SHANGHAI: People wearing protective facemasks walk along a street in Shanghai yesterday. - AFP

BEIJING: China yesterday ordered three reporters from American newspaper the Wall Street Journal to leave the country over what Beijing deemed a racist headline, in one of the harshest moves against foreign media in years. The expulsion came as Beijing also slammed Washington's decision to tighten rules on Chinese state media organizations in the United States, calling the move "unreasonable and unacceptable".

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Journal op-ed - titled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia" - had a "racially discriminatory" and "sensational" headline, and slammed the newspaper for not issuing an official apology. "As such, China has decided that from today, the press cards of three Wall Street Journal reporters in Beijing will be revoked," Geng told a press briefing.

The Journal reported that deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both US nationals, as well as reporter Philip Wen, an Australian, had been ordered to leave the country in five days. The three journalists are in the Wall Street Journal's news section, which is not linked to the editorial and opinion section.

The op-ed, written by Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, criticized the Chinese government's initial response to the new coronavirus outbreak - calling the Wuhan city government at the virus epicenter "secretive and self-serving", while dismissing national efforts as ineffective. The phrase "sick man of Asia" originally referred to China in the late 19th and early 20th century, when it was exploited by foreign powers during a period sometimes called the country's "century of humiliation".

The February 3 piece "slandered the efforts of the Chinese government and the Chinese people to fight the epidemic", said Geng. The new coronavirus epidemic has killed over 2,000 people in China and infected more than 74,000, and has spread to at least two dozen countries. "The editors of the Wall Street Journal have nailed themselves to the pillar of shame," wrote the nationalistic Global Times in an op-ed on Tuesday before the reporters were expelled.

The WSJ's remarks "sound like gloating, and they disgust Chinese people," it said. The expulsions come a day after the United States angered China for classifying five state media outlets, including Xinhua news agency and the China Global Television Network, as foreign missions, with State Department officials saying they were part of Beijing's growing "propaganda" apparatus. Voicing China's "strong dissatisfaction", Geng added cryptically: "We reserve the right to respond further to this matter".

'Darkest picture'
China's move to revoke the credentials of the three WSJ journalists marks a drastic escalation in the country's tightening media landscape, which has seen the effective expulsion of multiple foreign reporters over the past five years. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said revoking the press credentials of three correspondents is an unprecedented form of retaliation, adding that the country had not outright expelled a foreign correspondent since 1998.

"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 FCCC said in a statement. Nine journalists have been either expelled or effectively expelled through non-renewal of visas since 2013, it added. In August, China refused to renew the press credentials of WSJ journalist Chun Han Wong, after he and Wen wrote an article on one of Chinese President Xi Jinping's cousins.

In 2018, Megha Rajagopalan, the Beijing bureau chief for BuzzFeed News, was effectively expelled from China after she was unable to renew her visa as well. Prior to her expulsion, she had reported extensively from the northwest region of Xinjiang, where China has rounded up an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in internment camps. And at the end of 2015, French reporter Ursula Gauthier was also forced to leave the country after she criticized government policy in Xinjiang and the authorities refused to renew her credentials.

The three expelled Journal reporters had also reported on Xinjiang, covering forced labor, surveillance, and re-education camps. A 2019 FCCC survey of 109 foreign journalists said many working in China have been threatened with visa delays, or issued with short-stay visas, which they believed were related to their coverage. The FCCC said at the time that the survey "painted the darkest picture of reporting conditions inside China in recent memory". - AFP