China and the United States appear locked in a tit-for-tat test of wills over media organizations, and it’s unclear just when it’s going to end.
Back in February, the United States designated five state-run Chinese media outlets—including Xinhua and China Global Television Network—as “foreign missions,” and as such, demanded they release the details of their staff, finances, operation and real estate holdings.
Exactly one month later, “in the spirit of reciprocity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian demanded the same from five independent U.S. media organizations—including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Then, late last month, the United States designated as foreign missions four more Chinese state-run media agencies—including the nationalist English-language tabloid Global Times, and the China News Service, formerly run by the Chinese Overseas Affairs Office—and again demanded they submit details of their operations.
It came as little surprise, then, when China on Wednesday demanded another four U.S. outlets—including the Associated Press and National Public Radio—do the same.
“The above-mentioned measures are entirely necessary and reciprocal countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the U.S.,” Zhao said in a regular press conference. “They are legitimate and justified self-defense in every sense.”
Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong, told VICE News that China’s actions sought to draw a parallel between its news outlets and the United States’–even if that parallel is false.
“China wants to say, ‘You go after our media outlets; We go after your media outlets,’” Richburg said. “The difference is that when China goes after news agencies, these are independent news outfits… For them to go after independent news gathering outfits, somehow equating those with party organizations is a little bit disingenuous.”
Under the U.S.’s Foreign Missions Act, a foreign mission is defined as being “substantially owned or effectively controlled” by a foreign government. Morgan Ortagus, a U.S. Department of State spokesperson, wrote in a statement that the determination of foreign missions does not place restrictions on publication by the media entities, “It simply recognizes them for what they are.”
“This designation recognizes PRC [People’s Republic of China] propaganda outlets as foreign missions and increases transparency relating to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and PRC government’s media activities in the United States,” Ortagus wrote. “While Western media are beholden to the truth, PRC media are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.”
The full list of outlets designated by the U.S. as Chinese “foreign missions” includes China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily, the Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation, and Hai Tian Development USA—all of which are state-owned and controlled.
“Because they are operated by the party or the government or the propaganda ministry, they are not actually functioning as media outlets but as propaganda organs of the communist party,” Richburg told VICE News.
The full list of U.S. outlets targeted by China includes the AP, United Press International, CBS, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Voice of America, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME Magazine. Of those, only Voice of America is a government-run outlet. Even NPR, which was established by an act of Congress, is a registered non-profit and is overseen by an independent board of directors.
In his press briefing, Zhao maintained that U.S. policies had negatively affected the image and reputation of the Chinese media and impacted their operations, accusing the Trump administration of “Cold War thinking,” and describing the foreign mission designation as “political suppression and unreasonable restrictions of the Chinese media.”
Calling out what he characterized as hypocrisy, Zhao said that the new requirements on Chinese outlets undermined the very principles of press freedom that the U.S. claims to uphold.
China, meanwhile, makes no such claims, with media outlets, and even personal posts on social media (much of which is banned outright), rigorously policed and censored by the state.
The continuing one-upsmanship over media outlets is taking place against a broader backdrop of deteriorating relations between the two great powers, with journalists repeatedly finding themselves caught in the middle.
In February, China prohibited three Wall Street Journal reporters from working in mainland China — the first foreign correspondent expulsion from China since 1998 — and demanded a public apology after an editorial ran with the headline “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”
Within a few weeks of the move, the Trump administration decided to cap the number of Chinese nationals allowed to work for Chinese state-run news agencies in the U.S. at 100, effectively forcing 60 employees from their roles.
Shortly thereafter, China announced the expulsion of almost all foreign journalists working in the country for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
HKU’s Richburg said that after the latest development, it remains to be seen if the Trump administration will decide to up the ante‚ “because every time they do something there is a reaction to it — so this can go on and on.”
Find Sammy on Twitter.