In the latest escalation of tensions between the two superpowers, China announced on Tuesday that it would expel American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. It also demanded that those outlets, as well as the Voice of America and Time magazine, provide the Chinese government with detailed information about their operations.
The announcement, made by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, came weeks after the Trump administration limited the number of Chinese citizens who could work in the United States for five state-controlled Chinese news organizations to 100.
China instructed American journalists “whose press credentials are due to expire before the end of 2020” to “notify the Department of Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within four calendar days starting from today and hand back their press cards within ten calendar days.”
It went on to specify that the American journalists now working in China “will not be allowed to continue working as journalists in the People’s Republic of China, including its Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions.”
The full scope of the directive was not immediately clear.
In a translated statement, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said the decisions “are entirely necessary and reciprocal countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the U.S. They are legitimate and justified self-defense in every sense. What the U.S. has done is exclusively targeting Chinese media organizations, and hence driven by a Cold War mentality and ideological bias.”
American officials had been bracing for a retaliatory move by Beijing. On March 3, after the Trump administration announced new regulations on five Chinese state-run news organizations working in the United States, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter, “Now the U.S. has kicked off the game, let’s play.” That was widely seen as a signal of imminent retaliation.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing over news organizations started to ramp up last month. On Feb. 18, the Trump administration declared that employees of five state-controlled Chinese news organizations — Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and The People’s Daily — were not practitioners of journalism, but government operatives. As such, the State Department announced, they would be treated as foreign government functionaries.
The next day, China demanded that The Journal apologize for a Feb. 3 opinion article headlined “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” which criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. That same day, the Journal publisher William Lewis offered a statement that did not include an apology.
China also announced on Feb. 19 that it would expel three Journal staff members based in China in retaliation for the “Sick Man” headline. They left the country the next week.
Those were believed to be the first outright expulsions of foreign journalists by the Chinese government in decades. However, in recent years, according to a new report published by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, it has become common practice for the government to harass foreign journalists and their families, in part by requiring them to undergo onerous processes for renewing their visas. Recently, some journalists have been subject to visas much shorter than the standard one-year duration: six months, three months, even shorter.
“Chinese authorities are using visas as weapons against the foreign press like never before, expanding their deployment of a longtime intimidation tactic as working conditions for foreign journalists in China severely deteriorated in 2019,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club report said.
It counted nine journalists who had effectively been thrown out of the country, whether via outright expulsion or through the unexplained refusal to grant a visa, since 2013, around the time of President Xi Jinping’s ascension.
On March 2, it was the U.S. government’s turn: The State Department announced that it would limit to 100 the number of Chinese citizens working for five state-controlled Chinese news organizations.
Most of the American reporters for the three news organizations named in the Tuesday announcement have press cards and visas or residence permits that expire this year. The press cards are needed to maintain the visas, and turning them in effectively means the journalists would need to leave the country shortly afterward. Reporters who were recently given a press card and residence permit that do no expire until 2021 can presumably continue to work.
The announcement does not indicate that any Hong Kong-based newsrooms of the organizations would need to stop operations, even if the journalists expelled from the mainland are not allowed to report there. The Times and The Wall Street Journal both have large newsrooms in Hong Kong that serve as regional editing hubs and that also have reporters. Those reporters do not operate according to the same regulations as those based in the mainland.
Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, condemned the expulsion of U.S. reporters in a statement.
“The Chinese government’s decision is particularly regrettable because it comes in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, when clear and reliable information about the international response to Covid-19 is essential,” he said. “Severely limiting the flow of that information, which China now seeks to do, only aggravates the situation.”
The Washington Post’s Southeast Asia bureau chief is based in Hong Kong.
But the fact that Beijing is preventing the expelled reporters from reporting from Hong Kong and Macau, two semiautonomous areas, is a sign of the further erosion of press freedoms in those territories, and it could portend clampdowns on foreign newsrooms in Hong Kong. In October 2018, Hong Kong officials expelled the Asia editor of The Financial Times, Victor Mallet, in what was widely seen as an effort by the government to get other foreign journalists to limit their activities and reporting.
Online access to many news outlets, including The Times, The Journal, Bloomberg and Reuters, has been blocked for years in China. In 2019, The Washington Post and The Guardian were added to the list of blocked publications.