China on Wednesday ordered three reporters from American newspaper the Wall Street Journal to leave the country over what Beijing deemed a racist headline, in one of the harshest moves against foreign media in years.
The expulsion came as Beijing also slammed Washington’s decision to tighten rules on Chinese state media organisations in the United States, calling the move “unreasonable and unacceptable”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Journal op-ed — titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” — had a “racially discriminatory” and “sensational” headline, and slammed the newspaper for not issuing an official apology.
“As such, China has decided that from today, the press cards of three Wall Street Journal reporters in Beijing will be revoked,” Geng told a press briefing.
The Journal reported that deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both US nationals, as well as reporter Philip Wen, an Australian, had been ordered to leave the country in five days.
The three journalists are in the Wall Street Journal’s news section, which is not linked to the editorial and opinion section.
The op-ed, written by Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, criticised the Chinese government’s initial response to the new coronavirus outbreak — calling the Wuhan city government at the virus epicentre “secretive and self-serving”, while dismissing national efforts as ineffective.
The phrase “sick man of Asia” originally referred to China in the late 19th and early 20th century, when it was exploited by foreign powers during a period sometimes called the country’s “century of humiliation”.
“At American newspapers, writers typically do NOT write or approve the headlines,” Mead tweeted after the op-ed was published. “Argue with the writer about the article content, with the editors about the headlines.”
The new coronavirus epidemic has killed over 2,000 people in China and infected more than 74,000, and has spread to at least two dozen countries.
The February 3 piece “slandered the efforts of the Chinese government and the Chinese people to fight the epidemic”, said Geng.
The expulsions come a day after the United States angered China for classifying five state media outlets, including Xinhua agency and the China Global Television Network, as foreign missions, with State Department officials saying they were part of Beijing’s growing “propaganda” apparatus.
China’s nationalistic Global Times newspaper on Wednesday implied a link between the WSJ expulsions and the new US policy.
“There are no connections between the two events, but it is not completely coincidental that they happened at about the same time,” it said an editorial on its English-language website.
“Together they show the ideological conflict between China and the US is intensifying. The two countries’ values are drifting apart… This is not a good sign.”
– ‘Darkest picture’ –
China’s move to revoke the credentials of the three WSJ journalists marks a drastic escalation in its tightening media landscape, which has seen the effective expulsion of multiple foreign reporters over the past five years.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said revoking the credentials of three correspondents was an unprecedented form of retaliation. It said China had not outright expelled a foreign correspondent since 1998.
“The action taken against The Journal correspondents is an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organisations,” the FCCC said in a statement.
Nine journalists have been either expelled or effectively expelled through non-renewal of visas since 2013, it added.
In August, China refused to renew the press credentials of WSJ journalist Chun Han Wong, after he and Wen wrote an article on one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cousins.
In 2018, Megha Rajagopalan, the Beijing bureau chief for BuzzFeed News, was effectively expelled from China after she was unable to renew her visa as well.
Prior to her expulsion, she had reported extensively from the northwest region of Xinjiang, where China has rounded up an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in internment camps.
And at the end of 2015, French reporter Ursula Gauthier was also forced to leave the country after she criticised government policy in Xinjiang and the authorities refused to renew her credentials.
The three expelled Journal reporters had also reported on Xinjiang, covering forced labour, surveillance, and re-education camps.
A 2019 FCCC survey of 109 foreign journalists said many working in China have been threatened with visa delays, or issued with short-stay visas, which they believed were related to their coverage. AFP