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Trump restricts U.S. visas for Chinese Communist Party members and families

President Trump with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2017. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — The State Department imposed tighter visa regulations for Chinese Communist Party members Thursday in a move that puts limits on U.S. travel for tens of millions of Chinese working in government and other prominent roles — and further stokes tensions with Beijing ahead of the Biden administration.

The new rules would affect members of China’s ruling party, who number around 92 million, and their close relatives. The impact could be sweeping in a country where party members dominate the upper echelons not only in government but also in business, media, academia and other areas.

The restrictions would limit visas for party members and their relatives to a single entry, with the visa duration lasting one month. Previously, Chinese nationals were eligible to apply for tourism or business visas, for instance, that are valid for 10 years and for unlimited entries.

The State Department said the rules were part of broad U.S. policies and actions to protect the country from what it called “malign influence” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“Through various entities, the CCP and its members actively work in the U.S. to influence Americans through propaganda, economic coercion, and other nefarious activities,” a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Thursday in a statement.

“For decades we allowed the CCP free and unfettered access to U.S. institutions and businesses while these same privileges were never extended freely to U.S. citizens in China,” the statement said, also noting incidents of CCP agents threatening Chinese dissidents on American soil.

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China said it had lodged representations with the U.S. Embassy over the issue Thursday. But there was no immediate announcements from Beijing on potential retaliation.

The U.S. move was an “escalated form of political oppression toward China by some extreme anti-China forces in the U.S. who act out of intense ideological bias and a deep-rooted Cold War mentality,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing.

“We hope that some people in the U.S. can view China and China’s development in a more rational, calm and objective manner, and give up this hatred and abnormal psychology toward the Chinese Communist Party,” Hua added.

The two countries have been locked in a cycle of tit-for-tat measures that have included the closure of consulates in Houston and Chengdu and the expulsion of journalists.

The new rules for party members could be disruptive for trade, academic and cultural exchanges between the two countries and the personal lives of the elite. Communist Party membership is not explicitly required but is often a de facto requisite for career advancement to top positions in China from the government to most major industries and academia. Many rank-and-file corporate employees and low-level civil servants are also dues-paying members.

Even in the relatively liberal technology sector, top executives such as Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma are often party members and would normally travel to the United States multiple times a year. In Beijing and Shanghai, stories abound of the elite frequenting their California vacation homes or sending their children to East Coast boarding schools.

This week, ministry spokeswoman Hua accused officials at U.S. ports of harassing Chinese airline and shipping crews to ascertain whether they hold Communist Party membership.

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The party began receding from everyday life after China turned toward economic liberalization in the 1980s. But it has made a comeback in recent years under current leader Xi Jinping, who has sought to root out corruption, attract younger members and return the party to its central role in Chinese society in the Marxist-Leninist tradition.

“Government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east, and west — the party leads everything,” Xi said in 2017 in a political document outlining his thinking, known as “Xi Jinping Thought.”

As the U.S.-China confrontation heightened this year, senior Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, delivered speeches that warned about the party’s surging influence in China and abroad, while drawing a distinction between the party and the general Chinese population.

The rules curtailing travel for party members come after a year when the two governments have been at loggerheads over visas as well as trade, technology, covid-19 and a raft of other issues.

In September, the State Department canceled visas for 1,000 Chinese graduate students working in sensitive fields. U.S. officials said at the time they continued to welcome legitimate Chinese students “who do not further the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of military dominance.” The Chinese government denounced the move as “outright political persecution and racial discrimination.”

After China expelled reporters from the Wall Street Journal in 2019 and this year, the United States pulled visas for Chinese state media employees. In March, China revoked visas for reporters at three U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Post.

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