After trade war and pandemic, China and the U.S. step up fight over journalism

Beijing is invoking matters ranging from McCarthyism to the war in Iraq amid a deterioration in relations that has been exacerbated by, but is not limited to, the coronavirus outbreak.

“We deplore and reject the erroneous move by the U.S. side, which is an escalation of its political suppression of Chinese media,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday. He was responding to news that the Department of Homeland Security would publish a notice in the Federal Register on Monday stating that visas for all mainland Chinese journalists would be limited to 90 days, although they could apply for extensions.

“The U.S., entrenched in a Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice, has launched one round of suppression after another against Chinese media agencies,” Zhao told reporters in Beijing.

The world’s two biggest economies, having already fought a trade war and mired in a pandemic, have this year been at loggerheads over journalism. The tit-for-tat measures have forced 60 Chinese journalists working for state-media outlets to leave the United States, while almost all American reporters for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Washington Post have been forced to leave China.

The DHS notice said the change was being made “to achieve greater reciprocity,” the notice said.

Foreign reporters in China have traditionally received year-long, multi-entry permits, although in the past few years Beijing has “weaponized” visas, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, to show displeasure at reporting on sensitive subjects such as the mass detention of Uighur Muslims. Some foreign journalists now receive only month-long visas.

But Chinese journalists have been granted visas that allow them to remain in the United States indefinitely, although the documents are valid only for a single entry.

Zhao on Monday accused the United States of double standards.

“The U.S. prides itself on press freedom and transparency, but why is it so afraid of Chinese media reports?” he asked. He accused the U.S. government of “prejudice, discrimination and exclusion toward Chinese media.”

“It has been using this so-called reciprocity as an excuse to escalate political suppression against Chinese media,” Zhao said. “We urge the United States to immediately correct its mistake, otherwise we will have to take countermeasures.”

U.S.-Chinese relations have grown increasingly acrimonious over the source of the coronavirus now ravaging the United States.

The Chinese Communist Party has been seizing on the rising coronavirus toll in the United States as evidence of what it describes as the Trump administration’s bungled response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has repeatedly pushed the theory that the virus leaked from a top-security lab in Wuhan, without offering any supporting evidence, rather than originating in a seafood market as Chinese authorities and the World Health Organization have said is most likely.

The promotion of the lab theory has evoked comparisons to the faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that was used by the George W. Bush administration to justify invading Iraq in 2003. One of those to draw the comparison was commentator Fareed Zakaria, who said on CNN that it was this kind of “politicized intelligence” that led to the mistakes of the Iraq War.

“China won’t be Iraq,” the Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesperson, Hua Chunying, tweeted Saturday, posting an image of Zakaria.

Pottinger last week delivered a video message in Mandarin Chinese in which he asked what the “ultimate legacy” of the May Fourth student protest movement would be. He was referring to student protests in 1919 against the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles, which handed Germany’s concessions in China to Japan. The students considered the agreement to be a national humiliation and blamed traditional Confucian values for China’s weakness in the world.

“It is a question only the Chinese people themselves can answer. The May Fourth Movement belongs to them,” Pottinger said in the video.

“Will the movement’s democratic aspirations remain unfulfilled for another century? Will its core ideas be deleted or distorted through official censorship and disinformation?” Pottinger asked. “Will its champions be slandered as ‘unpatriotic,’ ‘pro-American,’ ‘subversive’? We know the Communist Party will do its best to make it so,” he continued.

The video was quickly deleted from social media platforms in China. The China Digital Times, a California-based site that monitors the country’s heavily censored Internet, reported that government authorities ordered media to “strictly delete any reposts, comments, and content” related to Pottinger’s speech.

But China’s state broadcaster, often a conduit for official proclamations, devoted several minutes to the speech on Sunday’s main news bulletin. Anchor Li Zimeng used an old Chinese proverb about having ulterior motives to accuse Pottinger of being like “the weasel who gives New Year’s greetings to a hen.”

She also indirectly criticized President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who have been the loudest public proponents of the Wuhan lab theory.

“Those American politicians who attempt to bring back the spirit of McCarthyism will only further disrupt American epidemic prevention and control and endanger the lives and interests of more Americans,” she said. “Those who are obsessed with playing politics like a power game in House of Cards, you’d better save your street tricks.”

Instead of trying to sow discord in China, Li said, those in the Trump administration should be asking themselves “why the world’s top scientific and technological power is in such a mess and is so defeated in the fight against the epidemic?”

More than 1.3 million people in the United States have caught the virus, and almost 80,000 people have died. That toll far outstrips the 4,633 reported deaths in China, which locked down vast swaths of the country in late January and early February as the virus spread.

But China’s recent efforts show that fully stopping the transmission of the virus is an extremely difficult task. New cases are being reported — including in the original epicenter of Wuhan — despite strict controls on entry into and movement around China.

The city of Shulan in Jilin province, near the borders with Russia and China, has declared it is in “wartime mode” after linking 15 new cases to a super-spreader. All public places have been closed and all public transport suspended, with residents told to stay home while the outbreak is contained.

Separately, in Wuhan, six new cases have been found in two days at a residential compound.

They appear to have started with an 89-year-old man who first developed a fever on March 17 but recovered at home within 10 days without ever seeing a doctor. But he started to have health issues again last month, and last week he was confirmed as having the coronavirus. His wife and two other elderly couples in the compound also tested positive for the virus.

The compound has almost 5,000 residents, and about 300 returned to it last month once controls in Wuhan were eased. Chutian Metropolis Daily, a local paper, said those moves inflicted “heavy pressure on epidemic prevention and control.”

Zhang Yuxin, the chief of the neighborhood committee, the smallest unit of the Communist Party structure, was removed from his post for “perfunctory and ineffective work in compound management.”

Liu Yang and Wang Yuan in Beijing contributed to this report.

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