The Trump administration is planning to retaliate for China’s expulsion Wednesday of three U.S. journalists over an editorial Beijing claimed was “racist,” escalating a clash over media access and freedoms that has broken out between the two countries.
Beijing’s expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters came a day after the State Department said it was imposing restrictions on five Chinese state-run news organizations operating in the United States, saying they would now be treated as the equivalent of foreign government missions.
Administration officials said the State Department and White House are working out plans to how to retaliate to China’s response.
Among the options being considered are expelling Chinese editors and reporters for publications that have slandered the United States, such as claiming that the United States was instigating pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Another option under consideration would expel known intelligence officers operating undercover as employees of Chinese news outlets.
U.S. and Chinese officials spent much of Wednesday accusing the other of bad faith and hypocrisy regarding press freedoms.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the Chinese government revocation of press credentials for Josh Chin, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy bureau chief in Beijing, and reporters Chao Deng and Philip Wen. Mr. Chin and Ms. Chao are U.S. nationals, and Mr. Wen is an Australian.
“Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement. “The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.”
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Wednesday the U.S. action against the five Chinese media outlets was “totally unjustified and unacceptable.”
“The U.S. touts its press freedom,” he said. “However, it is wantonly restricting and thwarting Chinese media outlets’ normal operation there.”
He called the United States’ action “ideological prejudice and Cold War zero sum mentality” — code for anti-communism.
An editorial in the state-controlled Global Times said the U.S. action “suppressing” the Chinese media outlets “bodes ill for bilateral ties.”
Mr. Pompeo, who has been a leading advocate within the Trump administration for recalibrating relations with Communist China, said the U.S. wants the Chinese people to have the same accurate information and right to freedom of speech enjoyed by Americans.
In a speech last week, Mr. Pompeo noted that President Trump has demanded reciprocity in trade with China, and the principle should apply more broadly.
“We should have reciprocity in all things. Today they have free rein in our system, and we’re completely shut out from theirs,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo told the newsletter Axios the five Chinese outlets are “clearly controlled” by the Chinese Communist Party and the action was “long overdue.”
“For years, these so-called media outlets have been mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party and these Chinese outlets are becoming more aggressive,” he said. “These propaganda organs operate freely within the open American system, while journalists inside of China face massive restrictions.”
Mr. Pompeo, who was in Saudi Arabia Wednesday as part of an extended diplomatic trip, urged China to withdraw the expulsion of the U.S. journalists, ostensibly taken because the headline of a Feb. 3 Journal op-ed piece — “China is the real sick man of Asia” — employed a politically charged term used to describe China in the 18th century when the opium trade flourished. The expelled journalists did not write or edit the opinion piece, Wall Street Journal publisher William Lewis said, urging China’s government to reconsider.
“This opinion piece was published independently from the WSJ newsroom and none of the journalists being expelled had any involvement with it,” Mr. Lewis said. “Our opinion pages regularly publish articles with opinions that people disagree — or agree — with and it was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece. However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”
For its part, China is known to use its foreign media outlets as part of its large-scale intelligence-gathering operations. The five media outlets targeted by the State Department Tuesday were the official Xinhua news agency; China Global Television Network (CGTN) and China Radio International; the China Daily Distribution Corp., owner of the Communist Party outlet China Daily; and Hai Tian Development USA, which represents the official People’s Daily, the flagship Party newspaper.
All have documented ties to China’s leadership: Xinhua is under the control of the Chinese government and its president is a Central Committee member. CGTN is a network of six multi-language television channels broadcasting Chinese Communist Party propaganda. In 2018, the Justice Department ordered CGTN to register as a foreign agent.
China Radio International was formerly known as Radio Beijing and is part of the Beijing’s government’s China Media Group that is controlled by the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party.
“China’s intelligence services use media outlets to collect information and exert covert influence,” said former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Nicholas Eftimiades. “There is a very long history of nations expelling New China News Agency members and other journalists.”
The U.S. decision to impose foreign missions restrictions on Chinese outlets “comes at a time when the Trump administration is moving aggressively on multiple fronts to fight extensive Chinese covert influence and intelligence operations in the United States,” Mr. Eftimiades said.
Senior State Department officials who briefed reporters said that China under President Xi Jinping has asserted more direct control over state outlets in terms of content and editorial control. One official quoted Mr. Xi as saying “managing China’s media messaging is crucial for the future and fate of the Chinese Communist Party and the state.”
China also has expanded its overseas media operations in recent years.
A second U.S. official said that under the new restrictions, employees of the five media outlets also must observe travel limits and other restrictions similar to those imposed on Chinese diplomats. The Chinese media companies will be required to notify the Office of Foreign Missions of all personnel in the U.S. and their real estate and property holdings. They also must seek permission from the office before purchasing or leasing property.
“There is no dispute that all five of these entities are part of the Chinese party-state propaganda news apparatus,” one of the officials said. “They take their orders directly from the top, and we’re merely recognizing that by placing them on our Foreign Missions list.”
The officials declined to comment when asked if the curbs were part of increased counterintelligence against China.
Mr. Geng, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the Chinese government demanded an apology from the newspaper for its Feb. 3 opinion article by columnist Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy professor at Bard College, sharply critical of China’s handling of the deadly Wuhan virus.
“The article discredits the Chinese government and people’s efforts to fight the epidemic,” he said. “The unfortunate editorial choice of adding the racially discriminatory title … triggered indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community.”
Mr. Geng said the Chinese government reserved the right to take further action and criticized the newspaper for doing “nothing but fudging the issue.”
The five Chinese news organizations were reclassified by the State Department under the 1982 Foreign Missions Act. The act created the Office of Foreign Missions within the State Department with the dedicated role of handling foreign government embassy and consulate activities in the United States.