EARLIER THIS year, the Trump administration took a small step toward balancing a gross asymmetry in U.S.-Chinese relations: While Chinese news organizations, including state-run bodies that serve as fronts for intelligence agencies, freely deployed hundreds of purported journalists and family members in the United States, China allowed a much smaller contingent of U.S. reporters, and they were experiencing mounting harassment. The State Department designated five Chinese news outlets as official government entities — which they are — and subjected them to reporting requirements applied to diplomats.

That has touched off a tit-for-tat press war that the regime of Xi Jinping has used to further curtail independent reporting from China, even as the world battles the covid-19 pandemic that originated there. In its latest step, on Tuesday the Ministry of Foreign Affairs withdrew the credentials of journalists from The Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal who are U.S. citizens. One of The Post’s two full-time correspondents, Gerry Shih, appeared to be covered by the order.

China claims to be responding reciprocally to U.S. actions. In fact, the measures of the two governments, as well as the people affected, bear little similarity to one another. Beijing’s initial answer to the U.S. requirement was to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters, one of whom had been reporting from Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus now sweeping the world originated.

That was in keeping with what has been a growing practice of canceling or limiting the visas of foreign journalists whose coverage the regime objects to. According to a report this month by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, the regime has expelled or refused to renew visas for nine correspondents since 2013; in 2019, it limited visas for a dozen others to six months or less. While Chinese journalists in the United States receive indefinite visas, and some stay for a decade or longer, “Chinese authorities are using visas as weapons against the foreign press like never before,” the report said.

The State Department answered the first Wall Street Journal expulsions with an overdue measure: It limited the U.S.-based Chinese staff of the five state organizations to 100, down from 160 and about equal to the number of U.S. citizens accredited as journalists in China. No particular individual was targeted; State refrained from designating those “journalists” whose principal work is believed to be reporting to intelligence agencies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was not seeking to restrict what Chinese news organizations report but rather “to establish a long-overdue level playing field.”

China could respond by accrediting more American journalists and getting an expansion of its U.S. bureaus in return. Instead, it has chosen to further restrict independent reporting on the country at a time when much of the world is wondering whether it can believe Beijing’s accounts of the covid-19 epidemic. As it happens, The Post on Tuesday published a vivid and balanced account by Mr. Shih of the recent lockdown imposed on Beijing, which he described as effective in stemming the epidemic. It’s hard to see how Mr. Xi’s regime can benefit from further suppression of such fair and credible reporting.

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