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China expels Wall Street Journal reporter over coverage of Xi’s family

Chinese President Xi Jinping claps while addressing the media in Beijing on Oct. 25, 2017. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

BEIJING — China effectively expelled a Wall Street Journal reporter from the country, one month after the newspaper published a report detailing allegations that a cousin of Chinese leader Xi Jinping was involved in high-stakes gambling and potential money laundering in Australia.

Chinese authorities told the Journal on Friday that press credentials would not be renewed for Chun Han Wong, a Singapore national who has covered Chinese politics out of the paper’s Beijing bureau since 2014. Those credentials expired Friday.

China sometimes withholds or refuses visas to punish international news organizations for what the ruling Communist Party perceives as unfavorable coverage. But the decision amounted to the first time that the Chinese government has effectively banned a reporter from the Journal, a publication generally known for incisive but evenhanded coverage of the country.

Wong was one of two authors of a July 30 report disclosing a far-reaching Australian law-enforcement and intelligence probe into Ming Chai, one of Xi’s cousins and an Australian citizen. The report, citing Australian officials and casino documents, detailed Chai’s lavish spending in resorts owned by the gambling mogul James Packer, and Chai’s links to what Australian officials deemed to be a money-laundering front in Melbourne.

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The story noted there were no indications Xi knew about his cousin’s activities in Australia or that the Chinese leader was implicated in any wrongdoing. Still, Beijing considers the private wealth of top leaders’ families to be the most sensitive and taboo reporting subject of all, given the chasm between the Communist Party’s ideological rhetoric and the vast, often hidden wealth accrued by elite families since the party turned toward state capitalism in the 1980s.

“We can confirm that Chinese authorities have declined to renew Chun Han’s press credentials. We continue to look into the matter,” a spokesman for Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, said in a statement to The Washington Post.

China’s Foreign Ministry, in a faxed statement, said the Chinese government handled affairs concerning foreign news organizations and correspondents in accordance with the country’s laws.

“We firmly oppose that a few foreign reporters are maliciously tarnishing China, and we don’t welcome such reporters,” it said.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement Wong was the sixth journalist to leave the country under such circumstances since 2013, and condemned the move “in the strongest possible terms.”

“Such treatment of foreign correspondents runs completely counter to claims that it supports openness and inclusiveness,” the club said.

The Journal story would have been doubly provocative for Beijing, given its subject’s proximity to Xi, a leader who has yoked his public image to a years-long anti-corruption drive and repeatedly exhorted party cadres to rein in their freewheeling family members.

Under Xi’s hard-line rule, China has significantly tightened the domestic space for speech and dissent while aggressively ramping up overseas propaganda. Facebook and Twitter this month said they would remove nearly 1,000 state-backed accounts that were spreading disinformation globally about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

Before the report’s publication, Journal representatives in Beijing were warned by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials that running the story would result in serious consequences, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

After the Journal published the story following a joint investigation with Australian media, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denounced the reporting as “groundless accusations based on rumors” and an attempt to smear China.

Australian writer Yang Hengjun, detained in China since January, has been formally arrested on suspicion of espionage, according to Australian officials. (Video: Reuters)

Wong left mainland China on Friday night for Hong Kong.

The other Beijing-based reporter on the Journal story, Australian journalist Philip Wen, recently received a three-month visa, a far shorter duration than the one year typically given to journalists working in China.

A 2012 Bloomberg News investigative report disclosing the Xi family’s investments resulted in a visa ban for the news agency that was only lifted after extensive discussions between Bloomberg executives and Chinese officials.

At least half a dozen correspondents for the New York Times faced lengthy delays receiving new visas or were expelled outright after the Times published a similar expose that year about former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.

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