China has ordered the expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters as criticism mounts over the country’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has so far killed more than 2,118 people and infected close to 75,000 others.
The order, which escalates Beijing’s fraught relations with foreign media, came late on Wednesday after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the publication of racism for publishing an opinion piece with the headline, China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.
“The Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racist statements and smear China with malicious attacks,” Geng Shuang, the foreign ministry spokesman, said at a press conference.
It is the first time in the country that multiple members of a foreign media organisation were simultaneously ordered to leave.
The Journal’s deputy Beijing bureau chief, Josh Chin, and reporters Chao Deng and Philip Wen, however, were not involved in writing the opinion piece that Beijing found offensive. Like most media organisations, the publication’s opinion section and the news department operate separately.
In a statement, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said the decision was an “extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organisations by taking retribution against their China-based correspondents”.
Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the expulsion made China “less like a confident rising power than a thin-skinned bully”.
“During a global health emergency, it is counterproductive for the Chinese authorities to be limiting the flow of news and information,” Butler added, while calling on Beijing to “immediately” restore the press credentials of the three journalists.
In recent days, China has also detained legal activist Xu Zhiyong, after he accused the government of covering up facts about the outbreak – a move critics say reflects the government’s overarching effort to control the narrative.
Despite the reason given by the government, namely that the opinion piece “deeply hurt Chinese people’s feelings,” most China watchers believe it could be a retaliation against the United States.
Just a day earlier, the US State Department designated China’s five most prominent news organisations, Xinhua, China Daily, The People’s Daily, CGTN, and China Radio, as “foreign missions”, putting them in the same position as diplomats.
“The WSJ expulsions [were] not actually prompted by the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ headline, but by the reclassification of the Chinese state media, and the WSJ just happened to already be in firing line,” James Palmer, a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine posted on social media.
Last year, China also revoked the press credentials of the Journal’s China correspondent, Chun Han Wong.
Meanwhile, a growing number of social media posts were also censored and deleted in recent days.
Masters, a well-known online platform that publishes work by independent observers, was also shut down by the government.
As of Wednesday, February 19, subscribers were no longer able to access either the official website, or its WeChat account, which sends out curated articles on Chinese culture and politics.