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U.S. designates major Chinese media outlets as government entities

Chinese women wear protective masks as they pass the CCTV building on their way to work on Feb. 17 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/AFP/Getty Images)

The State Department on Tuesday designated five Chinese media outlets as official government entities under the Foreign Missions Act, meaning they will be treated as though they are diplomatic outposts of the Chinese government and subject to the same constraints.

The move is the latest in a series of U.S. efforts to tackle China’s influence in the United States. It will be sure to anger Beijing, which generally views U.S. government actions — such as the trade war, accusations against tech firm Huawei and criticism of the country’s human rights record — as efforts to thwart China’s global rise.

The media outlets are the U.S. entities of the official Xinhua News Agency; China Global Television Network, known as CGTN, the international arm of state broadcaster CCTV; China Radio International; the China Daily newspaper; and the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.

The 1982 Foreign Missions Act covers matters such as license plates for embassy vehicles and diplomatic immunity, but it also governs how foreign governments operate in the United States.

Practically speaking, Tuesday’s decision was likely more symbolic than punitive.

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The news outlets will be required to provide lists of their staffs, including names, ages and addresses, and update them when there are changes. They also must get State Department approval to purchase or lease real estate, though that requirement does not apply to individual employees who buy or rent housing.

That information will be shared with other government agencies, including intelligence units, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under department rules for briefing reporters.

American officials have become increasingly concerned in recent years that Chinese authorities are using journalists to do government work in the United States, noting that a number of Chinese journalists enter the country on official passports, which are issued by governments to do official business.

The State Department designation does not carry journalistic restrictions that would limit where reporters employed by the five outlets can do their jobs, including attending State Department briefings or news conferences.

Two State Department officials, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, declined to discuss internal considerations on whether Beijing will retaliate against foreign reporters working in China.

“We’re painfully aware of the very tough operating environment that U.S. and other foreign journalists operate under in China . . . It’s already the case that freedom of the press is under severe siege in the People’s Republic of China,” one official said.

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The five organizations are part of a huge propaganda apparatus that transmits the Communist Party’s views to China and the world. Democracy advocates have warned about China’s increasingly aggressive attempts to shape the global narrative about its actions at home and abroad.

The United States has struggled to find a way to respond forcefully while protecting free speech.

“Because we are an open, transparent society, our tool set is limited as to what we can actually do,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In 2018, the Justice Department ordered Xinhua and CGTN to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as part of an effort to combat influence operations.

What the United States has done so far, Glaser said, “doesn’t stop them from sending out the messages they are sending.”

But it does flag the issue for the general public.

“It is alerting people to pay attention to the fact that the message that these organizations give out is one that the Chinese Communist Party wants them to hear, not what we consider real, objective journalism,” Glaser added.

Under leader Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has dramatically stepped up pervasive censorship and state control inside China and extended efforts to reach readers and viewers elsewhere.

“China is trying to promote itself as an international model,” said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for China at Freedom House and the author of a report, “Beijing’s Global Megaphone,” released in January.

“Beijing has a large toolbox for influencing media around the world, and its tactics have been evolving, especially since 2017,” Cook said.

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In the United States, these media organizations have Chinese reporters dispatched to provide news about the United States to a Chinese audience. But they also have stepped up efforts to reach the American market.

When Xi toured state media outlets in 2016, he told them to “speak for the party” and “tell China’s story to the world.”

Xi has said repeatedly that “telling stories is the best form of international dissemination” when it comes to telegraphing China’s messages to the world, said David Bandurski of China Media Project.

By inclusion in cable packages, CGTN America, which is based in Washington, has been able to reach an estimated 30 million households in the United States.

The China Daily, its English-language paper, is available on newsstands in places such as New York and congressional offices in Washington. China Daily has also adopted a practice it calls “borrowing the boat to reach the sea” to place its content in advertorial “China Watch” supplements in newspapers, including The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Xinhua produces copy that is highly favorable to the Chinese government, by disseminating the official view on events such as the Hong Kong protests and detention camps for Muslims in Xinjiang or publishing stories that are sharply critical of adversaries, with the United States being public enemy number one.

During the Soviet era, Russian news organizations such as Tass and Pravda were designated foreign missions. Several years ago, the Vietnam News Agency also received the designation.

Rauhala and Morello reported from Washington.

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