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China expels 3 Wall Street Journal reporters as media relations sour

A man wearing a protective facemask stood in front of a movie poster in Shanghai.
A man wearing a protective facemask stood in front of a movie poster in Shanghai.Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

HONG KONG — China on Wednesday said it would expel three Wall Street Journal reporters working in mainland China, in a significant escalation of Beijing’s pressure on the foreign news media.

At a daily news briefing on Wednesday, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the reporters’ credentials would be revoked in retaliation for a headline on an essay that ran in the Journal’s editorial pages earlier this month. The headline read, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

Chinese officials have “demanded that The Wall Street Journal recognize the seriousness of the error, openly and formally apologize, and investigate and punish those responsible, while retaining the need to take further measures against the newspaper,” Geng Shuang, the ministry spokesman, said in a transcript provided by the Chinese government.

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“The Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racist statements and smear China with malicious attacks,” he added.

The expulsions are the first involving a foreign correspondent since 1998, according to The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which called the simultaneous revocation of three press credentials “an unprecedented form of retaliation.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned China’s decision, saying in a statement: “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.”

The Journal identified the reporters as Josh Chin, its deputy bureau chief in Beijing and an American citizen; Chao Deng, also an American; and Philip Wen, an Australian citizen. The reporters were ordered to leave the country within five days, the Journal said.

William Lewis, chief executive of Dow Jones and publisher of the paper, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” in China’s decision and requested that the visas for the three journalists be reinstated.

“Our opinion pages regularly publish articles with opinions that people disagree — or agree with — and it was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece,” Lewis said. “However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”

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Matt Murray, the editor of The Journal, described the action as “harsh and unprecedented” in an e-mail to the paper’s newsroom.

“The Wall Street Journal news department has maintained a robust staff in China for 40 years and a deep commitment to covering one of the most important stories of our era,” Murray wrote in the e-mail. “We will support our journalists and their work and safety. And we will continue in the coming days to push for this action to be reversed.”

China’s move to expel the journalists comes just months after Chinese officials failed to renew the visa of another Journal reporter, Chun Han Wong, from mainland China.

Officials did not provide a reason for what amounted to his expulsion, but his departure came after he cowrote an article about a cousin of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, and an investigation by Australian authorities into accusations that the cousin was involved in a scandal involving money laundering, immigration favors, and organized crime. The other author of that article was Wen, who had his press credentials revoked on Wednesday.

Beijing’s decision to punish the Journal coincided with a move this week by American officials in Washington to treat five government-controlled Chinese news organizations — Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily, and People’s Daily — as foreign government functionaries, subject to similar rules for diplomats stationed in the United States.

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Responding to the US move, China accused Washington of “ideological prejudice and Cold War zero-sum game mentality,” and emphasized the important role that media played in “facilitating communication and understanding between people of different countries.”

Yet under Xi’s leadership, the country has taken an increasingly hard stance with both foreign and domestic media, punishing foreign reporters by refusing to renew their visas.

Foreign correspondents are not allowed to work in China without credentials, which in turn is required in order to apply for a residence visa that is typically valid for one year. In recent years, officials have taken to shortening the length of these visas to six months or less for some journalists, apparently in retaliation for reports by the individuals or their news organizations.

Beijing’s combative stance with the media has come into sharper focus in recent months as it tried to control the coverage of antigovernment protests in Hong Kong. In recent weeks, China has also cracked down on reporting about the coronavirus outbreak, in some cases stipulating that medical professionals must stop speaking to the reporters.

“The action taken against The Journal correspondents is an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organizations,” The Foreign Correspondents’ Club said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday.

It was unclear whether the Journal reporters named on Wednesday would be able to comply with Beijing’s order to leave the country this week. Deng is currently reporting in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and the site of a lockdown that makes it nearly impossible for most people to leave.

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Other Chinese cities now have strict quarantines for those who have recently been to Wuhan. If Deng were to return to Beijing, for example, she would be subject to a 14-day quarantine there.

Like other media organizations, including The New York Times, the Journal runs its news and editorial departments as separate operations, meaning none of the newspaper’s reporters in China would have had any involvement with the essay, including the writing of the “Sick Man” headline.

The opinion piece was written by Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College and a scholar at the Hudson Institute. It criticized China’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak as well as the state of the country’s financial markets. (Mead declined to comment.)

The expression “sick man of Asia” was a derogatory characterization of China’s weaknesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it was torn by internal divisions and exploited by foreign powers.