The Trump administration on Monday announced new limits on the number of Chinese staff members allowed to work at China’s state-run media operations in the United States, including the Xinhua news agency, China Global Television Network, and China Radio International.
Chinese outlets denounced the personnel caps as a “ridiculous war against Chinese media.”
Trump administration officials described the reduced limits as pushback against Beijing’s campaign of “intimidation to silence members of a free and independent press” and its “deepening crackdown” on journalists who don’t follow the Chinese Communist Party line.
Beijing’s expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters in retaliation for an op-ed that named China as the “real sick man of Asia” was cited as a specific offense.
More examples of Chinese transgressions against journalism could be found in an annual report released on Monday by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), as detailed by Radio Free Asia:
The report found that 82 percent of members who responded to its survey had experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting in China, while 44 percent said digital and physical surveillance concerns had affected their ability to carry out reporting activities, including contacting sources and doing interviews.
Forty-four percent said their Chinese colleagues had experienced harassment at least once during 2019, while 51 percent said they were obstructed by police or other officials while trying to do their jobs.
The report said it had built up “a detailed picture of sustained attacks by the Chinese state on the foreign press, a worsening reality that should be cause for global concern.”
“As China reaches new heights of economic influence, it has shown a growing willingness to use its considerable state power to suppress factual reporting that does not fit with the global image it seeks to present,” the report said.
The FCCC report mentioned the expelled Wall Street Journal reporters and noted they were not the only examples of China “using visas as weapons against the foreign press.” A growing number of foreign reporters report difficulty renewing their visas, and nine have been expelled from the country since dictator Xi Jinping took power in 2013.
“We’ve been imploring the Chinese for years and years now to improve their treatment of journalists in China. So, this is not linked to any one particular incident,” a U.S. official said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed on Monday that the Chinese media outlets affected by the reduced limits are not “independent news organizations” but organs of the Chinese state, and even at that, there are no explicit or implied “restrictions on what the designated entities may publish in the United States.”
“Our goal is reciprocity. As we have done in other areas of the U.S.-China relationship, we seek to establish a long-overdue level playing field. It is our hope that this action will spur Beijing to adopt a more fair and reciprocal approach to U.S. and other foreign press in China,” Pompeo said.
The early response from Chinese officials and state media was not encouraging. The state-run Global Times accused Pompeo of trying to rerun the Cold War and failing to understand the Chinese system, which the Global Times risibly insisted keeps its people “better informed” than Americans despite its pervasive censorship and total bans on outside information services:
Washington invented the war on the media. First it pushed Chinese media outlets to register as “foreign agents.” Then it designated five Chinese media outlet’s operation in the US as “foreign missions,” and now it imposes a cap on the number of Chinese reporters in the US. China revoked three WSJ reporters’ press credentials as a punishment for that outlet’s publication of an insulting headline and its refusal to apologize, which is a specific case. What the US is doing against the Chinese media is policy-level suppression. The two matters are completely different.
China can also punch back against US media outlets based in China, but such tit-for-tat moves would be unprecedented. China won’t be intimidated and Washington should not think it has more leverage in this game than Beijing.
We don’t suggest China follow Washington’s logic and engage in a tit-for-tat confrontation. China should maintain its principle, continue to offer service and assistance to foreign reporters based in China and carry out necessary management. Foreign reporters who violate professional ethics should be subject to punishment regardless of Washington’s reaction.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry “lodged stern representations” with the U.S. Embassy over the personnel cap, denouncing it as an act of “political oppression.”
“The U.S. offices of Chinese media have long been covering news following the principles of objectivity, impartiality, truth and accuracy. They have helped promote mutual understanding, communication and cultural exchange between our two countries,” insisted Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
Zhao repeated allegations that the U.S. is running a Cold War playbook against China – apparently a very popular talking point in Beijing at the moment – and complained that 29 American media entities are currently operating in China versus only nine Chinese outlets in the United States. He even complained that U.S. visa renewals cost twice as much as they do in China.
“The U.S. broke the rules first and China has to respond,” Zhao warned.
Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York criticized both sides for fighting over journalistic access during the coronavirus crisis, although he noted China has a far worse record for suppressing and even imprisoning reporters.
“China and the United States need to pull back from this dangerous cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation that threatens the free flow of information in both countries – especially during a global health crisis,” Butler said.
“As a democracy with a strong constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, the U.S. in particular must show leadership in the area of press freedom, rather than adopting Beijing’s authoritarian tactics,” he urged.