China on Wednesday said it has revoked the press credentials of three reporters for the U.S. newspaper Wall Street Journal over a headline for an opinion column deemed racist by the government. The expulsions come after the Trump administration on Tuesday designated five state-run Chinese news outlets that operate in the United States as "foreign missions," requiring them to register their properties and employees in the U.S. China said it reserves the right to respond to what it called a mistaken policy.
The headline on the Journal's opinion column referred to the current virus outbreak in China and called the country the "Real Sick Man of Asia."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the February 3 op-ed by Bard College Professor Walter Russel Mead "smears the efforts of the Chinese government and people on fighting (the virus) epidemic."
"The editors used such a racially discriminatory title, triggering indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community," he said in a statement.
He said the expulsions came after the Journal refused demands to "make an official apology and hold the persons involved accountable."
The term "sick man of Asia" was originally used to describe China more than a century ago when it suffered internal divisions and was forced to accept unequal treaties with Western powers.
Like most foreign media, the Wall Street Journal is unavailable within China and its website and stories are blocked by online censors. It did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China issued a statement expressing "deep concern and strong condemnation" of the Chinese move. It pointed out that none of the three reporters had any involvement with the opinion piece or its headline.
"The action taken against The Journal correspondents is an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organizations by taking retribution against their China-based correspondents," the statement said. It said the expulsions are the latest case of growing "harassment, surveillance and intimidation from authorities."
The Journal identified the three journalists as Deputy Bureau Chief Josh Chin, reporter Chao Deng - both U.S. citizens - and reporter Philip Wen, an Australian. They have been given five days to leave the country, according to Jonathan Cheng, the Journal's China bureau chief.
China has in recent years refused to issue or renew credentials for foreign journalists, but this is the first time in decades that it has actually revoked their documents, effectively expelling them from the country. That reflects a new hard line in foreign affairs in which China has sought to exact economic and diplomatic costs from companies and countries that don't follow its policies over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, human rights and other sensitive issues.