American media woke up Wednesday to shocking news: the Chinese government announced it would expel three Wall Street Journal journalists based in Beijing: deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both U.S. citizens, and reporter Philip Wen, an Australian citizen. The last time China expelled so many foreign journalists from a single Western media organization, Mao Zedong was dictator.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said the expulsion was retaliation for a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Real Sick Man of Asia” by Walter Russell Mead. In it, Mead discussed how the Chinese government’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak was “less than impressive” and how the outbreak would affect China and the global economy in both the short and long term. The article is thoughtful and contains nothing provocative. In fact, it reiterates a number of points many China observers and strategists have made in other public forums.
Many Chinese readers, however, took offense at the headline. The term “sick man of Asia” (東亞病夫), is a derogatory term, originally referring to Chinese men who were sickened by imported opium from Great Britain. Later, this term was widely used to refer to China in general during the “century of humiliation,” a period from 1840-1949, when China was subjected to foreign invasions and repeated defeat.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has successfully covered up its bloody history; it was responsible for 40-60 million deaths from 1949 to 1976. To justify its legitimacy as China’s savior, the CCP has heavily focused on embedding the “century of humiliation” deep into Chinese people’s psyche through government-sanctioned history education. Therefore, the term “sick man of Asia” evokes strong emotions from Chinese people.
China Goes After the Wall Street Journal
Mead made it clear on Twitter that he wrote only the article, while the Journal’s editors chose the title. As a Wall Street Journal editorial points out, many countries have been labeled a “sick man” in the past and present: The Ottoman Empire was called “the sick man of Europe,” the Philippines was called “the sick man of Asia,” and Great Britain was called “the sick man of Europe” during the Brexit delay. So the Wall Street Journal meant no disrespect when it chose the headline.
Still, the Journal received many complaints. Wall Street Journal publisher and Dow Jones CEO William Lewis expressed “regret” for how much the headline has caused “upset and concern amongst the Chinese people.” Lewis also emphasized that the Journal “operates with a strict separation between news and opinion.”
Most importantly, the three expelled journalists have nothing to do with the opinion piece, and their visas are still valid. But China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted, “[W]hat the WSJ has done so far is nothing but parrying and dodging its responsibility. … The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory language and maliciously slander and attack China.”
The op-ed in question was published Feb. 3. Why did Beijing wait two weeks to respond? The timing suggests the expulsion was more than a response to a “racist” headline.
Only a day before China’s announcement, the U.S. State Department identified five Chinese media, including the state news agency Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily, and Hai Tian Development USA (a U.S.-based company that distributes People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party), as “foreign mission[s] under the Foreign Missions Act, which is to say that they are ‘substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government.’” The “foreign mission” designation means employees of these five organizations will have to register with the U.S. State Department the same way employees of foreign embassies and consulars do.
This designation may cause inconvenience to employees of these five organizations, but it won’t restrict their ability to do their jobs. In truth, no one, not even these five organizations, can deny the fact that Beijing controls them. Such an ownership structure clearly dictates what they can or can’t say, especially when reporting on China’s domestic affairs.
Going through the websites of these five organizations, you won’t find even one line criticizing Chinese authorities’ early cover-up of the coronavirus, nor the mass internment of Uyghurs and persecution of Christians. You won’t read one sympathetic report about Hong Kong protesters, nor any report about the Chinese people’s overwhelming anger and frustration after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the eight early whistleblowers of the coronavirus outbreak.
The domestic news sections of all five organizations are committed to spreading Beijing’s propaganda and helping to shape a positive public opinion of the CCP on foreign soil. It is embarrassing that in order to make a few extra bucks, some U.S. news organizations, such as the Washington Post, have been delivering some of China Daily’s propaganda to its subscribers since 2011, as Mark Hemingway noted in his recent article.
A Free Press in China Could Help Curb the Coronavirus
Beijing’s expulsion of the three journalists is obviously a retaliation to the U.S. State Department’s latest action. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China nailed another reason for China’s action in a strongly worded statement: “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.”
Chinese authorities have been subjected to a lot of international criticism lately for their poor handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The expulsion of the Journal’s China-based journalists was meant as a warning to all foreign news organizations that if they want to maintain their presence in China, they need to play nice.
Beijing probably thought calling the Journal’s headline “racist” would give China a moral high ground for its action. Instead, expelling journalists over a headline only makes China seem small and unbecoming of its world-power status. Beijing also lost control of the narrative; the Wall Street Journal op-ed has become the most popular article on the outlet’s website because of Beijing’s retaliation.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, China has expelled or effectively expelled (not renewing visas) nine foreign journalists as part of the government’s effort to control the narrative of China, especially during the coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese government routinely uses access to China to pressure foreign governments, businesses, and news organization to toe the tight line Beijing sets. But as the latest data presented by The Economist shows, epidemics like the coronavirus are more deadly in a non-democracy than a democracy at any given income level because the free flow of information, fostered by a free press and freedom of speech, actually helps save lives.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board echoed a similar point in its response to China: “What Chinese officials don’t understand is that a free press would have helped them better cope with the virus fallout. Democracies are resilient because a free media sends signals and information that allow an outlet for grievances and alert leaders to problems before they become crises.” If the Chinese government truly wants to get the coronavirus under control, maybe it should encourage free speech and protect both foreign and domestic press.