Facing Chinese threats to disrupt the Wall Street Journal’s operations, the Trump administration should warn that it will retaliate against any Chinese action directed toward the publication.
The Chinese Communist Party is upset over Walter Russell Mead’s recent Wall Street Journal column “China is the real sick man of Asia.”
China says that the column is racist and “against professional ethics.” Its foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, is demanding that the newspaper “make a public apology [and] hold the persons involved accountable.” If not, he says, “We reserve the right to take further measures.”
That’s intended as a threat to carry out cyberattacks against the newspaper. Cyberattacks give China the means of confidently imposing serious economic and operational costs with a measure of deniability.
To be clear, the Chinese know exactly what they are doing here.
Because these intimidation tactics do not exist in a microcosm, they speak to a deeper arrogance and broader strategic intent. China believes it has a right to control what others around the world say and read about Xi Jinping’s regime and that silencing dissent is a necessary part of establishing China’s ultimate, global hegemony.
Moreover, Geng was educated at Tufts and spent five years at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. He knows that the Wall Street Journal won’t back down absent a serious fight. That he persists in making his threats indicates that high-ranking party officials have told him to double down. Beijing’s resident Twitter troll Zhao Lijian has spent the past couple of days amplifying this message on Twitter. Zhao, whose job is to be read by Americans, insists that the Wall Street Journal is now defined by “naked discrimination, provocation, venting and slander.”
Many will read China’s complaints and shrug. But we can’t just ignore what Beijing is doing. We must aggressively reject it.
For a start, the pledge that China “reserve[s] the right to take further measures” must be taken as a veiled threat to launch cyberattacks on the Wall Street Journal. While the Chinese know that an overt threat would force a U.S. response and limit their post-action deniability, they also know how their words will be construed. This is a threat, and it is not just rhetorical in nature.
But we must also recognize that this is only one tip of the Chinese spear against American and global press freedom.
China wants to ensure that Western media outlets do not criticize the regime over its messy handling of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Knowing that critical attention jeopardizes Xi’s credibility as a leader, party apparatchiks want to present the criticism as a conspiracy against the Chinese people rather than objective criticism of the Chinese polity. But China’s desire to shape foreign media coverage goes far beyond the coronavirus.
Take Beijing’s increasingly ludicrous complaints about skeptical coverage of Huawei and of China harassing the NBA. They are different concerns, but both reflect China’s immense belief that it can either buy or bully the world into submission. Its aspirations are realistic: Consider China’s success in relocating Hollywood under its sickle and hammer.
As I said, this cuts to the core of our society, indeed, our very existence, as a nation. We must not stand for it.
The Trump administration and journalists at large should unequivocally condemn China’s threats. And the Trump administration should make clear that any attack on the Wall Street Journal’s servers, systems, or personnel will result in outsized retaliation.