President Donald Trump on Wednesday criticized China's unprecedented decision to expel American journalists from three major U.S. newspapers, as media advocates feared that tensions between the two powers provided cover for Beijing to target the press.
All US journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- about 13 people -- have been told to hand back their credentials to Chinese authorities within 10 days.
"I'm not happy to see it. I have my own disputes with all three of those media groups -- I think you know that very well -- but I don't like seeing that at all," Trump told reporters at the White House.
Trump has incessantly sparred with major U.S. media outlets, often castigating them at raucous rallies and branding them as "fake news" or the "enemy of the people" over coverage that shows his administration in a poor light.
China's government appeared to be taking a rhetorical cue from Trump as it defended its largest expulsion of foreign journalists in recent memory.
"We reject ideological bias against China, reject fake news made in the name of press freedom, reject breaches of ethics in journalism," tweeted foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
Tensions have soared in recent years between the United States and China on a host of issues but the global coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated friction.
Trump again on Wednesday insisted on calling SARS-CoV-2 the "Chinese virus," a term that Beijing calls stigmatizing and which is discouraged by the World Health Organization.
In turn, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman last week outraged Washington by tweeting an unfounded conspiracy theory that the U.S. military brought the illness to Wuhan, the metropolis where cases were first reported in late 2019.
While Beijing has long criticized foreign coverage, it said the expulsions were retaliation for new restrictions on the number of Chinese nationals who can work for its state-run media on U.S. soil.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly rejected the comparison, noting that U.S. newspapers are not run by the government and are free to ask critical questions, and asked China to reconsider.
- U.S. says options available -
A senior State Department official said the United States still has "lots of other things we can do" after the journalist expulsions but declined to elaborate.
"We're just looking for reciprocal treatment. If you want to be a great power, then you should expect to play on a level playing field, and media should be allowed to operate freely in China as you do here in the U.S.," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The State Department initially said it was curbing the number of Chinese nationals from state-run outlets to correspond to the number of visas issued to U.S. journalists by Beijing -- which has been increasingly assertive against what it sees as unfavorable coverage.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that China may have made it easier to block reporting on sensitive issues including its mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims -- as well as the novel coronavirus, news of which authorities initially tried to hide.
"It is unfortunate that US moves to restrict Chinese media operations gave China the perfect cover to suppress reporting that it has always complained about, under the phony banner of taking 'reciprocal' measures,'" said Steven Butler, the group's Asia program director.
Reporters Without Borders, however, stressed a difference between actions taken by the two countries.
"The media targeted by China enforce and abide by the principles of ethical journalism -- including editorial independence and the verification of facts for the public benefit -- while the Chinese state media officially serve as mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party," said the group's East Asia bureau head, Cedric Alviani.
China last month expelled three journalists from The Wall Street Journal after the newspaper ran an opinion piece on the coronavirus crisis with a headline that Beijing called racist.