China will expel three Wall Street Journal reporters in the coming days, marking the first time in decades that the country has cancelled the press cards of multiple foreign reporters at the same time.
Beijing said on Wednesday that the move was in retaliation for a comment piece headlined “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” published on February 3, which they said “smears the efforts of the Chinese government” in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
The expulsions come a day after the US designated five Chinese media outlets as foreign diplomatic missions, saying their journalists operated as propaganda agents and required greater monitoring.
Washington said it would require Xinhua, China’s official news agency, China Radio International, China Global Television Network and the distributors of newspapers China Daily and People’s Daily — China Daily Distribution Corporation and Hai Tian Development USA — to register the names of US employees, declare any property holdings and seek approval to add any more.
“The fact of the matter is each and every one of these entities does work for the Chinese government,” a senior state department official said on Tuesday, describing them as organs of a one-party state propaganda apparatus that “take their orders directly from the top”.
The decision will, in effect, treat the five organisations as foreign embassies, although US officials said they would not restrict their work, reporting or access. They will also not be given diplomatic immunity or forced to reveal any meetings with US officials or educational and research institutions.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman criticised the decision, accusing Washington of “wantonly restricting and thwarting Chinese media outlets’ normal operations”. He added that Beijing would “reserve the right to take further measures in response”.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, condemned China’s decision to expel the Wall Street Journal’s journalists. “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions,” he said. “The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.”
Two of the reporters — deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng — are US nationals, the paper said. The third, Philip Wen, is Australian. All three have reported on Beijing’s mass surveillance policies and controversial detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.
China refused to renew the accreditation of another Wall Street Journal reporter in August.
Beijing said the expulsions were punishment for a February 3 comment article by Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College and a Wall Street Journal columnist, who strongly criticised Chinese authorities’ response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The article sparked an angry backlash on Chinese social media, with nationalist tabloids and liberal commentators alike saying the author had crossed a line by “insulting” China during a period of national crisis.
William Lewis, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, said the company regretted that the article had “caused upset and concern among the Chinese people”. But he added that the newspaper’s news and comment sections operated separately, adding that “none of the journalists being expelled had any involvement with it”.
China’s leaders have frequently tapped into nationalist sentiment in recent years over perceived slights by foreign nations to justify harsh retaliatory measures.
But the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it was the first expulsion of a foreign correspondent since 1998.
“The action taken against the WSJ correspondents is an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organisations by taking retribution against their China-based correspondents,” the club said in a statement.
The US has previously designated foreign media outlets as extensions of governments in the past, including Vietnam’s news agency five years ago. During the cold war, Washington treated several Soviet media outlets as part of the Moscow government.
Jim Risch, a Republican senator who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, described the decision as “a smart and reasonable step”.
US President Donald Trump has accused mainstream US journalists of peddling “fake news” over their critical coverage of him. In January, Democratic senators accused Mr Pompeo of being “insulting and contemptuous” to the press after he criticised an NPR anchor who asked him if he had defended his own diplomats in the wake of an investigation into whether the Trump administration held up military aid to Ukraine as part of a political quid pro quo.
The anchor said Mr Pompeo swore at her in private. He subsequently refused to let another NPR reporter aboard his plane with other travelling press.
“Punishing a credible US news outlet by kicking their reporter off of the Secretary’s plane is something we would expect from an authoritarian dictator,” said Bob Menendez, the top Democratic member of the Senate foreign relations committee.
Mr Pompeo has defended his decision, saying he always travels with a big press contingent and admonishing the outlet for dishonesty and bias.
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