Chinese media on Monday celebrated the imminent expulsion of a French reporter accused of supporting terrorism, with a poll purporting to demonstrate overwhelming support for the decision.
Beijing refused to renew Ursula Gauthier’s visa after she published an article criticising government policies in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and a region which regularly sees violent incidents.
The foreign ministry last week said her essay in French news magazine L’Obs “flagrantly championed acts of terrorism and acts of cruelly killing innocents”.
In her story Gauthier suggested that violence by Uighurs against civilians might, in part, be driven by resentment of government policies.
She also questioned China’s motives in expressing sympathy for the victims of the November 13 Paris attacks, writing that they could be part of a calculated plan to tie Beijing’s strict handling of Xinjiang into the broader fight against global terrorism.
Gauthier previously told AFP that her treatment was an attempt “to intimidate foreign correspondents in China, particularly on issues concerning minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang”.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary Monday that her piece was “as immoral as it is sensational”.
“Whether Gauthier admits or not, her fact-distorting article equates to justifying terror attacks in Xinjiang,” it said.
“By falsely describing certain ethnic groups in Xinjiang as the oppressed, the article may also incite hatred and confrontation between different ethnic groups in China.”
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) December 27, 2015
The government’s decision to expel her was approved by 95 percent of respondents to a poll on the website of the Global Times, an often incendiary publication with close ties to the ruling Communist Party, which was one of the first to object to her article.
The poll, which asked “Do you support expelling the French journalist who supports terrorism?”, had more than 200,000 respondents by Monday afternoon.
Among those who disagreed, many felt that the punishment was not harsh enough: “This kind of terrorist sympathiser should be arrested and sentenced to prison,” read one posting.
China commands a vast army of Internet commentators it can deploy to express vocal support for controversial decisions.
Freedom of speech
The foreign ministry suggested Monday that Gauthier’s article was particularly offensive and justified the drastic action of expelling her.
“Some people said that China didn’t extend her press credentials because she criticised the Chinese state policies,” Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesman, told a regular briefing.
“She’s been working in China for over a decade. During this period of time she’s often criticised China’s policies on ethnic groups and she was still allowed to work here.”
The damage to China’s international image resulting from Gauthier’s expulsion was trumped by the Communist Party’s domestic priorities, Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Willy Lam told AFP.
“The expulsion of a western reporter will affect Beijing’s reputation as an open society, as a society which is modernising its ideas about freedom of speech and so forth,” Lam said.
At the same time, he added, “From the Communist Party’s point of view, their top priority is to prevent people from knowing what’s happening in Xinjiang.”
Gauthier’s article, the Global Times wrote in a November editorial, “severely distorted the reality in Xinjiang” and represented a double standard on terrorism.
The piece was part of a tidal wave of criticism that the journalist said led to death threats against her from angry readers.
The Global Times is known for its nationalistic stance. Following the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris earlier this year it said the murders were “payback” for the West’s “historical acts of slavery and colonialism”.