Coronavirus: US-China tensions ramped up as American journalists expelled

Beijing accused of spreading false story of US military involvement in Covid-19 outbreak

China on Wednesday expelled American journalists working for three major news organisations, in a sharp escalation of tensions between the two major powers.

The move comes as Beijing and Washington are engaging in an increasingly bitter row over the origins of the coronavirus, with Chinese officials promoting theories of US involvement while US president Donald Trump is labelling it "the China virus".

Attacking Washington’s “cold war mentality and ideological bias”, the Chinese foreign ministry said US journalists at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post whose press cards were due to expire this year had 10 days to leave the country.

As foreign journalists have to renew their press credentials in China each year, the ruling covers almost all American writers currently working for those outlets, meaning at least 13 will face expulsion.

The order also stated they would not be allowed to work from China's special administrative regions of Hong Kong or Macau, which formally have greater freedoms enshrined in their "one country, two systems" frameworks.

The US restricted the five Chinese media outlets operating in the US to a total of 100 staff visas

Beijing also ordered the three outlets, along with Voice of America and Time magazine, to declare in writing their staff, finance, operation and real estate in China – regulations similar to those recently imposed on Chinese media outlets in the US.

China said the moves were “necessary and reciprocal countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organisations experience in the US”.


Earlier this month, the US reclassified five state-controlled Chinese media outlets – Xinhua, China Global Television Network, the People's Daily, China Daily and China Radio – as foreign government functionaries that would be subject to similar rules as diplomats, as they were "effectively controlled by the Beijing government".

Immediately after the reclassification, China expelled three other Wall Street Journal journalists, ostensibly over a headline in the paper that Beijing deemed racist, but a move believed by the newspaper’s management to have been a retaliatory strike.

The US then restricted the five outlets operating in the US to a total of 100 staff visas, while they had previously 160.

In response to the visa limits, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote on Twitter: "Now the US has kicked off the game, let's play."

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo rejected the comparison between the two country's actions, saying that the Chinese outlets identified in the US "were not media that were acting here freely but were... part of Chinese propaganda outlets."

They are not “apples to apples”, he told reporters, and the Chinese outlets were identified as foreign missions under American law.

“I regret China’s decision today to further foreclose the world’s ability to conduct the free press operations that, frankly, would be really good for the Chinese people in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency are what will save lives.”

Conspiracy theory

The US last week summoned the Chinese ambassador after a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing promoted a conspiracy theory that suggested the US brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.

Mr Trump said: “I didn’t appreciate the fact that China was saying our military gave it to them. Our military did not give it to anybody.”

I cannot think of a more dangerous time in the US-China relationship in the last 40 years

Insisting on calling it the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus” – despite repeated “strongly indignant” protests from Beijing – the president said: “It did come from China, so I think it’s very accurate.”

Veteran China watcher Bill Bishop said China's Communist Party was "stirring anger against the US inside China while embarking on a global campaign to sow disinformation about the origin of the virus and the [party's] initial mishandling of the outbreak."

They were now engaging in a “propaganda push”, he wrote in a Sinocism newsletter, while also offering to help to fight the epidemic in other countries.

“I cannot think of a more dangerous time in the US-China relationship in the last 40 years,” he said, “and the carnage from the coronavirus has barely begun in the US.”