BEIJING — In action that further escalates tension between Washington and Beijing on issues of human rights and national sovereignty, China issued expulsion orders Wednesday for two U.S. correspondents on charges that they violated martial-law restrictions on press coverage.
Alan W. Pessin, Beijing bureau chief of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, and Associated Press reporter John Pomfret were summoned to a Beijing city office in the afternoon and told they must leave China within 72 hours.
The action came after several days of blistering attacks in the Chinese media against Voice of America, which broadcasts to a huge Chinese audience in both English and Chinese.
In Washington, China's ambassador, Han Xu, was summoned to the State Department to receive a "vigorous" protest of the expulsions. However, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the Bush Administration had no plans to retaliate against any of the 38 Chinese journalists working in the United States. She said a similar protest would be delivered by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to the Chinese Foreign Ministry this morning.
She emphasized that both Pomfret and Pessin were fully accredited correspondents with Chinese visas authorizing them to work in the country.
The choice of two U.S. reporters as expulsion targets seemed tied to Chinese anger at Washington for granting refuge in the U.S. Embassy to astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, China's most prominent pro-democracy activist, and his wife, Li Shuxian, a Beijing University physics professor.
In the wake of a bloody June 3-4 crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protests, the Chinese government has issued arrest warrants for Fang and Li, and bitterly condemned the U.S. action as interference in China's internal affairs.
Baker Called 'Confident'
A senior State Department official in Washington was quoted as saying Wednesday that Secretary of State James A. Baker III believes "there are reasons to be hopeful" that the United States and China can reach an agreement permitting Fang and his wife to leave the embassy without risking arrest. The official, who spoke to news agency correspondents on the understanding he would not be identified by name, did not list the reasons.
He said that, if necessary, the embassy is prepared to shelter Fang and his wife for an extended period. "We went into it with our eyes open," he said.
Since declaring martial law in Beijing on May 20, Chinese authorities have issued a variety of press restrictions intended to limit coverage of the violent suppression of a pro-democracy student movement that began in mid-April.
The restrictions were widely ignored, however, when the Chinese army swept into central Beijing late on June 3 and early June 4, shooting into crowds of citizens seeking to block its way.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, died in the assault. The Chinese Red Cross initially estimated the death toll at 2,600, a figure that is still given considerable credibility in diplomatic circles.
A few days after the incident, a top government spokesman asserted that only about 300 people had died.
Wednesday, Chinese authorities further reduced the official death figure to around 200.
The official New China News Agency carried a news release from the "Propaganda Department" of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party that gave a detailed account of widespread destruction of army vehicles and said that nearly 100 soldiers and policemen were killed by "counterrevolutionary" rioters. "Some 100 civilians" also died, the report added.
The expulsions of Pessin and Pomfret came against this background.
Pessin, 33, was accused of "conducting illegal press coverage after martial law was declared" and "writing news stories to distort facts, spread rumor and incite and stir up turmoil and counterrevolutionary rebellion," the New China News Agency reported.
Pessin told reporters in Beijing that he had responded to his accusers with this statement: "We report the best, most accurate, the fairest and the best-balanced news that we possibly can. The only motive that we have is to tell the truth as best we can. Governments do not always like that. To say that Voice of America is maliciously creating rumors and has ulterior motives is itself a malicious rumor, apparently with ulterior motives."
VOA Director Richard Carlson told reporters that the expulsions were "a step backward for the media in China, which over the past couple of years have demonstrated some steps forward."
He added: "We think it's very unfortunate and sad, in fact, for the Chinese people, who in the tens of millions depend on the Voice of America and the BBC and some other outside broadcasters for what has been extremely reliable, straightforward, factual, unbiased accounts" of the turmoil in their country.