The visit to Beijing this week by South Korean President Moon Jae-in was billed as a chance to mend fences between South Korea and China, neighbours who have quarrelled in recent months over how to respond to threats from North Korea.
But China's increasingly fractious relationship with the international press has again cast a shadow over its foreign relations, after a South Korean photographer was attacked Thursday by security guards at an event in Beijing attended by Mr. Moon.
"The journalist took a severe beating while being completely surrounded by the guards," South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, saying the photographer was sent to hospital and "required intensive treatment."
The incident is the latest clash between Chinese authorities and foreign media at a time when officials and academics in China, which heavily censors its own press, have expressed pointed frustration over the country's treatment abroad – even as they borrow from the Trump playbook to accuse others of "fake news."
China has long responded to critics in measured tones, keen to maintain good relationships around the world. But the country's economic and political clout have now given it a greater ability to reshape the global agenda, and it has taken an increasingly active role in global affairs. Under President Xi Jinping, it has also adopted a more direct tone, willing to respond head-on to information and foreign policies it sees as counter to its interests.
In the face of critical reports about China, "which obviously betray the great development and reality of our nation, many people are angry and filled with righteous indignation," Song Guoyou, associate director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, wrote in a November article. "They think Western media are full of prejudice against China and serve the strategy of suppression their countries use to keep China from better development."
The visit by Mr. Moon came after Beijing had applied economic pressure on Seoul – barring Chinese tourist group visits to South Korea, blocking K-pop bands from performing in China and hurting Chinese sales of South Korean cars — in anger over South Korea's installation of U.S. anti-missile technology.
In recent weeks, the two sides have adopted a friendlier posture, and Mr. Moon's visit was expected to close the door on the recent tensions. But on Thursday, a day after Mr. Moon arrived, guards barred South Korean journalists from following him as he visited a trade fair organized by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, Yonhap said.
Video of the event shows scuffling and shouting between reporters and security guards. A second photographer was also injured, but not sent to hospital, South Korean media said.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, in a statement, noted that other international journalists in China have also been subjected to violence this year. "Violence against journalists is completely unacceptable, and the FCCC calls on the Chinese government to investigate and address the incident," the club said.
The tussle with South Korean journalists adds that country's media to those from Australia, the United States and Canada as recent targets of Chinese ire, as authorities seek to limit Western influence at home and discredit critics abroad.
Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called Australian media "biased against China, absolutely clutching at straws, purely fabricated and poisoning the atmosphere of China-Australian relations."
The rebuke came after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged to crack down on foreign interference in that country's political system.
Chinese officials typically refrain from direct criticism of foreign leaders, but international media can serve as a stand-in.
Earlier this week, the state-run People's Daily took aim at the United States press in an op-ed that said U.S. President Donald Trump's "fake news mantra speaks to a larger truth about Western media."
"If the President of the United States claims that his nation's leading media outlets are a stain on America, then negative news about China and other countries should be taken with a grain of salt since it is likely that bias and political agendas are distorting the real picture," wrote the paper, one of the country's most authoritative official sources.
Earlier this month, the Communist Party-run Global Times attacked the "superiority and narcissism of the Canadian media" during a visit to China by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Officials at the Great Hall of the People also physically blocked Canadian journalists from taking photos and video of Mr. Trudeau in Beijing. Weeks before, major foreign media outlets were barred from attending the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee. Officials said there was no room in the large hall where the unveiling took place.
China's indignation has been building for some time. Last year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi censured a Canadian journalist in Ottawa who asked about China's human rights, a question Mr. Wang called "full of prejudice against China and arrogance."
Then this April, the Beijing City National Security Bureau released a video with advice on how to spot a foreign spy – which it at one point depicted as a man taking a photograph. The bureau offered rewards reaching nearly $100,000 for information that might expose a secret agent, but other groups are more likely to be singled out, said David Moser, a China commentator who is academic director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University.
"It seemed to me just a blatant, cynical attempt to raise the hackles of ordinary citizens, to resist answering nosy reporters' questions – or nosy academics'," he said.
With reporting by Alexandra Li.