Chinese authorities abruptly revoked three Wall Street Journal reporters’ press credentials Wednesday as punishment for an opinion column published in the Journal two weeks ago headlined: “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”
The three foreign correspondents were told they would have five days to leave China.
It was the first time since 1998 that Chinese authorities had expelled foreign journalists — others have been in effect expelled by having their visa renewals denied — and the largest group expulsion of foreign correspondents since the Mao Tse-tung era.
The decision also stood out for its punishment of reporters on the ground in China for a headline written on the other side of the world in the newspaper’s Opinion section, which is separate from its news operations.
It came one day after the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese news agencies with sprawling U.S. operations — the New China News Agency, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and the People’s Daily — as “foreign missions,” meaning they would be treated as part of the Chinese government and required to report personnel details and property ownership to the State Department.
The move comes amid rising U.S.-China tension and distrust toward Chinese influence operations abroad. Senior State Department officials said in a briefing that the Chinese agencies’ journalistic activities would not be restricted, but that the change in designation was meant to reflect the reality that they are government-controlled.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang condemned the U.S. designation in a news briefing on Wednesday, calling it a “wanton” restriction of press freedom.
“Media play an important role like a bridge or bond facilitating communication and understanding.... 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,” he said.
Minutes later, he announced the three Wall Street Journal reporters’ press card cancellation, framing it as penalty for the paper’s “Sick Man” opinion column.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Wednesday released a statement criticizing Beijing for the move.
“The United States condemns China’s expulsion of three Wall Street Journal foreign correspondents,” he said. “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counterarguments, not restrict speech.”
Pompeo added that the U.S. “hopes that the Chinese people will enjoy the same access to accurate information and freedom of speech that Americans enjoy.”
The op-ed, written Feb. 2 by Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, examined the potentially destabilizing impacts of the coronavirus epidemic in China in both medical and financial realms.
Its headline sparked backlash and heated discussion in Chinese state and social media, with the Foreign Ministry issuing condemnations and demands for an apology.
The term “sick man of Asia” was a reference to Qing Dynasty China in the late 19th and 20th centuries, when it suffered both internal divisions and imperial exploitation from both Western countries and Japan, and eventually collapsed.
The phrase mirrors the “sick man of Europe” term used to describe the Ottoman Empire in decline. “Sick man” has been commonly used in Western media to describe other countries in crisis, including the United States.
But in China, the “sick man” phrase has also been read as a derogatory description of Chinese people as inherently inferior, disease-ridden beings. It’s not only a reminder of the “century of humiliation” that’s core to Chinese identity and aspirations for national rejuvenation, but also comes at a sensitive time, as the coronavirus outbreak devastates families within China and ignites a wave of anti-Asian racism abroad.
Geng, the Chinese spokesman, said the headline “smears the efforts of the Chinese government and people on fighting the epidemic.” He blamed the Journal for “parrying and dodging its responsibility” and not issuing a formal apology.
“The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory languages and maliciously slander and attack China,” Geng said.
But the journalists punished for the op-ed headline had nothing to do with it.
One of them, Chao Deng, was recently on the ground in Wuhan, risking exposure to the coronavirus that has killed more than 2,000 people to report stories of ordinary Chinese people’s struggles amid the outbreak.
She investigated the reliability of virus diagnostic tests and reported how Wuhan’s health system has been overwhelmed, leaving many patients untreated and uncounted.
The paper’s deputy Beijing bureau chief, Josh Chin, has reported extensively on how China uses technology for surveillance and social control in Xinjiang, the far western province where China has incarcerated more than 1 million Muslim minority Uighurs in the name of “counter-terrorism.”
The third journalist, Philip Wen, co-wrote a story about suspected money laundering involving a cousin of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping. The other reporter who worked on that story, Chun Han Wong, was in effect expelled from China last year when his visa renewal was declined.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China issued a condemnation of Wednesday’s triple expulsions, calling them “unprecedented.”
“The action taken against The Journal correspondents is an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organizations by taking retribution against their China-based correspondents,” the statement said.
The last time China expelled a foreign reporter was in 1998, when a Japanese journalist was accused of spying after making reporting trips to Tibet.
Since then, a number of foreign reporters have been indirectly blocked from continuing to work in China through visa rejections, indefinite delays, and refusals to grant new resident visas to applicants from outlets that publish stories critical of Chinese authorities, especially work examining wealth and corruption among the Communist Party leadership.
Chinese authorities have also recently cracked down on domestic media, sending hundreds of state media propagandists to write positive stories about China’s coronavirus containment efforts, ordering medical staff to stop speaking to journalists, deleting social media content that deviates from official narratives, and arresting independent activists who try to document the severity of the crisis on video and in reports.
China ranked 177 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2019. It is already one of the worst media environments in the world for journalists operating within China. This latest move appears to extend Chinese censorship beyond controlling journalism within its borders to imposing restrictions even on opinions expressed in papers overseas.
It also comes amid a crisis for Chinese authorities as they struggle to project confidence and control over the coronavirus outbreak and stem a tide of public anger toward officials who let the virus spread without warning the public. Chinese authorities have often resorted to dramatic acts of nationalism to bolster legitimacy, whipping up anti-imperialist sentiment as a distraction from domestic problems.
Maria Repnikova, a Georgia State University professor who studies China’s political communication, said the cancellation of press cards served two purposes at once: responding to the U.S. restrictions on Chinese media and demonstrating the “power of the Chinese state in disciplining Western media.”
“The public cancellation of press cards is a deliberate move to retaliate against the outlet at large — and also to signal to other Western media that this is what could happen if they follow in the footsteps of WSJ,” she said.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.