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US-China Ties Further Tested After Journalists' Expulsion Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

By Nike Ching March 18, 2020

The United States is pushing back on China's actions to expel American journalists, a move that officials and observers said "serves no good purpose" at a time when the world is dealing with the "extraordinary international uncertainty" about the spread of COVID-19.

"I'm not happy about that at all," U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at a White House briefing on Wednesday.

In addition to expelling reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, China Tuesday also ordered two other news outlets — Time magazine and the independent U.S.-funded Voice of America news operation — to give Chinese authorities detailed information about their work in China.

Press credentials for Times, Journal and Post reporters were set to expire at year's end, but Beijing ordered them to turn in their press cards within 10 days.

"They sort of overreacted in this case. We're trying to treat them as a peer," said a senior State Department official, while declining to discuss possible U.S. actions when asked about further diplomatic repercussions between the two countries.

"We've tried for four years to make this relationship work, and it is difficult to continue doing that," the official told reporters at a background briefing on Wednesday. "Especially during the (coronavirus) outbreak, the pressures to self-censor or to block the investigation" is a matter of "life and death."

"Dialogue is part of diplomacy," the official added. "We will work through this."

In Washington, leading professional journalists organizations condemned the expulsions.

"This action will likely backfire on Beijing, which badly needs to stabilize its economy from the effects of COVID-19," said Michael Freedman, president of the National Press Club. "That is far less likely if international investors and businesses question information coming out of China while independent and reliable news outlets are being restricted in their reporting there."

In Beijing, China defended its decision to expel reporters from three major U.S. newspapers, saying the move was a necessary response to what it called "unreasonable oppression" of Chinese media organizations in the United States.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters the United States should "stop political oppression and unreasonable restrictions on Chinese media."

China said the U.S. journalists "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 territories of Hong Kong and Macao are semi-autonomous, where the press has more freedom than on mainland China.

In a statement, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) said it "deeply regrets that authorities in Beijing have taken the further step of banning affected journalism from reporting in Hong Kong and Macau. The FCCC is not aware of any precedent for such a requirement."

Washington Post China correspondent Gerry Shih is among the reporters being expelled by Beijing.

"Thinking back, reporting conditions have become so difficult that much of the China stories I'm most proud of were in fact reported outside," said Shih in a tweet.

Foreign correspondents working in China are said to be subject to surveillance and government pressure, in an environment of extreme hostility toward the types of factual reporting Chinese authorities claim to welcome.

"Chinese leaders have domestic political reasons for kicking out foreign independent news media," said Jacob Stokes, senior policy analyst in the China program at the United States Institute of Peace. "It means less scrutiny of official decisions, including those related to coronavirus, as well as events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang."

Stoke added, "Beijing also wants to control the narrative globally about the origins and China's handling of the (COVID-19) pandemic."

The reporters for the three news outlets had aggressively reported on the coronavirus outbreak that originated in China when it was at first a regional health issue that has transformed into a global pandemic with devastating ramifications.

The three newspapers have also reported on other issues that Chinese authorities consider sensitive, including the internment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and the business affairs of Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet deplored the expulsion, saying it was "especially irresponsible at a time when the world needs the free and open flow of credible information about the coronavirus pandemic."

Top editors at the Journal and Post also condemned the Chinese action.

A VOA statement joined its U.S. media counterparts in condemnation of China's restrictions on free press.

"In common with our colleagues at The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, we remain committed to our work in China and condemn attempts to curtail it. We are committed to continuing to serve as a consistently reliable, trusted and authoritative source of news to our Chinese-speaking audiences," VOA said.

On March 2, the U.S. announced it would limit the number of Chinese state media personnel allowed to work in the United States, citing Beijing's "long-standing intimidation and harassment of journalists."

Five Chinese state-owned outlets would be limited to a total of 100 Chinese citizens who could work in the U.S.

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