U.S. to Cap Visas for Chinese State Media (Updated: China Responds)

On Monday, the U.S. State Department announced a cap on the number of visas it would issue to Chinese employees of five Chinese state media organizations in response to “increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment, and intimidation against American and other foreign journalists operating in China.” Visa reciprocity has long been proposed and heatedly discussed as a response to China’s use of visa and accreditation denials and delays to apply pressure to or express displeasure with foreign media. The affected organizations are Xinhua; CGTN; China Radio International; the parent company of China Daily; and the distributor for People’s Daily, though the latter has no U.S.-based Chinese staff.

The U.S. government is today instituting a personnel cap on certain PRC-controlled state media entities in the United States – specifically, the five entities that were designated by the U.S. State Department on February 18, 2020, as foreign missions of the People’s Republic of China. This cap limits the number of Chinese citizens permitted to work for these organizations in the United States at any given time.

The cap applies to the five Chinese state media entities operating in the United States that have been designated as foreign missions, which recognizes that they are effectively controlled by the PRC government. Unlike foreign media organizations in China, these entities are not independent news organizations.

The decision to implement this personnel cap is not based on any content produced by these entities, nor does it place any 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.

We urge the Chinese government to immediately uphold its international commitments to respect freedom of expression, including for members of the press. [Source]

The department’s designation of the five organizations as “foreign missions” earlier this month imposed staff and real estate registration requirements. Although U.S. officials insisted that there would be no journalistic restrictions, citing exemptions from the usual foreign mission requirements meant to ensure this, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs decried the move as “wantonly restricting and thwarting Chinese media outlets’ normal operation.” The subsequent expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters, ostensibly in response to an offensively headlined opinion piece, was widely seen as retaliation against the foreign mission designation.

The New York Times’ report on the visa cap noted that “the State Department insisted that it was not expelling Chinese journalists […] but the new limits could, in effect, force Chinese citizens to leave.” At The Washington Post, Carol Morello gave more details on U.S. officials’ efforts to draw a line between the two countries’ practices:

U.S. officials said that by March 13, the Chinese news outlets can have no more than 100 Chinese citizens on staff, down from 160 currently employed by the five outlets. The officials said it was an effort to bring “reciprocity” to the U.S.-China relationship and to encourage the ruling Chinese Communist Party to show a greater commitment to a free press. They noted that only 75 American reporters are known to be working in China.

[… T]hey said they are considering imposing duration limits on Chinese nationals working for the outlets, similar to those used by Beijing on foreign correspondents.

The officials pointedly refused to refer to the affected employees as journalists, calling it an insult to free and independent reporters who are not working for “propaganda outlets.”

[…] The government in Beijing and the four outlets were notified of the restrictions Monday morning. A U.S. official declined to speculate on how Beijing may respond but said that if they retaliate against foreign reporters in Beijing, “all options are on the table.” [Source]

In addition to the treatment of foreign journalists, Morello wrote, officials cited the detentions of three citizen journalists reporting from Wuhan on the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak: Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua. (Until recently, Li worked at CCTV, whose international arm CGTN was among the sanctioned state media organizations.) This week, Chen’s case was highlighted by the One Free Press Coalition, “a united group of preeminent editors and publishers using their global reach and social platforms to spotlight journalists under attack worldwide,” in its “10 Most Urgent” list. Chen was also the focus last week of a segment of WBEZ’s This American Life by The New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan.

News of the visa cap has met a mixed reception from journalists and other observers.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, which has long opposed such retaliation, issued a statement against it on Tuesday:

The U.S. government should immediately suspend efforts to effectively expel dozens of Chinese journalists and put a halt to mutual retaliation over media operations, which threatens to undermine the free flow of information as the COVID-19 epidemic spreads throughout the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

[…] “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,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “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.” [Source]

The State Department announcement coincided with the release of the annual member survey report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which this year focused on China’s weaponization of bureaucracy against foreign media:

Chinese authorities are using visas as weapons against the foreign press like never before, expanding their deployment of a long-time intimidation tactic as working conditions for foreign journalists in China markedly deteriorated in 2019.

For the second time in as many years, a foreign correspondent was expelled after being denied a visa – the Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong was forced to leave in August. In addition, Chinese authorities issued a record number of severely truncated visas to resident journalists. Also for the second consecutive year, not a single correspondent said conditions improved, in response to an annual survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC).

The readiness to use press accreditation as a tool of control appears to have set the stage for further escalation. In February 2020, visas and press credentials for an additional three foreign correspondents – the Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin, Chao Deng and Philip Wen – were revoked in the biggest group expulsion in three decades.

This amounts to the most brazen attempt in the post-Mao Zedong era to influence foreign news organizations and punish those whose work the Chinese government deems unacceptable. Since 2013, when Xi Jinping’s ascension to power was completed, China has forced out nine foreign journalists, either through outright expulsion or by non-renewal of visas. The FCCC fears that China is preparing to expel more journalists. At the start of 2020, two correspondents received visas of only a single month.

In 2019, at least 12 correspondents received credentials valid for six months or less, more than double the five short-term visas issued the year prior. Resident journalist visas are typically issued for one year.

Outlets affected include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Telegraph, Globe and Mail, Le Monde, Sankei Shimbun and the Voice of America.

Twenty-two percent of respondents faced difficulty renewing their credentials, up from 13 percent the year before. Almost all of them believed this was related to their reporting.

Expulsions and shortened visas are a “very ominous sign,” said Steven Lee Myers, Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times. The Chinese government’s “desire for control, or their wariness of scrutiny, really gets in the way of the stories China does have to tell.”

[…] “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs now has increasingly explicit conversations with us about ‘red lines’ that we have crossed, and that if crossed again will trigger unwelcome consequences, whereas before they would be much more vague,” said a bureau chief at an English-language news organization.

Authorities have grown increasingly eager to quell unflattering reports about Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.

“‘Red lines’ for reporting are most often on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, but above all, almost anything written about Xi. MOFA has explicitly said that if we write the wrong pieces about Xi, we will face the anger of other arms of the government, and not just MOFA,” the bureau chief said. [Source]

The report goes on to detail pressure on Chinese sources, threats against Chinese colleagues, and digital and physical surveillance. MoFA’s Zhao Lijian appeared to allude to the ongoing exchange of blows between China and the U.S. in his response on Monday, saying that China does not recognize the FCCC and that “it is so inappropriate and unwise for it to comment with secret prejudice at this particular timing.”

Updated at 12:21:07 PM PST on Mar 3, 2020: Chinese officials have responded to the news, standing by the legitimacy of their own journalist expulsions while presenting the U.S.’ as reckless escalation. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying attacked the new policy on Twitter:

China’s ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun similarly commented that “we have some differences but we do not think it is appropriate for the United States to take steps in interfering with the work of journalists coming from China.” MoFA’s Zhao Lijian condemned the move at greater length in Tuesday’s press briefing:

Q: On March 2 local time, the US State Department announced that the US government will cap the number of Chinese citizens permitted to work for the five Chinese media groups that were designated as foreign missions, effective March 13th. What is your comment?

A: The US State Department waged this political crackdown on the US offices of the Chinese media out ofCold War mentality and ideological prejudice on shaky ground. China firmly opposes and strongly condemns that.

Chinese journalists stationed in the US have been strictly abiding by US laws and regulations and carrying out news reporting under the principle of objectivity, fairness, truthfulness and accuracy. Their professionalism is well recognized. The US side has no basis and reason to take such an action against Chinese journalists.

The US side has been so entrenched in its Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice that it has escalated its actions from listing the Chinese media as “foreign agents” to designating them as “foreign missions” and now to cap the number of their Chinese employees which means de-facto “expulsion” in a limited time. Because of their mounting oppression, Chinese journalists’ normal reporting activities, the reputation of the Chinese media and normal people-to-people exchanges between the two sides have been gravely damaged. While priding itself on freedom of press, the US now disrupts and obstructs the Chinese media doing their job. Such a two-faced behavior exposed its hypocrisy in so-called freedom of press, nothing short of double standards and bullying.

Considering where the China-US relationship now stands, what the US has done will have serious negative impacts and damage bilateral relations. We urge the US to immediately change its course and correct its wrongdoings. The Chinese side reserves the right to respond and take further actions.

[…] Q: US officials say the restriction on Chinese media is not “linked to any one particular incident”, but is to address “a very longstanding negative trend in the treatment of the press” in China. This decision follows the principle of “reciprocity” the Trump administration seeks. What is your comment?

A: “Reciprocity” is their mantra, isn’t it? But I want to remind you of a few facts.

First, China has never instituted any caps on the number of offices and employees of US media in China. It is their own choice to make on how many people they want to send here, not a result of China’s restriction. As far as I know, since 2018, the US has been restricting Chinese journalists going to the US by rejecting and delaying issuance of their visa. At least 21 journalists have been denied visa since last year. On top of all that, this time, the US has decided to “expel” 60 Chinese employees of these Chinese media in the US, under the pretext of capping their number. Can this be called “reciprocity”?

Second, there are only 9 Chinese media agencies in the US while we have 29 American media groups here in China. Can this be called “reciprocity”?

Third, regarding the policy of visas for members of the media and visa fees, American journalists stationed in China can make multiple entries as long as their visa remains valid. But Chinese journalists have to reapply for visa if they leave for a short stay or for visiting family back in China, because of their single-entry visa, thanks to the discriminatory policies the US specifically instituted for the Chinese journalists stationed in the US. Not to mention they have to spend as much as 354 dollars each time they apply for one, more than double what we charge of the American side. Can this be called “reciprocity”?

Fourth, the US wants “reciprocity” with us. Does it also want that with other countries’ media?

The reciprocity they cannot stop talking about is in fact their prejudice, discrimination and aversion against Chinese media. The US is guilty of foul play first. We will simply do what we have to do. [Source]


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