China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that The Wall Street Journal had “admitted its mistakes” but not formally apologised for a controversial headline on an opinion piece that Beijing cited as the reason for expelling three of the newspaper’s correspondents from the country.
Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian questioned the paper’s political motives and said it had yet to hold any individuals responsible for the headline, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, on a February 3 column about the novel coronavirus outbreak.
In an unprecedented move that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned as a restriction of free speech, Beijing last week revoked the reporters’ press credentials in response to what it described as the “racially discriminatory” headline.
“The Wall Street Journal has already admitted its mistake and engaged in self-reflection, so why did Pompeo ignore international public opinion and continuously cheer for this paper, and criticise the Chinese side?” Zhao said.
“This makes one wonder, is The Wall Street Journal an agent for the US state department?”
Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, on Wednesday declined to comment on whether it had had any further correspondence with the Chinese government on the issue.
In a statement issued on February 19, its chief executive William Lewis said he was “deeply disappointed” by the expulsion of the reporters for a piece they had no involvement in, adding that the company regretted the headline had “clearly caused upset and concern among the Chinese people”.
There was also some discomfort about the article, written by Walter Russell Mead, among the newspaper’s staff, with 53 reporters and editors signing an internal letter asking their bosses to “consider correcting the headline and apologising to our readers, sources, colleagues and anyone else who was offended by it”, according to reports by the The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Despite that, the article remains on the newspaper’s website with its headline unchanged.
Hu Xijin, editor of China’s state-run tabloid Global Times, said on social media on Tuesday evening that sources told him The Wall Street Journal had sent two letters to the Chinese side about the issue, the second of which said the paper “recognised the harm and fury” caused by the commentary and was “uncomfortable about it.”
“It seems the WSJ doesn’t want the issue to expand,” Hu said.
US officials met this week to discuss a series of options to China’s “egregious act” of expelling the correspondents, John Ullyot, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told reporters on Monday.
The journalists – US nationals Chao Deng and Josh Chin, and Australian Philip Wen – had previously reported from Xinjiang, a tightly controlled region where more than 1 million Muslims are believed to have been detained in “re-education camps” in what Beijing describes as part of its counterterrorism efforts. Wen also co-wrote an article about an Australian investigation into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cousin for money laundering and high-stakes gambling. His co-author was Singaporean Chun Han Wong, whose credentials in Beijing were not renewed in August after the article was published.
The phrase “sick man of Asia” has been regarded as derogatory by some given its historical use to describe China during its “century of humiliation” in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when it was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties after losing wars to imperial powers.
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