China revoked the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters, in a rare move punishing multiple journalists at a single news organization over an opinion piece.
The government made the decision after it said the Journal refused to apologize for a “racially discriminatory” op-ed, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. Foreign journalists need press passes issued by the foreign ministry to qualify for visas to report in the country.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the three were Deputy Bureau Chief Josh Chin and reporters Chao Deng and Philip Wen. Chin and Deng are both U.S. nationals, while Wen is an Australian citizen.
“This marks a new low in relations between China and the foreign press, and says a lot about Beijing’s broader antipathy to the West,” said Richard McGregor, a former Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing who’s now a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute. “Beijing is looking to lash out at its critics. Once it has gotten over the coronavirus crisis, expect to see more such measures.”
While China has declined to approve press credentials for foreign journalists before, it’s rare for authorities to punish three reporters at once from the same news organization. It also sets a worrying new precedent for news outlets with staff in China as the article was written by an author based in the U.S. who wrote opinions, which are generally removed from news-gathering operations.
The Feb. 3 article described China as the “sick man of Asia,” a phrase often used by 19th century European powers to describe the weakened state of the Qing Empire, which then governed China. A representative for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing didn’t immediately reply to an email requesting comment.
The op-ed ran as China began battling the deadly coronavirus, which has now claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people and delivered a massive setback to the world’s second-biggest economy. The government has described the virus as a threat to “social stability” in China and tightened restrictions on online expression.
“The editors used such a racially discriminatory title, triggering indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community,” Geng told reporters in an online press conference. “China demands the WSJ recognize the severity of its mistake, make an official apology and hold the persons involved accountable.”
China expelled a Wall Street Journal reporter last August after the paper published a report detailing allegations that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cousin was involved in gambling and potential money-laundering in Australia.
The U.S. this week designated five Chinese state media companies as “foreign missions,” a decision that reflects the Trump administration’s view that Xi’s Communist Party is imposing increasingly draconian government-control over news services, senior State Department officials said. The designation requires the outlets to adhere to requirements similar to those imposed on embassies and consulates in the U.S.
“China and the U.S., and a number of Washington’s allies, aren’t just decoupling parts of their economy,” said McGregor, of the Lowy Institute. “With decisions like these, they are entering parallel news and information universes.”
China’s foreign ministry denounced the U.S. designation on Wednesday, saying the country’s media outlets helped promote understanding and adding that Beijing would “reserve the right” to retaliate. “We urge the U.S. to discard its ideological prejudice and Cold War zero-sum-game mentality, and stop ill-advised measures that undermine bilateral trust and cooperation,” Geng said.
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