China said on Wednesday that it will expel three Wall Street Journal reporters, marking the first time in two decades that the country has cancelled the press cards of multiple foreign reporters at the same time.
Beijing said the move was in retaliation for a WSJ opinion piece headlined “China is the real sick man of Asia” published this month, saying the article “smears the efforts of the Chinese government” in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
The expulsions come a day after the US designated five top Chinese media outlets as foreign diplomatic missions, saying their journalists act as propaganda agents and require greater monitoring.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson attacked the US move, accusing the Trump administration of “wantonly restricting and thwarting Chinese media outlets’ normal operations”. He added that Beijing would “reserve the right to take further measures in response”.
Two of the WSJ journalists set to be expelled from China within days, deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, are US nationals, while the third, Philip Wen, is Australian, the paper said. China refused to renew the accreditation of another WSJ reporter in August.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said that, as far as it was aware, this was the first outright expulsion of a foreign correspondent since 1998.
“The action taken against the WSJ 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 club said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the US said it would introduce new rules requiring Xinhua news agency, China Radio International, China Global Television Network and the distributors of China Daily and People’s Daily — China Daily Distribution Corporation and Hai Tian Development USA — to register the names of US employees, declare any property holdings and seek approval to add any more.
“The fact of the matter is each and every one of these entities does work for the Chinese government,” a senior state department official told reporters on Tuesday, describing them as organs of a one-party state propaganda apparatus that “take their orders directly from the top”.
US authorities will not restrict their work, reporting or access as a result of the designation, officials said. The decision will effectively treat the five organisations as foreign embassies, but without affording them diplomatic immunity or forcing them to reveal any meetings with US officials or educational and research institutions.
Speaking before the expulsions, China’s foreign ministry said the US decision was unacceptable and that Beijing might take measures in response. A spokesperson defended the Chinese media as “impartial” and accused the US of “ideological prejudice”.
The move is the latest by the Trump administration to contain what one senior state department official called an “aggressive” China, which Washington worries is seeking to increase its influence over the US and expand intelligence operations, stealing science and technology secrets.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, this month warned US state governors of the risks posed by Chinese groups seeking to promote Beijing in underhanded ways. He said a Chinese think-tank last year labelled all 50 US governors as “friendly”, “hardline” or “ambiguous”.
“Competition with China is happening inside of your state, and it affects our capacity to perform America’s vital national security functions,” he told the governors in Washington.
Mr Pompeo added that the Chinese had successfully pressured a Chicago high school to disinvite a Taiwanese representative to serve on a climate panel, and also pressured Chinese students to spy on their colleagues at university and report back to Beijing.
“It’s one thing to pressure the secretary of state of the United States of America. It seems quite something else to go after a high school principal,” he said. “It shows depth. It shows systemisation. It shows intent.”
The US has previously designated foreign media outlets as extensions of governments in the past, including Vietnam’s news agency five years ago. During the cold war the US treated several Soviet media outlets as part of the Moscow government. No Russian outlets are treated this way today.
Jim Risch, a Republican senator who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, said he applauded the decision, describing it as “a smart and reasonable step”.