China has announced plans to expel American journalists from five publications today including the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Time and Voice of America. The journalists will also not be allowed to report from Hong Kong:

China instructed American journalists “whose press credentials are due to expire before the end of 2020” to “notify the Department of Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within four calendar days starting from today and hand back their press cards within ten calendar days.”

It went on to specify that the American journalists now working in China “will not be allowed to continue working as journalists in the People’s Republic of China, including its Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions.”

So is this a response to China’s frustration over being blamed for the coronavirus outbreak? The Times points out this back and forth has been building for several weeks and coronavirus was definitely part of it:

Tensions between Washington and Beijing over news organizations started to escalate last month. On Feb. 18, the Trump administration declared that employees of five state-controlled Chinese news organizations — Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and The People’s Daily — were not practitioners of journalism, but government operatives. As such, the State Department announced, they would be treated as foreign government functionaries.

The next day, China demanded that The Journal apologize for a Feb. 3 opinion article headlined “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” which criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. That same day, the Journal publisher William Lewis offered a statement that did not include an apology…

On March 2, it was the U.S. government’s turn: The State Department announced that it would limit to 100 the number of Chinese citizens working for five state-controlled Chinese news organizations.

The letter explaining the Chinese decision frames it as a response to a US mandate, which began in 2018, requiring five Chinese media outlets to register as foreign agents. This is an English version of the Chinese statement which is titled “China Takes Countermeasures Against US Suppression of Chinese Media Organizations in the United States.”

In recent years, the US government has placed unwarranted restrictions on Chinese media agencies and personnel in the US, purposely made things difficult for their normal reporting assignments, and subjected them to growing discrimination and politically-motivated oppression. For instance, in December 2018, the US ordered certain Chinese media organizations in the US to register as “foreign agents”; in February 2020, it designated five Chinese media entities in the US as “foreign missions” and imposed a cap on the number of their employees, in effect expelling Chinese journalists from the US. Such outrageous treatment prompted strong representations from China, in which China firmly objected to and strongly condemned the US move, and stressed its reserved right to respond and take actions.

So is this mostly about coronavirus? There’s good reason to think China is particularly agitated about being blamed for mishandling the coronavirus outbreak. Chinese officials are actively promoting a conspiracy theory, both at home and abroad, that U.S. soldiers spread the virus in Wuhan. The NY Times reported this week that the message from a foreign ministry spokesman had been seen more than 160 million times on Chinese social media. That sort of propaganda seems like a pretty extreme reaction so you can probably gauge from that how worked up the Chinese are about this issue.

But let’s face it, China has also been upset fairly recently about coverage of Hong Kong protests and coverage of the re-education camps in Xinjiang. The NY Times in particular published leaked Chinese documents about the camps back in November. I have no doubt there was a great deal of panic and anger behind the scene in China when that story came out. So there are really any number of reasons China might want to take this opportunity to kick out journalists who continue to embarrass the Communist Party. Coronavirus is just the latest moment where China’s inability to control foreign media has presented a problem. Generally speaking, it’s tough to run a communist dictatorship in a world full of free people who won’t do what they are told.

As for China’s equivalence between state-run news outlets like Xinhua and U.S. outlets, that’s nonsense. Xinhua is China’s largest news agency. It’s also a creature of the Communist Party. Every story they put out is run through a filter controlled by the party. Here’s how Reporters Without Borders described it in a report:

In the service of the communist party, the agency produces two types of news: that intended for the general public and news destined for the regime leaders. The general public receives only superficial and distorted news. The same double system applies to every structure in China. Each administrative body is replicated by a party structure. At Xinhua the administration and the party are so alike that they are hard to separate. The members of the editorial board are the same as those of the agency Party committee. Each section is controlled by a Party cell (just as in the factories and neighbourhoods). The strength of the CCP rests on this ubiquitous surveillance.

The agency’s first priority is to handle news produced by the Propaganda Department, now named the Publicity Department, that comes under the CCP Central Committee. The various ministries, particularly the foreign affairs ministry, can also send Xinhua news that is picked up and sent to the country’s various media.

The Propaganda Department controls Xinhua, defining the orientation and subjects of reporting. Each article or report has to fulfill a number of ideological and journalistic criteria before being released for publication. It could be a case of general ideas (ban on criticising a member of the government or the CCP, benefiting countries that are “friends” of China. Problems of syntax arise or the correct way to describe places, “Chinese province of Taiwan”, “Taiwanese of China”, “autonomous region of Tibet” and so on…

Xinhua is de facto run by the Propaganda Department. The agency gets its editorial line from this organ of the CCP and sticks to it slavishly.

The U.S. is absolutely correct to treat these “journalists” as foreign agents. If the Communist Party of China wants to pretend that’s an outrage, that’s their problem.