China on Wednesday ordered three reporters from American newspaper the Wall Street Journal to leave the country over what it 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 organisations 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 separate from editorials and op-eds.

The opinion piece, written by Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, also criticised the Chinese government’s initial response to the new coronavirus outbreak — calling the Wuhan city government at the virus epicentre “secretive and self-serving”, while dismissing national efforts as ineffective.

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 around the world.

“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 WSJ expulsions come a day after the United States angered China after five state media outlets, including Xinhua news agency and the China Global Television Network, were reclassified as foreign missions, with State Department officials saying they were part of Beijing’s growing “propaganda” apparatus

 ‘Darkest picture’ 

China’s move to revoke the credentials of 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 organisations 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.

Megha Rajagopalan. Photo: Oslo Freedom Forum.

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 criticised government policy in Xinjiang and the authorities refused to renew her credentials.

A survey of 109 foreign journalists published in January 2019 “painted the darkest picture of reporting conditions inside China in recent memory”, the FCCC said at its release.

The report said many journalists working in China have been threatened with visa delays, or issued with short-stay visas, which they believed were related to their coverage.

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