China expels three Wall Street Journal reporters over 'sick man of Asia' headline

China says it has revoked the press credentials of three reporters for the Wall Street Journal over a headline for an opinion column deemed by Beijing to be racist and slanderous.

The move follows a complaint over the headline which called the country the “Real Sick Man of Asia” in referring to the coronavirus outbreak.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the 3 February article by Bard College Professor Walter Russell Mead “smears the efforts of the Chinese government and people on fighting [the virus] epidemic”.

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“The editors used such a racially discriminatory title, triggering indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community,” he said.

The statement said the expulsions came after the Journal refused demands to “make an official apology and hold the persons involved accountable”.

Like most foreign media, the Wall Street Journal is unavailable in China and its website and stories are blocked by online censors.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China issued a statement expressing “deep concern and strong condemnation” of the Chinese move.

It pointed out that none of the three reporters had any involvement with the opinion piece or its headline.

“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,” the statement said.

It said the expulsions are the latest case of growing “harassment, surveillance and intimidation from authorities”.

China has in recent years refused to issue or renew credentials for some foreign journalists, but this is the first time in recent memory that it has revoked their documents, effectively expelling them from the country.

That reflects a new hard line in foreign affairs in which Beijing has sought to exact economic and diplomatic costs from companies and countries that do not follow its policies over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, human rights and other sensitive issues.

President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly said China will make no concessions when it comes to national territory, sovereignty or dignity.

In one recent case, the country cut commercial ties with the NBA after an official with the Houston Rockets basketball team tweeted support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters whom China describes as separatists.

The Journal identified the three journalists as deputy bureau chief Josh Chin, reporter Chao Deng – both US citizens – and reporter Philip Wen, an Australian.

They have been given five days to leave the country, according to Jonathan Cheng, the Journal’s China bureau chief.

Last autumn, Chinese authorities declined to renew the press credentials of Beijing-based Journal reporter Chun Han Wong, a Singaporean, a month after he and another Journal reporter wrote a story detailing an Australian investigation into the alleged links of Xi Jinping’s cousin to high-stakes gambling, money laundering and suspected organised crime.

“We resolutely oppose certain foreign journalists’ evil intention to smear and attack China,” the foreign ministry said at the time.

Following the publication of Mead’s opinion column this month, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said he should be “ashamed of your words, your arrogance, your prejudice and your ignorance”.

The expulsions also come after the Trump administration on Tuesday designated five state-run Chinese news outlets that operate in the United States as “foreign missions”, requiring them to register their properties and employees in the US.

Washington has determined that the outlets are directly controlled by the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party, according to two State Department officials.

The five are China’s official Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, the China Daily Distribution Corporation, which distributes the newspaper of the same name, and Hai Tian Development USA, which distributes the People’s Daily newspaper, the officials said.

Xinhua and China Global Television were directed two years ago by the Justice Department to register as foreign agents in the United States, although it is not clear if either ever did.

Several Russian news outlets, including the Russia Today TV network, face similar directions from the Justice Department.

China’s foreign ministry responded to the move by demanding the US “immediately cease its wrongful actions” and said it reserves the right to “make a further response”.

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