The Chinese government announced Wednesday, Feb. 19, that it is revoking the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporters over a recent opinion piece published relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

The WSJ article titled “China is the real sick man of Asia” was written by Hudson Institute scholar Walter Russell Mead, which criticized Beijing’s initial reaction to the virus outbreak and was concerned for  its impact on China’s economy and political system. China has criticized the opinion piece as “racist.”

“The editors used such a racially discriminatory title, triggering indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

“Regrettably, what the WSJ has done so far is nothing but parrying and dodging its responsibility,” he added. “The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory language and maliciously slander and attack China.”

The WSJ said the three journalists work for the news operation, one of them has been on assignment in Wuhan—the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. They have been given five days to leave the country.

William Lewis, the Journal’s publisher and the CEO of its parent company Dow Jones, said he was disappointed by the decision and pointed out that “none of the journalists being expelled had any involvement” with the opinion piece.

“Our opinion pages regularly publish articles with opinions that people disagree—or agree—with and it was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece,” Lewis said. “However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) issued a statement on Wednesday, describing China’s move as an “unprecedented form of retaliation against foreign journalists in China.”

“FCCC member correspondents and their colleagues in China are suffering from an increasing frequency of harassment, surveillance, and intimidation from authorities. The expulsion of these three WSJ reporters is only the latest, and most alarming, measure authorities have taken,” the statement added.

Another WSJ reporter, Chun Han Wong, was effectively expelled from China in August last year after the government declined to renew his press credentials following his co-authoring of a report on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s cousin whose activities were being scrutinized by Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies. 

China’s decision comes less than one day after the U.S. State Department announced it has designated five Chinese media companies as agents of the Communist Party of China.

Geng, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, called the U.S.’s decision “totally unjustified and unacceptable” and warned of unspecified repercussions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced China’s action, saying, “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.”

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