Beijing expels three Wall Street Journal reporters

Foreign Affairs

The move comes a day after the yesterday, the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese state media outlets as “foreign missions,” essentially treating them as extensions of the Chinese government.

On February 3, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Walter Russell Mead with the headline “China is the real sick man of Asia.” For context on why this headline would be seen as offensive by Chinese people, see this Twitter thread by Financial Times reporter Yuan Yang. The headline was also controversial in the WSJ newsroom, according to New York Times reporting.

The WSJ is censored in China, but the Chinese foreign ministry said on February 10 that the headline “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people and [has] roused public anger and condemnation.” The foreign ministry called on the WSJ to issue a public apology and warned, “We reserve the right to take further measures.”

Through yesterday, February 18, state media such as the Global Times were publishing opinion articles (in Chinese) demanding apologies from the WSJ, though “further measures” had not yet been taken.

Then, yesterday, the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese state media outlets as “foreign missions,” essentially treating them as extensions of the Chinese government.

Within hours, Beijing issued a clear and unprecedented retaliation to this designation — but used the Walter Russell Mead op-ed as an excuse. Or, at least, that is our interpretation. Writer Eric Fish suggests another potential factor — “fanning nationalist anger at Wall Street Journal (and by tacit extension, undermining all ‘Western media’) then taking decisive action to punish it, might be a winning move for the CCP at the moment.”

Three WSJ journalists who had nothing to do with the op-ed, but who had all written on subjects that the Chinese government would rather not talk about, were given five-day notices to leave the country. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China stated that this was the first outright expulsion of journalists in China since 1998 — though a total of nine have been forced to leave the country since 2013, the others simply did not receive renewals of their visas.

The three journalists, as identified by the WSJ, and some of their recent work, are:

“All three have reported on the Chinese Communist Party’s mass surveillance and detention of Uyghur Muslims in the country’s far western Xinjiang region,” as the WSJ points out.  

The Chinese foreign ministry claimed (in English, in Chinese) that the expulsions were a response to “media that speak racially discriminatory languages and maliciously slander and attack China.” While the first half of that phrase seems to apply directly to the Mead op-ed, the second half — 恶意抹黑攻击中国 èyì mǒhēi gōngjī zhōngguó — is how Beijing describes a variety of foreign reporting that it finds politically inconvenient. “Maliciously tarnishing China” is also what Chun Han Wong was accused of last August when his visa was not renewed.

—Lucas Niewenhuis