The Trump administration on Monday designated four Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions” and imposed regulations on their operations in the United States, a move certain to escalate tensions as Beijing and Washington continue sparring over the novel coronavirus, Hong Kong and media restrictions in their respective countries.
“While the Chinese Communist Party has always controlled state news agencies, its control has tightened,” said David Stilwell, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “You can’t just allow this stuff.”
U.S. officials said the media outlets would not face new restrictions on what they can publish but that they were essentially mouthpieces of the “PRC,” or the People’s Republic of China. In response, Beijing is likely to take new steps against Western media outlets working in China.
The last time the State Department targeted Chinese news outlets reporting in the United States and ordered them to reduce their Chinese employees, China expelled U.S. journalists from three American newspapers, including The Washington Post.
The move comes after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with China’s foreign policy chief, Yang Jiechi, in Hawaii last week. U.S. officials described the trip as an opportunity to bridge gaps between the two countries on a host of issues, but after it ended with no signs of progress, Pompeo blasted the regime as a “rogue actor” in a speech on Friday.
“It lied about the coronavirus and then let it spread to the rest of the world,” Pompeo said.
During a phone call with reporters on Monday, Stilwell dismissed the notion that the U.S. regulations on Chinese media might not be worth the expected retaliatory regulations on Western journalists in China, whose work has far more reach and influence and has resulted in eye-opening stories about Chinese government corruption and malfeasance.
“They’re going to do these things anyway,” he said, suggesting that China would take action regardless of U.S. actions.
Meanwhile, relations between Washington and Beijing have dipped to the worst levels seen in decades, analysts say.
Rarely a week goes by that Pompeo doesn’t accuse China of covering up the emergence of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan or its crackdown in Hong Kong, which has enjoyed special U.S. trading privileges as an autonomous territory. Pompeo declared that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous, as Beijing imposed new security restrictions there, and President Trump has ordered a reexamination of its trading status.
The rhetoric has turned more acerbic as the United States has experienced nationwide protests since video emerged showing the death of George Floyd last month after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Chinese media outlets have reported extensively on racial unrest in the United States and Trump’s threat to use military troops in response.
When the State Department’s primary spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, criticized China’s new security laws for Hong Kong ahead of the 31st anniversary of China’s military crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, her counterpart in Beijing pointedly tweeted Floyd’s final words: “I can’t breathe.”
In a statement over the weekend, Pompeo called the Chinese Communist Party’s coverage of Floyd’s death “obscene” propaganda.
“Beijing in recent days has showcased its continuing contempt for the truth and scorn for law,” Pompeo said. “The CCP’s propaganda efforts — seeking to conflate the United States’ actions in the wake of the death of George Floyd with the CCP’s continued denial of basic human rights and freedom — should be seen for the fraud that they are.”
Journalism has become one of the battlegrounds, as the United States and China have restricted journalists working in each other’s countries.
In February, the Trump administration said it would treat five major media entities with U.S. operations the same as embassies: Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corp. and Hai Tian Development USA.
The following month, the State Department reduced the number of Chinese journalists allowed to work at the U.S. offices of major Chinese media outlets from 160 to 100, an action it said was prompted by “long-standing intimidation and harassment of journalists.”
In response, China revoked the accreditations of U.S. correspondents that allowed the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to work in China.
State Department officials have insisted that the treatment of journalists in the United States and China cannot be compared.
“While Western media are beholden to the truth, PRC media are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party,” Ortagus said.
During a call with reporters explaining the U.S. policy, Ortagus muted the line of a Reuters reporter who asked about a new book by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, saying the question was off topic.
When another journalist asked whether muting the line was appropriate during a call about the United States ensuring press freedoms, Ortagus said the question was “offensive” and noted the department’s willingness to regularly answer questions and provide briefings.