A trade war between the US and China might be on hold, but both sides’ slide toward a new Cold War is only accelerating.
The decision by the administration of US President Donald Trump 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 on Friday next week, four Chinese media companies would be allowed to employ a combined 100 Chinese citizens, a 40 percent cut from current levels, US Department of State officials told reporters on Monday.
The move casts aside long-held arguments that the US could steer the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 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 judgement that displaying our open society for Chinese reporters and news organizations outweighed the lack of reciprocity for US,” said James Green, a former US trade official in Beijing who is now a senior research fellow with Georgetown University’s Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues. “With this decision, that calculation has changed.”
That is not just because 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 US leadership on everything from the security of the South China Sea and global rulemaking to human rights. The more assertive policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the open hostility of Trump’s trade war have only lit a fire under that process.
The media have always been a key point of friction, as the two societies have such divergent views on the press. Whereas US 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 CCP Publicity Department, or the “Central Propaganda Department” in Chinese.
The exceptions in China are foreign correspondents, whose reports provide rare windows into the world’s second-largest economy, especially during events that affect the world, like the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19. Media organizations have complained of pressure from authorities, even as Chinese state media companies expanded their own footprints in the US and elsewhere overseas.
CCP-backed Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡錫進) late on Tuesday said that China “is mulling countermeasures and is determined not to back off.”
About 82 percent of Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China members experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting last year, the group said in an annual report.
About one-fifth of respondents said that they had difficulty securing visas due to issues related to their reporting.
China on Tuesday rejected that assertion, with Chines Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) saying that the country has never limited the number of US media agencies.
Zhao condemned Washington’s decision, which he said “shows how hypocritical the US is while boasting of freedom of the press.”
Tensions over the press have escalated over the outbreak, which has prompted a rare outpouring of criticism against the government on social media.
On Feb. 3, Xi told a meeting of the CCP Politburo 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, the 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 published by another section of the US newspaper that called China the “sick man of Asia,” the timing underscored the growing risk of a tit-for-tat battle over journalist visas.
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 US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and US Secretary of the Treasury 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 China Global Television Network.
“This is in line with Trump administration’s China policy,” said Zhou Qi (周琪), director of the Institute of American Studies at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s not surprising that the US government rolled out this latest restriction on the Chinese media, especially in the bigger context of the US 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, one former Chinese diplomat said.
While US 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 (時殷弘), an adviser to the Chinese State Council and a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. “The carrot is getting smaller and the stick, however, is growing bigger.”
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