China on Wednesday said it was effectively expelling three Beijing-based journalists for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a day after Washington designated five Chinese state-run media organizations as representatives of a foreign government.
Officials had revoked the press credentials of Josh Chin and Chao Deng, who are both U.S. nationals, and that of Philip Wen, an Australian, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Geng said the move was in response to an op-ed article in the paper titled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia."
Geng said the headline was "racially discriminatory" and "sensational" and hit out at the paper's editors for not apologizing.
"As such, China has decided that from today, the press cards of three Wall Street Journal reporters in Beijing will be revoked," Geng said in a press briefing.
The move came just one day after the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese state-run media organizationsas foreign missions, meaning that they are representatives of their country's government.
A senior State Department official listed Xinhua News Agency, CCTV's global network CGTN, China Radio International (CRI), the China Daily's U.S. distribution arm and Hai Tian Development, which distributes Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily in the U.S.
"We’re making this designation based on the very indisputable fact that all five of these are subject to the control of the Chinese government," one senior official said, citing numerous statements by Chinese president Xi Jinping to the effect that Chinese media organizations are under the direct control of the ruling party.
Xinhua reports directly to China's cabinet, the State Council, while CGTN and CRI are part of a state-owned entity, the China Media Group. The China Daily is owned by the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department, while the People's Daily is the official mouthpiece of China's ruling party.
"Each one of these entities meets the definition of foreign mission under our Foreign Mission Act, which is to say they are either substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government," the official said. "And that’s why we have now determined that we will be treating them as foreign missions."
The organizations will now be required under U.S. law to notify the authorities of all of their personnel on U.S. soil, and to update the Office of Foreign Missions of any personnel changes, similar to the requirements for embassies and consulates.
Any property held by the organizations will also have to be reported.
"We basically call these entities what they are, which are organs of the Chinese one-party state propaganda apparatus," the senior official said.
He said there would be no restrictions on the operation of any of the organizations, however.
"They’re going to continue to enjoy our free and open system," he said.
'Sick man of Asia'
The WSJ op-ed, penned by Walter Russell Mead, commented on the impact of the current coronavirus epidemic on China's economy.
The phrase "sick man of Asia" is often associated with China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at a time of unequal treaties and colonial appropriation of Chinese territory by foreign powers under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
As such, the phrase evokes a time of national humiliation for many in China, an emotion which the ruling Chinese Communist Party has used in the past to build a strong sense of nationalism.
Chinese officials contacted the WSJ to demand an apology, but the paper's editors said they wouldn't apologize, citing freedom of speech.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) strongly condemned the move, which it said was a matter of concern, given 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 organizations by taking retribution against their China-based correspondents," the FCCC said.
It said the expulsions are the latest case of growing “harassment, surveillance and intimidation from authorities."
In Beijing, Geng also hit out at the decision to designate Chinese media organizations "foreign missions."
"The United States has always advertised freedom of the press, but it interferes with and obstructs the normal operation of Chinese media in the United States," Geng said. "We reserve the right to respond further to this matter."
Taiwan-based media commentator Yang Hsien-hung said that while officials stopped short of calling Xinhua and the other organizations spies, they are a crucial part of Beijing's propaganda operations, and can't be regarded as genuine media organizations.
"The Chinese Communist Party media in the U.S. have always been espionage operations," Yang told RFA. "Everything they publish is the view of the Chinese Communist Party."
"Now [U.S. officials] are telling them straight that they aren't real media; they are the lackeys of the Chinese Communist Party," he said.
"The days of the Chinese Communist Party operating in a grey area, as it has for the past two or three decades, are over."
Step in the right direction
Exiled Chinese dissident Zhou Fengsuo, who founded the rights group Humanitarian China, has been warning U.S. officials of Beijing's infiltration of overseas democracies for years.
"Listing these five official mouthpieces is just one step in the right direction," Zhou told RFA. "These five so-called media organizations are notorious, but their influence is actually pretty weak."
He said Tik Tok, which is owned by Chinese social media giant Tencent, has had far more of an impact beyond China's borders.
"They also implement Chinese Communist Party policies across the board, and they are a part of the machinery of the state," Zhou said. "The next step for the U.S. must be to take comprehensive counter-measures against them [too]."
The designation of Chinese media organizations as representatives of a foreign government comes after 35 Republican senators and representatives wrote to Attorney General William Barr earlier this month, calling on the Department of Justice to "clamp down on Chinese propaganda."
"China Daily’s important role in China’s foreign disinformation campaign warrants a full-fledged investigation," said the letter, initiated by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Indiana Republican Congressman Jim Banks and co-signed by seven other Republican senators and 26 representatives.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Shen Hua for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.