a bilateral rift of some kind," said the executive, who declined to be named.
China is expected to bid for Qatar's huge infrastructure projects, including a $36 billion rail network, an $11 billion new airport and a $5.5 billion new deep water seaport.
Qatar will spend billions more on 12 air-conditioned soccer stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, which will focus global attention on the tiny Gulf emirate whose gas riches and Al Jazeera have helped it become an influential diplomatic player.
The spat with Al Jazeera occurred as China, which will reshuffle its leadership later this year, grapples with two high-profile scandals - the fall from power of Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party chief of Chongqing city, and last week's the escape from house arrest of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy.
"What you've got in China is a pattern of increased pressure on Beijing-based foreign correspondents that we have noted since the beginning of the Arab Spring," said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
"You also have the background of political change in China, changes at the top of the communist party that has resulted in power struggles," he said.
In an Al Jazeera blog in March, Chan described an exchange with national security officers who intervened in an interview she was conducting with a university professor over a new criminal procedure law.
"I hope readers can get a sense of how interactions frequently work between foreign journalists and security forces, even when it's not about human rights, and when it's about something as mundane as the introduction of a new law," Chan wrote. "The men insisted on speaking to each of us alone, in a separate room."
Al Jazeera is keeping its Arabic-language operation in China and says it will try to get a correspondent for its English-language channel reinstated. (Editing by Reed Stevenson and Alistair Lyon)