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Opinion: A sign of China's insecurity

Philipp Bilsky
February 20, 2020

For the first time in about 30 years, China has expelled several foreign news correspondents at once. The move is a sign of Beijing's insecurity over its handling of the deadly coronavirus, says DW's Philipp Bilsky.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Image: Reuters/Xinhua

On February 19, China ordered three Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporters to leave the country over a column, "China is the real sick man of Asia," written by one of the newspaper's regular columnists.

In the text, which was clearly marked as an opinion piece, the author criticized Beijing's "insufficient crisis management" in the fight against the coronavirus that "has shaken confidence in the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad." The author went on to discuss his opinion on what the virus, or a similar future outbreak, could mean for the global economy.

DW's Philipp Bilsky
DW's Philipp BilskyImage: DW

Read more: Coronavirus: How hospitals in China's Wuhan kept the sick away

The spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs justified the expulsion of the WSJ correspondents by citing the commentary's headline.

He stated that the headline had a "racist character" and that the characterization of China as the "sick man of Asia" hearkens back to when China was oppressed and exploited by Western colonial powers.

It is necessary to understand that the Chinese government — and many Chinese people — react sensitively to this historical reference.

The title could be considered inappropriate considering the current health crisis. But the expulsion of correspondents is completely inappropriate.

Moreover, the Chinese government — if one believes the words of the Foreign Ministry spokesman — is obviously not only sensitive to the headline, but also to criticism of the government's crisis management in general. The government believes the column is disrespectful of its efforts.  

Beijing's sensitivity could be a result of the coronavirus criticism on the Chinese internet, especially after the death of Li Wenliang, a whistle-blowing Chinese doctor who was among the first to identify the deadly virus.

Read more: Sieren's China: Li Wenliang, a tragic hero

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted to the expulsion of the journalists stating: "Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counterarguments, not restrict speech." There's nothing more to be added to that.

Ironically, Chinese readers could not make up their own minds about what they thought of the WSJ columnist's choice of words or arguments, and whether they should feel offended. The newspaper has been blocked in China for quite some time.