The media became the latest focus of the escalating tensions between the US and China on Wednesday after Beijing expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters over a commentary it deemed racist.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news conference that China had made repeated representations to the US newspaper over the opinion piece headlined “China is the real sick man of Asia”, but felt “regret” that the Journal had not offered a public apology.
The decision to revoke their reporting credentials was announced hours after the US declared that several Chinese media outlets were “foreign missions”, saying they were effectively under government control. Geng said in the same brieifing that Beijing “reserved the right to respond” to this move.
The Wall Street Journal said the journalists -deputy Beijing bureau chief Josh Chin and Chao Deng, both US nationals, and Philip Wen, an Australian -had been given five days to leave the country.
All three had previously written about Xinjiang, where the authorities have been accused of detaining up to a million Muslims in detention camps. China says the re-education camps are designed to combat extremism.
In August, China refused to renew the press card of Chun Han Wong, a Singaporean journalist from the same bureau.
The previous month he co-wrote a story with Wen about an investigation by Australian intelligence and law enforcement into Ming Chai, a cousin of President Xi Jinping.
“The Chinese side handles affairs related to foreign journalists in accordance with laws and regulations,” Geng said. “The Chinese people do not welcome those media that use racially discriminatory language and maliciously slander and attack China.”
The opinion piece, written by Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College in New York State, said that the Covid-19 crisis was a reminder that China’s power remains brittle.
“A deadlier virus or a financial-market contagion could transform China’s economic and political outlook at any time,” he wrote.
The headline of the piece triggered widespread condemnation among Chinese internet users, saying the term “sick man of Asia” was derogatory and stereotyped Chinese people as disease-ridden and unclean.
Although the phrase originated in the mid-19th century, when the ailing Ottoman Empire was described as the “sick man of Europe” – and was later applied to Britain’s post-imperial malaise – it has humiliating echoes of the late 19th and early 20th century in China.
In that era it was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with imperial powers and was first described as the “sick man of East Asia”.
The phrase is regarded as mocking the Chinese for being weak, and appears in the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fists of Fury, where his character is applauded for smashing a sign carrying the phrase in Japan.
Condemning the journalists’ expulsion on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement that “mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.”
“The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech,” said Washington’s top diplomat, who himself recently came under fire for his department’s barring of an NPR reporter from a trip to Europe, after Pompeo objected to being asked about Ukraine during an interview by another NPR reporter.
The US government hoped that the Chinese people would “enjoy the same access to accurate information and freedom of speech that Americans enjoy”, said Pompeo.
The incident is a sign that media organisations are becoming caught up in the escalating rivalry between China and the US.
Lu Xiang, a research fellow on US-China issues with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said that relations between the two faced unprecedented complexity and uncertainty.
“On the one hand, the US needs cooperation from China [on many issues], on the other hand, it is trying to create huge trouble”, he said.
The two countries have recently traded barbs over the coronavirus outbreak, with Beijing accuses Washington of spreading panic and fear for restricting entry to Chinese travellers. The US has said China lacked transparency in its handling of the outbreak.
The expulsions came a day after the US designated five Chinese state media organisations, including state news agency Xinhua, as foreign government functionaries, identifying them as being under Beijing’s control.
China Global Television Network , China Radio International, China Daily and Hai Tian Development USA were also deemed “foreign missions”, which will require their staff to register with the US State Department the same way that embassy and consular employees do.
Geng told Wednesday’s news conference that Chinese media outlets in the US were objective, impartial and accurate and called the decision “unjustified and unacceptable”. He also said the US was “wantonly restricting and thwarting” Chinese media outlets’ normal operations in the US.
“We deplore and reject the wrong decision of the US,” said Geng, adding that the country reserves the right to take further action in response.
He did not make a link between the announcement and the expulsion of the Wall Street Journal reporters.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said it strongly condemned the expulsions.
It said that revoking press credentials was an unprecedented retaliation against foreign journalists. China has previously refused to renew foreign journalists’ visas, but it has not outright expelled a foreign correspondent since 1998, it said.
“None of the three had any involvement with the opinion article, or its headline, that China cited in their expulsion,” it said in a statement.
“The action taken against the Journal correspondents is an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organisations by taking retribution against their China-based correspondents”.
It said that nine foreign journalists had been forced to leave China through non-renewal of visas since 2013.
“The expulsion of these three WSJ reporters is only the latest, and most alarming, measure authorities have taken”.
Everyone has the right to make his own decisions, but none has the right to force his decision on others.