Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Friday urged China to call off its decision to expel three Beijing-based Wall Street Journal reporters after authorities there denounced an opinion piece the New York-based newspaper published as "racially discriminatory."
The triple expulsion came one day after the U.S. government listed five U.S.-based Chinese state media outlets as foreign embassies because they work as mouthpieces for the Chinese government's propaganda efforts.
Critics say China's move constitutes a serious violation of press and speech freedom while sending a chilling effect among journalists who still work there.
And it may also end up hurting China's own image and fueling anti-China sentiments in the world, the critics add.
"This is a decision that absolutely cannot be justified. The three journalists expelled by China are in no way responsible for the opinion piece. … And therefore, there's no reason at all why they should be punished for this," said Cédric Alviani, head of RSF's East Asia bureau in Taipei.
The triple expulsion was announced Wednesday by foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, who said the Journal's op-ed, titled "China is the real sick man of Asia," carried a "racially discriminatory" and "sensational" headline.
While slamming the newspaper for failing to issue an apology, Geng said the ministry has ordered its three reporters — deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporters Chao Deng and Philip Wen — to leave China by Sunday. Chin and Deng are U.S. citizens; Wen is Australian.
The trio played no role in the opinion piece, authored by Brand College professor Walter Russell Mead.
In the article, Mead was critical of the way China handled the COVID-19 outbreak and its "ineffective" efforts, as well as the vulnerability of country's financial market. Geng didn't say if Chinese authorities had issue with those criticisms.
Freedom of expression
Apparently in his defense, Mead tweeted on Feb. 9: "Apropos of nothing in particular, a word to my new Chinese followers: at American newspapers, writers typically do NOT write or approve the headlines. Argue with the writer about the article content, with the editors about the headlines."
VOA's email to seek Mead's response went unanswered.
Mead's followers responded to his tweet with mixed reaction. One wrote "you're racist and you know it" while another said "China … set the bar for fascism and racism. Let's hear from Uighurs, Tibetans, or just people of any faith in China about their oppressive dictator."
The Journal rebutted in a Thursday editorial, titled "Banished in Beijing," that China imposes the punishment on its reporters "so that they can change subject from the Chinese public's anger about the government management of the coronavirus scourge."
RSF's Alviani said China has to learn to accept criticism, which is normal in democratic societies, where free and independent media serve the interest of the public, not that of the government, especially during a global health crisis like this.
And the best way for China to respond is to reason with the author by publishing counter-arguments either on the Journal or many other media outlets.
Li Datong, a senior Chinese journalist, agreed, calling the ministry "a bully" and its decision "a folly."
"This has become a laughing stock on the internet. The ministry spokesman and its action are baffling and make no sense at all," he told VOA.
"Isn't China a sick man now? Tens of thousands of people are [sick]. Many more are probably undisclosed in a cover-up. These are hard facts. In what other way can you put it?" he added.
Li said that China has shot itself in the foot as the decision proves that China truly is a country without freedom of speech and press, which not only tarnishes its national image, but fuels anti-China sentiments.
China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
China's propaganda efforts
And it is not an isolated incident, as China often uses intimidation among reporters as a tool to deliver its propaganda efforts or global media influence campaign, said Huang Jaw-nian, an associate professor of National Chengchi University, who specializes in the subject of media politics.
"There have long been tactics China uses to pressure western media into avoiding negative reports about China. The goal [of its global media influence campaign] is to maintain China's national image," Huang said.
Before the Wall Street Journal, correspondents from other foreign outlets such as those of the New York Times and Bloomberg had been expelled from China for their investigative reports deemed negative in the eyes of the party's top leadership or authorities in Xinjiang.
By RSF's estimate, no fewer than nine journalists have been ordered to leave China since 2013 after Chinese authorities failed to renew their press visa on expiry.
Huang said, in the short term, such expulsion tactics continue to make Chinese authorities look bad, but in the long run, it creates a chilling effect among journalists who remain in China.
"Individual media professionals may take reference from the example. So it derives a 'killing the chicken to warn the monkey' effect. And in the long run, a self-censorship or a chilling effect may take form," Huang warned.