On Wednesday, China revoked the press credentials of the reporters as punishment for an opinion piece published by the newspaper, according to the country's Foreign Ministry. The action marked the first time in the post-Mao era that China's government has expelled multiple journalists from one global news organization at the same time, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The government ordered Deputy Bureau Chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both U.S. nationals, and reporter Philip Wen, an Australian national, to exit the country within five days. WSJ publisher-Dow Jones CEO William Lewis said he was disappointed by the decision and asked China to reconsider. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also condemned China for the expulsion in a written statement.
The order followed widespread public anger at the headline of a Feb. 3 editorial that described China as “the real sick man of Asia.” Government authorities described the language as "racially discriminatory" and potentially libelous.
It's not clear if China's decision to expel the reporters was in retaliation against the United States for this week's decision to require five Chinese state-run media organizations to register their personnel and property with the federal government. The Trump administration has become more wary of possible Chinese influence on U.S. media.
However, it's unfair to punish the WSJ's reporting staff for an opinion piece written by an academic who expressed concern that China's government wasn't more forthcoming in sharing information about the coronavirus. In the piece, Hudson Institute scholar Walter Russell Mead criticized regional authorities for being "secretive and self-serving."
It's also unfair to describe the phrase “sick man of Asia” as a racist term. According to the newspaper, Chinese intellectuals and outsiders used the phrase to refer to a weakened China’s exploitation by European powers and Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The period is now described in Chinese history textbooks as the “century of humiliation.”
Unfortunately, charges of racism have become more common in China to attack Western observers. That was evident last year when critics blasted UBS economist Paul Donovan for making a sarcastic remark about the effect of swine flu on inflation.
"Chinese consumer prices rose. This was mainly due to sick pigs. Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig," he said. Somehow, the phrase was construed as a racist remark about the Chinese people, which it clearly wasn't. Fortunately, UBS didn't fold to Chinese demands to fire Donovan; however, the incident did highlight how attempts at humor can be completely lost in translation.
Charges of racism also divert from reporting facts about the spread of the coronavirus, which is now officially called Covid-19. Expelling the WSJ's reporters only feeds speculation that China has something to hide.