The trade war may be on hold, but the U.S. and China’s slide toward a new Cold War is only accelerating.
The Trump administration’s decision to effectively expel much of China’s state-run media staff is the clearest sign yet of a fundamental shift in how Washington manages its relationship with Beijing. Starting March 13, four Chinese media companies will be allowed to employ a combined 100 Chinese citizens, a 40% cut from current levels, State Department officials told reporters Monday.
The move casts aside long-held arguments that the U.S. could steer the Communist Party in a more liberal direction by setting an example on human rights issues, such as freedom of the press. Instead, the Trump administration has expanded its demands for “reciprocity” to cover a host of other facets of the relationship after reaching a preliminary trade deal with China in January.
“For a long time, it was a generally shared judgment that displaying our open society for Chinese reporters and news organizations outweighed the lack of reciprocity for U.S.,” said James Green, a former American trade official in Beijing who’s now a senior research fellow with Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues. “With this decision, that calculation has changed.”
That’s not just because Donald Trump is in the White House. Support for a more confrontational position toward China has been building over the past decade as Beijing increasingly challenged U.S. leadership on everything from the security of the South China Sea to global rule-making to human rights. The more assertive policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the open hostility of Trump’s trade war have only lit a fire under that process.
The media has always been a key point of friction, since the two societies have such divergent views on the press. Whereas American media companies are largely private and protected by the First Amendment, China’s news organizations are either state run or closely censored. All are overseen by the party’s Central Publicity Department, or the “Central Propaganda Department” in Chinese.
The exceptions in China are the foreign correspondents, whose reports provide rare windows into the world’s second-largest economy, especially during events that affect the world like the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Media organizations have complained of pressure from authorities, even as Chinese state media companies expanded their own footprints in the U.S. and elsewhere overseas.
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Hu Xijin, editor of the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper, warned late Tuesday that China “is mulling countermeasures and is determined not to back off.”
Some 82% of Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China members said they experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting last year, according to the group’s annual report. About one-fifth of respondents said they had difficulty securing visas due to issues related to their reporting.
China rejected that assertion Tuesday, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying the country has never limited the number of U.S. media agencies. Zhao condemned the decision, which he said “shows how hypocritical the U.S. is while boasting of freedom of the press.”
Tensions over the press have escalated over the outbreak, which has killed more than 2,900 people in China and prompted a rare outpouring of criticism against the government on social media. On Feb. 3, Xi told a meeting of the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee that officials must do more to ensure the “the effectiveness of publicity work” during the crisis, which he described as a “major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”
On Feb. 20, China’s foreign ministry took the unusual action of revoking the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters, prompting their expulsion. While the immediate reason was an opinion piece calling published by another section of the U.S. newspaper that called China the “sick man of Asia,” the timing underscored the growing risk of a tit-for-tat battle over journalist visas.
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A day earlier, the Trump administration had designated five Chinese media companies including the official Xinhua News Agency and state broadcaster China Global Television Network as “foreign missions,” curbing their ability to acquire property and take other actions. The expulsion of the Wall Street Journal reporters prompted an intense debate in the White House over how to respond, Bloomberg News reported, citing officials familiar with discussions.
Some including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argued for a more moderate approach, especially as the two sides seek to stem the coronavirus outbreak. Ultimately, the administration decided to cut foreign staff allowances for five Chinese companies, including Xinhua and CGTN.
“This is in line with Trump administration’s China policy,” said Zhou Qi, director of the Institute of American Studies at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s not surprising that the U.S. government rolled out this latest restriction on the Chinese media, especially in the bigger context of the U.S. designating China as its strategic rival and is growing wary of the Chinese presence on the ideological front.”
Chinese outlets such as Xinhua have long blurred the lines between journalism and diplomacy, with generations of Chinese leaders relying on state media reporters to track developments overseas. The Xinhua office served as China’s de facto embassy in British Hong Kong and the agency’s journalists have in the past filed secret reports to party leaders from secure rooms in embassies, according to one former Chinese diplomat.
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While U.S. officials were aware of the ambiguous missions of such outlets, the view was that openness would encourage more transparency from China. Now, openness has given way to confrontation.
“It is clear that selective decoupling policies and measures from both countries will intensify over the medium to long term,” said Shi Yinhong, an adviser to China’s cabinet and also a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “The carrot is getting smaller and the stick, however, is growing bigger.”
To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Peter Martin in Beijing at firstname.lastname@example.org;Dandan Li in Beijing at email@example.com
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