In a sharp escalation of tensions between the two superpowers, China announced on Tuesday that it would expel American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. It also demanded that those outlets, as well as the Voice of America and Time magazine, provide the Chinese government with detailed information about their operations.
The announcement, made by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, came weeks after the Trump administration limited to 100 the number of Chinese citizens who can work in the United States for five state-run Chinese news organizations that are widely considered propaganda outlets.
China instructed American journalists for the three news organizations whose press credentials are due to expire this year to “notify the Department of Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within four calendar days starting from today and hand back their press cards within ten calendar days.” Almost all the China-based journalists for the three organizations have press cards that expire this year.
The announcement went on to say that the American journalists now working in mainland China “will not be allowed to continue working as journalists in the People’s Republic of China, including its Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions.” The two territories are semiautonomous and in theory have greater press freedoms than the mainland.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the decisions “are entirely necessary and reciprocal countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the U.S.”
The statement also accused the United States of “exclusively targeting Chinese media organizations,” adding that it was “driven by a Cold War mentality.” The new limits imposed by the Trump administration effectively forced 60 Chinese employees of the state-run organizations to leave the country.
Reporters at foreign news outlets in China were among those who aggressively reported on the coronavirus epidemic in January and February, including in its earliest days, when it was a regionalized outbreak in central China and the Chinese government sought to play down its severity.
The news organizations have also reported in the past year on other issues deemed extremely sensitive by Chinese officials, including the mass internment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and the shadowy business dealings of family members of leaders, including President Xi Jinping.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, condemned the expulsion of U.S. reporters in a statement, calling it “especially irresponsible at a time when the world needs the free and open flow of credible information about the coronavirus pandemic.”
“It is critical that the governments of the United States and China move quickly to resolve this dispute and allow journalists to do the important work of informing the public,” he said. He noted that The Times has more journalists in China than anywhere else internationally.
Matt Murray, the editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal, and Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, also condemned China’s decision.
American officials had been bracing for a retaliatory move by Beijing. On March 3, after the Trump administration announced the new regulations on five Chinese state-run news organizations, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter, “Now the U.S. has kicked off the game, let’s play.”
Orville Schell, a longtime American writer on China and a former dean of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism who is now at the Asia Society, said of the move: “There’s been nothing on such a grand scale.”
“Throwing out the big papers is one notch below closing down an embassy,” he added. “It’s a devastatingly dangerous spiral that we’re falling into here. The already compromised musculature between the two countries is being rent apart.”
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have risen quickly in recent years, mainly fueled by a trade war that President Trump started in 2018 and that the two sides paused with a truce in December. Beyond trade, both countries have been pushing against each other on a broad range of strategic and economic issues, including the coronavirus outbreak.
The cycle of escalation involving news organizations began last month.
On Feb. 18, the Trump administration announced that five state-run Chinese news organizations — Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and People’s Daily — would be regulated as foreign government functionaries, subject to rules similar to those applying to Chinese missions.
The next day, China announced that it would expel three Journal staff members based in Beijing in retaliation for the headline of an earlier opinion column, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” which criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Two of the Journal reporters, Josh Chin, an American, and Philip Wen, an Australian, flew out of Beijing the next week. A third reporter, Chao Deng, an American, had been reporting in the virus containment zone of Wuhan and could not leave.
The Journal has been in the cross hairs of the Chinese government since last year. In August, the Foreign Ministry refused to renew the visa of a Singaporean reporter for the newspaper’s Beijing bureau, Chun Han Wong, effectively expelling him. Mr. Wong and Mr. Wen, the Australian reporter, had co-written an investigative story on a cousin of Mr. Xi, the president.
The forced departures of the Journal reporters last month were believed to be the first outright expulsions of foreign journalists by the Chinese government since 1998.
But in recent years, it has become common for the government to harass foreign journalists and their families, in part by requiring them to undergo onerous processes to renew their visas, according to a report published this month by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Recently, the report said, some journalists had been working under visas shorter than the standard one-year duration: six months, three months, even one month.
It counted nine journalists who had effectively been thrown out of the country, whether via outright expulsion or through the unexplained refusal to grant a visa, since 2013, after Mr. Xi took power.
Almost all the American reporters for the three news organizations named in the Tuesday announcement have press cards and visas or residence permits that expire this year. The press cards are needed to maintain residency, and turning them in effectively means the journalists would need to leave the country. Reporters who were recently given a press card and residence permit that do not expire until 2021 can presumably continue to work.
All three news organizations also have full-time reporters based in China who are not American citizens.
The announcement does not indicate that any Hong Kong-based newsrooms of the organizations would need to stop operations, even if the journalists expelled from the mainland are not allowed to report there. The Times and The Journal both have large newsrooms in Hong Kong that serve as editing hubs and bases for reporters. The Washington Post’s Southeast Asia bureau chief is also based in Hong Kong. Those reporters do not operate under the same regulations as the ones based in the mainland.
“This isn’t apples to apples,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters at a State Department briefing that was scheduled before the Chinese Foreign Ministry released its statement. “You all get to ask me whatever question you want and I give you the answer. We know that that kind of freedom doesn’t exist inside of China.”
He maintained that the Chinese news agencies working in the United States were part of Beijing’s propaganda machine — not independent journalism outlets.
Mr. Pompeo, who started the briefing by referring to the “Wuhan virus,” also said that press freedoms are in the interest of the Chinese people “in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency are what will save lives.”
Mr. Pompeo has denounced reporters on occasion, and Mr. Trump does so frequently, calling them the “enemy of the people.”Officials in China and other authoritarian nations have embraced a term popularized by Mr. Trump, “fake news,” to criticize journalists.
The fact that Beijing is trying to prevent the expelled reporters from reporting out of Hong Kong and Macau is a sign of the further erosion of press freedoms in those territories.
In October 2018, Hong Kong officials refused to renew the work visa of the Asia editor of The Financial Times, Victor Mallet, in what appeared to be an effort by the government to coerce foreign journalists to limit their activities and reporting.
In late 2013, China threatened to not renew the press cards for all reporters in the mainland bureaus of The Times and Bloomberg News because of investigative stories they had done, which would have led to their de facto expulsions. That prompted then Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to defend the organizations in meetings in Beijing with Chinese leaders.
Online access to many news outlets, including The Times, The Journal, Bloomberg and Reuters, has been blocked for years in China. In 2019, The Washington Post and The Guardian were added to the list of blocked publications.
Susan L. Shirk, the chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said she worried about the “nasty, unseemly, self-defeating” tit-for-tat between the two countries.
“I think it’s time for a truce,” she said. “Our foreign ministers should get on a Zoom call and start to negotiate some of these contentious but symbolic issues.