China on Wednesday announced that it was revoking the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal (WSJ) correspondents over the headline of a Feb. 3 opinion piece that Beijing said was racist.
While governments have the right to determine who they allow in to work, the timing and rationale given for the expulsions demonstrate yet again the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) antipathy toward freedom of speech, free press and the truth.
At issue is a column titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” by Walter Russell Mead, the James Clarke Chace professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank, in which he criticized the initial Chinese response to the emergence of a new coronavirus in Wuhan. Mead described the Wuhan government as “secretive and self-serving,” and the response by national authorities as vigorous, but ineffective. He also questioned the long-term strength and stability of the Chinese financial markets and economy.
He ended by citing the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the US, the election of US President Donald Trump and Brexit as other examples of low-probability, high-impact events that have reshaped the world order, and said that the current “coronavirus is unlikely to be the last to materialize in China.”
Not once did he use the term “sick man of Asia” in the piece. Nevertheless, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) on Feb. 6 told a news briefing that Mead “should be ashamed of your words, your arrogance, your prejudice and your ignorance.”
Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽), in announcing the expulsions on Wednesday, said Mead’s piece had sullied the efforts of the Chinese government and people to fight the epidemic, and the use of such a racially discriminatory title had triggered “indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community.”
While the headline did draw protests from many Asian Americans for using an archaic stereotype, and Mead’s arguments were criticized for making light of a serious outbreak, the ministry’s statement that the headline had been condemned by the Chinese people is risible, since the only people in China likely to have seen it are those in the government who have clearance to bypass the Great Firewall of China. The WSJ, like most other foreign media, is not sold in China and its Web site is blocked by censors.
Moreover, while none of the three WSJ staff being expelled — Beijing deputy bureau chief Josh Chin (李肇華) and reporters Deng Chao (鄧超) and Philip Wen (溫友正) — had anything to do with Mead’s column, they have written extensively on the crackdown on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and Wen coauthored a story about an Australian probe into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) cousin spending US$40 million at a casino. That story led to Beijing in August last year not renewing the press credential of the other author, Wong Chun Han (王春翰).
More importantly, Geng’s announcement came one day after the Trump administration designated five state-run Chinese news outlets in the US — Xinhua news agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio, the China Daily and Hai Tian Development USA — as foreign missions, which means they must register their US properties and provide Washington with the names of their employees in the US.
Beijing, apparently smarting from weeks of criticism over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, was looking to strike back at anyone and the WSJ trio were a convenient target.
Amid criticism of Beijing’s decision to expel the three, Geng on Thursday doubled down, saying that media organizations that spread racial discrimination and maliciously malign China must pay the price.
Calling the Wuhan government “secretive and self-serving,” and Beijing’s initial response to the outbreak “vigorous, but ineffective,” is not malicious, it is the truth. The problem was not with the column’s headline, but with the CCP’s inability to handle events when reality fails to match the party line.
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