Ursula Gauthier, the Beijing-based correspondent for French news magazine L'Obs, poses at her desk near a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping in her apartment in Beijing on December 26, 2015. ( AFP PHOTO )
China confirmed the imminent expulsion of a French journalist in the first such case since 2012, accusing her of "flagrantly championing" terrorist acts in a statement on its foreign ministry's website Saturday.
Ursula Gauthier, a Beijing-based correspondent for French news magazine L'Obs, must issue a public apology for an article she wrote last month or China's foreign ministry will not renew her press credentials, officials told Gauthier on Christmas Day.
Her essay "flagrantly championed acts of terrorism and acts of cruelly killing innocents, triggering the Chinese people's outrage," said the foreign ministry statement.
Citing her failure to make a "serious apology to the Chinese people", the statement said: "It is not suitable for her to continue working in China."
"China will never support the freedom to champion terrorism," it added.
But the Chinese people expressed confusion over their own purported indignation, as most had not read or even heard of Gauthier's article, which has no Chinese-language version and remains inaccessible on the mainland's censored internet in its original French.
"'Triggered the Chinese people's outrage'? Don't presume to represent me - I don't even know what happened!" wrote one user on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform.
"You should put out the original article for everyone to see -- otherwise how can everyone be angry?" asked another.
Entitled "After the attacks (on Paris), Chinese solidarity is not without ulterior motives", Gauthier's article spoke of China's anti-terrorism policies in the country's western region of Xinjiang, homeland of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority -- many of whom complain of discrimination and controls on their culture and religion.
Xinjiang is often hit by deadly unrest and China blames the violence on Islamist separatists, but rights groups point to Beijing's own actions as a driver.
If Gauthier's press card is not renewed, she cannot apply for a new visa, forcing her to leave China.
"They confirmed that if I did not make a public apology on all the points that had 'hurt the Chinese people'... my press card would not be renewed and I would have to leave on December 31," Gauthier told AFP Friday.
Gauthier would be the first foreign correspondent to be expelled since the 2012 expulsion of Melissa Chan, correspondent for the English-language service of Al Jazeera.
The move has been met with widespread criticism from the French government, press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Gauthier's employer.
"France will remain committed to the defence of freedom of expression and information throughout the world," wrote French minister of culture and communication Fleur Pellerin Friday on Twitter in response to the news.
Gauthier's article in L'Obs triggered condemnation from Beijing and a virulent campaign in the state-run Global Times and China Daily, as well as thousands of often violent and abusive comments from Chinese Internet users. Her photo was also published online.
While the domestic media in China is subject to strict control and many topics are taboo, the foreign media is free to publish on any topic. However, foreign journalists frequently complain of harassment by the authorities while conducting routine reporting.