The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Chinese authorities have revoked the press credentials of three of its reporters: Josh Chin, Chao Deng, and Philip Wen. Although China has repeatedly wielded bureaucratic delays and denied renewals against foreign news media in recent years, this week’s were the first such direct expulsions of credentialed journalists since 1998, and the first simultaneous expulsion of several from the same organization since the Mao era. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained the extraordinary measure as a response to a February 3 op-ed by Walter Russell Mead titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The “Sick Man” phrase is not uncommon in international news coverage, but is particularly charged in the Chinese context by its association with the “Century of Humiliation” prior to the founding of the People’s Republic. However, the expulsions also followed the U.S. State Department’s designation of five Chinese official media organizations as “foreign missions” on American soil, a move which MoFA has condemned, and which quickly sparked anticipation of a Chinese backlash.
Deputy Bureau Chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both U.S. nationals, as well as reporter Philip Wen, an Australian national, have been ordered to leave the country within five days, said Jonathan Cheng, the Journal’s China bureau chief.
The expulsions by China’s Foreign Ministry followed widespread public anger at the headline on the Feb. 3 opinion piece, which referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia.” The ministry and state-media outlets had repeatedly called attention to the headline in statements and posts on social media and had threatened unspecified consequences.
[…] The three journalists work for the Journal’s news operation. The Journal operates with a strict separation between its news and opinion staffs.
[…] In August, the Chinese government didn’t renew press credentials for Chun Han Wong, a Beijing-based correspondent who co-wrote a news article [with Philip Wen] on a cousin of Chinese President Xi Jinping whose activities were being scrutinized by Australian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The New York Times’ Alexandra Stevenson noted logistical complications with the expulsion and internal protest at the WSJ over the op-ed’s headline:
It was unclear whether The Journal reporters named on Wednesday would be able to comply with Beijing’s order to leave the country this week. Ms. Deng is currently reporting in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and the site of a lockdown that makes it nearly impossible for most people to leave.
Other Chinese cities now have strict quarantines for those who have recently been to Wuhan. If Ms. Deng were to return to Beijing, for example, she would be subject to a 14-day quarantine there.
[…] Top editors held two meetings with newsroom staffers to discuss the headline and the potential impact on the The Journal’s China operations, according to three people with knowledge of the events that preceded the ouster of the journalists. The headline was widely considered offensive within the newsroom, these people said, and was even coming up when staffers went out in the field to interview sources.
In one meeting last week, said one of the people, reporters expressed their anger over the headline to Mr. Murray, the editor. Mr. Murray agreed that the headline was bad, this person said, and agreed to talk to Paul Gigot, who runs the The Journal’s editorial page. However, Mr. Murray cautioned that his hands were tied because of the traditional separation between the news and editorial sides of the The Journal. [Source]
Our statement on China’s expulsion of three foreign correspondents – “an unprecedented form of retaliation.” pic.twitter.com/yDAFJqc163
— Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (@fccchina) February 19, 2020
The Journal’s parent company Dow Jones issued a statement on the news signed by publisher William Lewis, expressing regret at “upset and concern” over the headline, and calling for the reporters’ reinstatement. In Wednesday’s official press briefing, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang accused the paper of having done “nothing but fudging the issue and dodging its responsibility” after repeated “stern representations.”
As much of the coverage noted and China Daily’s Chen Weihua pointed out on Twitter, the expulsions quickly followed the U.S. State Department’s designation of five Chinese official media organizations as “foreign missions” on Tuesday. From AP’s Matthew Lee:
The designations require each affected outlet to register the locations of any properties they own or rent in the United States, get permission to lease or purchase additional properties, and disclose the names of their employees in the U.S., including American citizens, according to the officials.
The designations do not, however, require the outlets’ employees to notify U.S. authorities of their movements in the country and are not intended to impede them from conducting journalistic activities, the officials said.
The five outlets affected 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 television network, face similar directions from Justice. [Source]
Media in China have been viewed since the early days of the CCP as “mouthpieces” for the Party and the people, a formulation which rigidly assumes the people’s unity behind the Party. A 2013 study guide for a new press card renewal test, issued by the national press regulator, stated that “the most important function of news media in our country is to be the ears, eyes, throat and tongue for the party and the people [….] In order for this function to be carried out, news media in our country must be loyal to the party, adhere to the party’s leadership and make the principle of loyalty to the party the principle of the journalistic profession.” Touring official media offices in 2016, Xi Jinping urged them to remember that they must “bear the Party surname” and “speak for the Party and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity.”
Chinese officials have not welcomed the U.S.’ belated acceptance of this principle. MoFA’s Geng Shuang, criticizing the designation in the same press conference in which he announced the expulsion of the WSJ’s reporters, said that “the media play an important role like a bridge or bond facilitating communication and understanding between people of different countries.”
We deplore and reject the wrong decision of the US.
[…] The US touts its press freedom. However, it is wantonly restricting and thwarting Chinese media outlets’ normal operation there. This is totally unjustified and unacceptable. We urge the US to discard its ideological prejudice and Cold War zero-sum game mentality, and stop ill-advised measures that undermine bilateral trust and cooperation.
We reserve the right to take further measures in response. [Source]
At a special briefing on Tuesday, two unidentified U.S. State Department officials explained the decision and its consequences:
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [… W]e’re making this designation based on the very indisputable fact that all five of these are subject to the control of the Chinese Government. Obviously, the Chinese Communist Party has always had a pretty tight rein on media in general and state-run media in particular, but that has only further tightened since Xi Jinping took over. Since he became general secretary, China’s Communist Party has reorganized China’s state news agencies and asserted even more direct control over them, both in terms of content, editorial, et cetera, et cetera.
Xi Jinping’s got a number of quotes on this score that are – there’s many of them. One of them is that, “Managing China’s media messaging is crucial for the future and fate of the Chinese Communist Party and the state.” There are many others of a similar ilk that demonstrate exactly how much of a function of the state Xi Jinping considers the media to be.
In addition to the very clear state control of these media organizations, the PRC Government has also expanded its overseas media operations in recent years, including here in the United States. I can talk a little bit briefly about each one of these organizations and how we came to make the determination that it was foreign mission.
[…] SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: [… W]e have designated them as foreign missions. That does not mean that they are embassies or consulates or have traditional diplomatic privileges or immunities. What we are doing is imposing two requirements on these entities.
The first is that they will – are required to notify the Office of Foreign Missions within the State Department of their current personnel in the United States, basic information about those individuals, and then as – if there’s any changes to those employment situations. So if anyone departs or new people come on, they would notify us, just like the standard requirement for an embassy or consulate.
The second is that they would need to notify us of their current real property holdings, whether they are owned or leased; and in connection with that, prior to acquiring, whether by purchase or lease any new real property, they would need to obtain prior approval from my office. Those are the only two requirements that are in place, and all of that was notified to each of these entities earlier today. [Source]
Reporters’ questions in a subsequent Q&A session involved why China had been singled out, the measure’s potential counterintelligence value, and risk of and responses to a Chinese backlash. The questioning led into discussion of potential obstruction of legitimate newsgathering by the Chinese organizations, of the kind alleged by Geng Shuang:
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [… O]bviously, we’re painfully aware of the very tough operating environment that U.S. and other foreign journalists operate under in China. Again, we – this is not intended to put any sort of constraint on what the CGTN or the Xinhua people do here in the United States with regards to their journalistic operations. But obviously, it’s impossible for me to speculate on how Beijing is going to react. It’s already the case that freedom of the press is under severe siege in the People’s Republic of China, and that was long before this announcement came about in – earlier on this afternoon.
So I mean, we’re going to have to defer to our Chinese counterparts on what they’re going to do about freedom of the press in the PRC.
[…] QUESTION: So are you saying there will be no restrictions on what they do journalistically? So they can travel if they want to cover the campaign, they can come here to the State Department as some of them have before to ask a question of Secretary Pompeo […] there are no journalistic restrictions on them?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That is correct.
[…] QUESTION: You said you wouldn’t speculate on what Beijing will do, but have you thought about what will happen if Beijing does retaliate against any U.S. media outlets or any other media outlets operating in China. If they try to revoke licenses for example, what will the State Department response be?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, we have a very long track record of speaking up for freedom of the press in China and will continue to do that. If you – again, I don’t want to predict what they may or may not do, but I think it would be faulty logic to attribute that to this action. But like I said, and as [Senior State Department Official Two] clarified, we’re not doing anything to restrict the activities of these folks here in the United States. They’re going to continue to enjoy our free and open system. And let’s not forget that before today, there were already plenty of restrictions on foreign journalists operating in China, so I just want make sure that that point is highlighted and you keep that in mind.
[…] QUESTION: Okay. And then last, in terms of, like, compliance, I mean, with FARA, my understanding is that Xinhua never did register even though DOJ told them to, and even though it is, as you say, fairly basic disclosures. So I would like to know a little bit more about what type of enforcement you would look at if people don’t provide this information.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, they’re required to comply with this, and I think we’re not prepared to go beyond that. [Source]
The officials noted that the five organizations were specifically exempted from a requirement introduced in October for Chinese diplomatic personnel to give the State Department advance notice of “certain types of meetings or visits with certain types of institutions”: “taking into account some of the press freedoms we didn’t – we’re not looking to interfere with that, so we didn’t want to have any challenge there.” “It’s a little ironic,” one journalist noted, “that this briefing is on background if we’re talking about press rights and protecting what a free press does that we don’t have an on-the-record quote from a government official defending and justifying this.”
The New York Times’ report on the foreign mission designation, by Lara Jakes and Steven Lee Myers, examined the common practice of newspapers (including their own) carrying paid inserts from China Daily, one of the designated organizations, describing their typical content as “an informative, if anodyne, view of world affairs refracted through the lens of the Communist Party.”
“The China Daily advertisement insert is clearly labeled and meets our advertising acceptability standards,” said Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, a Times spokeswoman. “The New York Times covers China thoroughly and aggressively, and at no time has advertising influenced our coverage.”
However, some experts on China say China Daily pushes insidious propaganda onto foreign readers, especially in its attempts to whitewash vast human rights abuses against Uighurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities.
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, has repeatedly denounced China Daily. The paper, she said on Twitter last year, was “nothing more than a mouthpiece for a government that conflates peaceful criticism with terrorism, crushes peaceful protests, and arbitrarily detains shocking numbers of #Uyghurs and other #Muslims.” [Source]
Whatever the role of the foreign mission designation in triggering the WSJ expulsions, Chinese officials had repeatedly condemned the Journal over the headline well before that news broke. Soon after the article was published, MoFA spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a press briefing, “Walter Russell Mead, you should be ashamed of your words, your arrogance, your prejudice and your ignorance.” (Mead obliquely disavowed the headline on Twitter two days later.)
Hua went on to cite the mortality rate of the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in the U.S., and the number of infections and deaths from seasonal influenza in the U.S. this winter, concluding “compared with the current pneumonia outbreak in China, Mr. Mead, anything more you’d like to say?” Such comparisons have been widespread, but at Wired earlier this month, science journalist Roxanne Khamsi argued that “the gambit of positioning the influenza virus as the scarier of two foes is as dangerous as it is hackneyed.” The difference with the COVID-19 outbreak, she added is that “we simply don’t know how it will behave in weeks and months to come,” a point also made by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Anthony Fauci at a White House press briefing late last month:
Despite the morbidity and mortality with influenza, there’s a certainty, for example, of seasonal flu. I can tell you all, guaranteed, that as we get into March and April, the flu cases are going to go down. You could predict pretty accurately what the range of the mortality is and the hospitalizations, as we’ve done over the years.
The issue now with this is that there’s a lot of unknowns. […] [Source]
News of the expulsions prompted discussion of the “Sick Man” phrase and its relevance on Twitter.
The @WSJ ‘Sick Man of Asia’ headline WAS racist. Sadly, the misjudgements of the op-ed dept. coming at expense of the hapless reporters— all doing excellent reporting under VERY difficult conditions—now being expelled from China. https://t.co/3Gj2GZNHZv
— Mei Fong/ 方凤美 (@meifongwriter) February 19, 2020
It was retaliation of course..that headline just gave CCP an excuse. I also wonder if they were trying to signal something by expelling ethnic Chinese reporters..we were always accused of being ‘disloyal’ whenever we wrote stories critical of Beijing,in a way Caucasians weren’t.
— Mei Fong/ 方凤美 (@meifongwriter) February 19, 2020
Let’s not get stuck debating how offensive “Sick Man of Asia” actually is right now bc that would mean admitting it might actually be offensive enough to warrant the expulsion of journalists from China, to say nothing of how these journalists didn’t even write the damn thing.
— Frankie Huang ? (@ourobororoboruo) February 19, 2020
A fascinating dinner between 3 Chinese (ethnic/national) reporters in Beijing has taught me we often seriously misunderstood each others' reactions to racism. We discussed two coronavirus headlines, (1) "Yellow Alert" (2) "China Is The Real Sick Man Of Asia".
— Yuan Yang (@YuanfenYang) February 19, 2020
8/ Of course that's not to imply that you can swap out groups in possibly racist phrases to test the racism, because racism exists as a power relationship between groups. But it gives an idea of what connotations phrases have and why an editor might have approved of (2)
— Yuan Yang (@YuanfenYang) February 19, 2020
10/ It in no way justifies Beijing's expulsion of 3 excellent WSJ journalists who had nothing to do with the headline. They also happened to have done deep reporting on Beijing's clearly racist, & some might say genocidal, acts in Xinjiang against its Uighur Muslim minority (end)
— Yuan Yang (@YuanfenYang) February 19, 2020
I've had friends in China recently message to ask what foreign media is saying about the situation who've never asked me anything like that before. Not a bad time to remind people that "Western media" (which happen to be covering coronavirus) are hostile anti-China instigators.
— Eric Fish (@ericfish85) February 19, 2020
Yang highlighted chinaSMACK’s translation of a 2012 QQ post on the difference in how the phrase is used in the West and interpreted in China, noting that the Chinese language’s ambiguity between singular and plural may have contributed to the blurred lines between figurative national assessment and racial slur.
Meanwhile, a group of 17 newspaper and website editors in Nepal issued a joint statement on Wednesday, condemning the Chinese embassy’s “disparagement and threats” over The Kathmandu Post’s republication of an article entitled “China’s secrecy has made coronavirus crisis much worse” by former US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder.