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Expulsion of US journalists was response to ‘unreasonable oppression’: China

Beijing defends ban of 13 journalists, which has been criticised as irresponsible during coronavirus crisis

Beijing has defended its decision to expel journalists from three major US publications, saying it was responding to “unreasonable oppression” of Chinese journalists in the US, as a diplomatic row escalates between the two countries.

Speaking at a regular press briefing, the foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing had been “compelled” to take countermeasures after Washington imposed restrictions on staff at Chinese state media outlets in the US.

“We urge the US to take off its ideological prejudice, abandon cold war mentality,” Geng said. “China is not one to start trouble, but it will not blink if trouble comes. We urge the US side to immediately stop suppressing Chinese media, otherwise the US side will lose even more.”

At least 13 journalists will be expelled in what is an unprecedented retaliation against foreign media working in the country. An announcement made just after midnight said all US journalists working for the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal whose credentials were up for renewal this year would have 10 days to turn in their press cards, a measure that effectively bans them from reporting in the country.

China has said it is responding to a US move last month to classify Chinese state media organisations as foreign missions and tighten controls on them. China’s foreign ministry said such “unwarranted restrictions” had made work difficult for reporters and subject to “politically motivated oppression”.

Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times, on Wednesday warned of more retaliation. “If the two sides go after each other’s journalists, American media will suffer more,” he wrote on Weibo, pointing out there are 29 US outlets with operations in China, compared with 19 Chinese outlets in the US. “Whether the two sides fight in terms of numbers of people or the number of media outlets, it is the US that will suffer more.”

The expulsions come as the US and China attempt to shift blame over the coronavirus outbreak that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. As China struggles to return to normal in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, which killed more than 3,000 people in mainland China, it has pushed the idea that the virus may have originated in the US. Donald Trump has continued to call Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”.

Analysts said the expulsion of foreign correspondents, many of whom have exposed issues such as re-education camps in Xinjiang or authorities’ mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, is indicative of an emboldened Beijing. Last month China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters.

“This is more about China feeling like it has the capacity to do what it’s always wanted to do, which is to limit critical reporting within China,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a former Australian diplomat.

“In one move China can demonstrate its strength to domestic audiences and stir up existing nationalism. It can demonstrate to the US it is happy to race to the bottom in decoupling. It can have a chilling effect on the journalists that remain,” she said.

According to a statement from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), more journalists may be affected, depending on how broadly China enforces the ban. “Journalists illuminate the world we live in. China, through this action, is dimming itself,” it said in a statement.

“By expelling journalists and keeping others in a state of visa uncertainty, China is overtly using its powers in an attempt to influence overseas news coverage, by punishing those who publish information authorities see as unfavourable and wish to keep quiet.”

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, said China had made a “grave mistake” and urged the two governments to resolve the dispute quickly. “We strongly condemn the decision of the Chinese authorities to expel American journalists, an action that is especially irresponsible at a time when the world needs the free and open flow of credible information about the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

Matt Murray, the Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief, called it an “unprecedented attack on freedom of the press” at a time of crisis. “Trusted news reporting from and about China has never been more important. We oppose government interference with a free press anywhere in the world. Our commitment to reporting fully and deeply on China is unchanged.”

The Washington Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, said: “We unequivocally condemn any action by China to expel US reporters. 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. Severely limiting the flow of that information, which China now seeks to do, only aggravates the situation.”

The New York Times newspaper’s board said in an editorial that China’s crackdown was “an unfortunate echo of the cold war, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. The global spread of the coronavirus demands independent and trusted information from the country where the scourge began.”

It criticised China’s claim to be responding in kind after the US tightened rules on Chinese state media, saying US publishers were not comparable to the organisations that Soviet and Chinese Communist regimes sent abroad. “It is common knowledge that their oversize staffs include spies,” it said.

Correspondents facing imminent expulsion expressed their disappointment and frustration at deteriorating reporting conditions.

In an escalation of its previous expulsions, China also declared that the journalists from the three papers would not be allowed to work from Hong Kong or Macau. Legal observers questioned how it would be implemented since Hong Kong’s governing Basic Law provides for freedom of the press and freedom of choice of employment.

Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator, said the inclusion of Hong Kong in the order was the “death of ‘one country, two systems’”, the political system of special autonomy under which Hong Kong operates.

The three papers whose staff are being expelled – and two other US outlets, Time and Voice of America – will also be required to “declare in written form information about their staff, finance, operation and real estate in China”.

Arab observer

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