China claims ‘political oppression’ as Trump administration tells it to cut U.S. staff at state news outlets

The Trump administration ordered four Chinese state-owned news outlets to slash the number of staff they have working in the U.S., part of a broader response to Beijing’s restrictions on American journalists including its expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters last month.

The move risks further tit-for-tat measures from Beijing as the world’s biggest economies continue a broader battle for global influence even after reaching a phase-one trade deal earlier this year. That wider strategic fight is affecting everything from manufacturing supply chains to 5G mobile-phone technology to the leadership of international organizations.

Starting March 13, the four outlets will be allowed to employ a combined 100 Chinese citizens in the U.S., down about 40% from now, two State Department officials told reporters Monday on condition of anonymity. The officials insisted that the reductions weren’t expulsions, though about 60 or so employees will almost certainly need to leave the country.

“Unlike foreign media organizations in China, these entities are not independent news organizations,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement after the officials briefed reporters. “As we have done in other areas of the U.S.-China relationship, we seek to establish a long-overdue level playing field.”

The outlets affected by the move are Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International and China Daily Distribution Corp. A fifth, Hai Tian Development USA, is also included under the cap but won’t have to cut staff because it has only two Chinese employees on its payroll in the U.S.

The restrictions stem from an effort by the Trump administration to restore what officials call reciprocity between the way China and the U.S. treat each other’s journalists. China currently allows about 100 Americans in the country and has severely restricted the number of visas it issues to foreign reporters.

More restrictions are likely to come soon. Another senior administration official, also briefing reporters ahead of Pompeo’s statement Monday, said the U.S. plans to limit how long Chinese citizens are allowed to stay in the country on journalist visas. That would match a Chinese requirement restricting foreign reporters to as little as 30 days before they must seek an extension.

China condemned the move Tuesday, saying Chinese journalists have a “universally recognized professional reputation.”

“Out of a Cold War mindset the U.S. is conducting political oppression on Chinese media agencies in the U.S.,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing. “We urge the U.S. to correct its mistake at once and we reserve the right to take further actions.”

‘Foreign Missions’

The administration began mulling expulsions in earnest after China last month ordered the departure of the three Wall Street Journal reporters — two Americans and an Australian — after saying the outlet had refused to apologize for a “racially discriminatory” headline on an op-ed piece. U.S. officials have also said the reporters were expelled because of the Journal’s coverage of a Chinese government crackdown on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.

The Journal has defended its reporters and, like most U.S. outlets, said it operates with a strict separation between its news and opinion staffs. The op-ed piece in question referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia.”

Monday’s move is a direct outgrowth of a State Department decision last month to designate Xinhua and the other four outlets as “foreign missions.” That means their employees in the U.S. are treated as foreign government employees, not journalists. The five are “effectively controlled” by China’s government, Pompeo said in the statement.

The staffing reductions apply to any Chinese citizens working for the four news organizations in the U.S., whether they are reporters or managers or technicians. The outlets can still hire as many Americans as they like. Hai Tian wasn’t included in the new cap because it currently has only two Chinese staff on its payroll in the U.S., the officials said.

Asked about the expected State Department action last week, the Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign journalists working in the U.S., said in a statement that “any suggestion that the United States should emulate the Chinese government’s decision to expel three WSJ reporters by deporting Chinese journalists would be counterproductive and ultimately damaging to First Amendment principles for the entire press community in the United States.”

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