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US considers expelling Chinese journalists over Beijing booting WSJ reporters as press war heats up

US considers expelling Chinese journalists over Beijing booting WSJ reporters as press war heats up
The US may expel hundreds of Chinese journalists in retaliation for Beijing kicking out three Wall Street Journal writers involved in an ‘offensive’ piece, a further escalation of an undeclared “press war” between the two nations.

The Trump administration is considering whether to throw dozens, even hundreds of Chinese journalists out of the country, officials involved in the discussion told Bloomberg on Monday. John Ullyot, spokesman for the National Security Council, confirmed only that “a range of responses” was being discussed. A mass expulsion would be a decisive act of retaliation for Beijing’s ejection of three WSJ journalists last week – but it would also represent a sharp escalation of an undeclared conflict simmering between Washington and Beijing regarding the role and rights of journalists.

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Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, himself a former WSJ reporter in Beijing, is leading the “intense” debate to decide the Chinese journalists’ fate – a factor that could tilt the balance in favor of a move that other officials told Bloomberg they’re concerned might trample “American values on freedom of the press.” Still others merely wonder how such a mass expulsion would be legally possible, given that foreign journalists in the US do not serve at the pleasure of the Trump administration. None of the affected writers would be guilty of any crime, so even revoking their visas as a first step to kicking them out would be a time-consuming process likely to bog down the courts for months if not years.

The National Security Council condemned China’s revocation of the three WSJ writers’ passes as an “egregious act” and an “attempt to control the press” in a statement on Friday. WSJ Deputy Beijing Bureau Chief Josh Chin and reporters Chao Deng and Philip Wen were given five days to leave the country on Wednesday after the outlet allegedly refused to apologize for publishing an op-ed calling China “the real sick man of Asia” in the midst of the deadly coronavirus outbreak. William Lewis, CEO of parent company Dow Jones, insisted the op-ed was published independently of the newsroom, pleading with Beijing to restore the passes of the exiled reporters – two US citizens and an Australian. The piece, which criticized China’s handling of the epidemic, was in fact penned by Professor Walter Russel Mead of Bard College in New York.

China had more reasons to retaliate than a “gloating” and “disgusting” op-ed, however. Last Tuesday, the Trump administration classified five of the largest Chinese state media outlets – Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, and the distributors for China Daily and People’s Daily – as foreign diplomatic missions, claiming their reporters were propaganda agents for Beijing. It forced them to submit to a higher level of government monitoring. The outlets must, to conform to US law, register the names of their US employees, declare property holdings, and secure approval from Washington before expanding those holdings. While State Department officials told reporters that employees of those outlets would not see their work restricted by US authorities, the move prompted fears of a chilling effect on free expression. 

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The decision tied in with the Trump administration’s efforts to “contain” China, which Washington has tried to frame as the aggressor in the geopolitical sphere. While declaring Chinese state media employees to be propaganda agents has apparently been considered by previous administrations, concerns over being seen to impinge on press freedom made such a move radioactive. The Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized the US for attempting to decide which outlets are “propaganda,” observing that forcing regulations on foreign civil society groups is not typically an action of democratic governments.

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