Mar 4, 2020 - World

The debate over U.S. restrictions on Chinese journalists

A hand holding a reporter's microphone, with a "prohibited" sign over it.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration this week announced unprecedented restrictions on Chinese journalists in the U.S. in an effort to pressure Beijing to ease its own restrictions on foreign journalists in China.

The big picture: The U.S. approach of late to dealing with Beijing is focused on reciprocity but analysts are split on whether the tactic will have the intended effect.

What's happening: The Trump administration has placed a cap on the number of staff Chinese state-run media outlets in the U.S. are permitted to have at any one time.

  • Four outlets recently designated by the State Department as "foreign missions" must reduce their combined number of Chinese citizens on staff from about 160 to 100.
  • The administration will also place a duration of stay on all Chinese nationals who are in the U.S. on I visas, the type given to foreign media workers. They will be eligible to request extensions when their visas expire.
  • Administration officials cited reciprocity, what they characterized as leveling the playing field between the U.S. and China, as justification for the measures.

Context: Media freedoms in China have deteriorated markedly in the past year, and U.S. outlets have felt the heat.

  • In its 2019 annual report, released this week, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China stated, "Chinese authorities are using visas as weapons against the foreign press like never before, expanding their deployment of a long-time intimidation tactic as working conditions for foreign journalists in China markedly deteriorated in 2019."
  • In February, Beijing revoked the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters, the first time in decades that multiple foreign journalists from the same outlet were expelled at the same time.

The Trump administration has tried to draw a clear distinction between Beijing's treatment of foreign journalists, and the new U.S. measures.

  • "The decision to implement this personnel cap is not based on any content produced by these entities, nor does it place any restrictions on what the designated entities may publish in the United States," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a March 2 statement.
  • That's different from China's expulsions of foreign journalists, which are often tied to coverage that Beijing dislikes.

But reciprocity is a controversial idea. Some experts say it is logical and fair, but others believe that mirroring the policies of America's adversaries weakens U.S. values in the long run.

One argument in favor of the new measures: It helps distinguish true journalism from propaganda.

  • "Treating the Chinese state media operations as government missions, and regulating them essentially as Chinese government actors in the U.S. is a pretty good approach, because it makes it clear that the U.S. doesn't really think these are journalists in the same way U.S. journalists in China are journalists," said Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University.
  • "But the U.S. will have a hard time winning the tit-for-tat game in the long run, and although this seems like a good option for the U.S., China will have little compunction in continuing to kick out U.S. journalists."

Others think the measures could be counterproductive, or even counter to U.S. values.

  • "I doubt this is an effective way for the U.S. to respond to the deteriorating situation for foreign journalists in China. On the contrary, I worry that it could lead to a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation," said Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
  • "Instead of adopting the China government’s authoritarian anti-free press tactics, the U.S. government should uphold press freedom, a constitutionally guaranteed right, on its own territory."

The effects of the cap are dramatic — about 60 Chinese media workers will likely have to leave the U.S. by March 13.

  • "While the four state media outlets falling under the new restrictions do have deserved reputations as propaganda outlets, that doesn’t mean all their reporters are propagandists," said Eric Fish, author of China’s Millennials: The Want Generation.
  • He says many are recent graduates of U.S. universities who are trying to launch their careers.

What to watch: Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted in response to the restrictions: "Now the U.S. kicked off the game, let's play."

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