China is threatening to retaliate against the United States over its decision to limit the number of state media personnel allowed to work in the U.S.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday a cap on citizens from five Chinese state-owned outlets — Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network (CGTV), China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corp., and Hai Tian Development USA, Inc. The reductions, which take effect March 13, will limit the number of Chinese nationals working at these outlets from 160 to 100.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing Tuesday that the government strongly opposes the Trump administration's decision. Zhao says the move effectively expels the journalists, and warned that China "reserves the right" to respond and take further measures.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, issued a far more ominous warning on her Twitter feed, saying "Now the US kicked off the game, let's play."
Chinese citizens working for other media organizations in the U.S. are not affected by the cap.
The five entities are determined by the U.S. as “explicit propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)” and had been previously designated by the State Department as foreign missions of the Chinese government.
“Our goal is reciprocity,” said Secretary Pompeo in a statement. “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.”
A senior State Department official said even after this cap is implemented, the five Chinese state media groups continue to employ more Chinese personnel in the U.S. than foreign reporters at all U.S. media outlets in China, combined.
The U.S. has issued 3,000 I-1 visas to Chinese nationals working in the United States since 2015, said another senior Trump administration official. “By contrast, U.S. news outlets have only about 75 American or other non-Chinese citizens working for them inside of mainland China.”
I-1 visas are issued by the U.S. government for representatives of foreign media to work in the United States.
The visas that the U.S. issues to Chinese journalists have no duration of stay. In contrast, Beijing currently imposes duration of stay on all foreign reporters in China, some as short as 30 days. After 30 days, some foreign reporters in China have to reapply for an extension.
The U.S. decision comes after the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) published its annual media freedoms report, “Control, Halt, Delete: Reporting in China Under Threat of Expulsion,” an in-depth examination of media freedoms in China in 2019.
“The U.S. is taking this action in order to clearly communicate the severity of our concerns about the abusive, unfair and non-reciprocal treatment of international press in China,” said a senior State Department official on Monday.
The FCCC report finds Chinese authorities have weaponized visas against the foreign press, issuing truncated press credentials to a dozen journalists in 2019, and expelling four correspondents from China since August 2019.
A spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry said the FCCC report was "inappropriate," and that China does not recognize the organization.
The U.S. announcement Monday also comes after China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters, a move seen as a punishment for a recent opinion piece published by the U.S. newspaper.
In the past few weeks, Chinese citizen journalists who have been chronicling the coronavirus outbreak and seen as defiant to the Beijing government were said to have "disappeared.”
On Feb. 28, outspoken Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai and two prominent opposition politicians were charged with illegal assembly over a pro-democracy gathering in 2019. Lai, who has made financial contributions to Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators, was later released on bail.
On Feb. 24, China sentenced book publisher Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who disappeared in 2015 and was believed to have been abducted by Chinese agents in Thailand, to 10 years on charges of “providing intelligence" overseas.
“We’re witnessing an assault on free speech inside of China that goes even beyond what it was a decade ago,” said a senior Trump administration official on Monday.
The five Chinese state media groups' U.S. operations will have to disclose their personnel rosters, as well as hiring and firing decisions, according to the State Department. In addition, they are required to register properties that they rent or own in the U.S.
China Daily is an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Hai Tian Development USA distributes the People's Daily, the official newspaper of CCP’s Central Committee.
U.S. officials have said there is "an awakening" to what they call Chinese propaganda outlets operating on U.S. soil. For example, CGTV, formerly known as China Central Television America (CCTV America), was once warmly welcomed to the State Department in an event in 2013, but now faces scrutiny as a Chinese foreign agent.
At the State Department podium, Ma Jing, director general of CCTV America, touted CCTV as a bridge between the U.S. and China to promote knowledge and understanding.