In tit for tat, Trump limits number of Chinese journalists in U.S.

A man walks on a nearly empty and shuttered commercial street in Beijing in February 2020.
A man walks on a nearly empty and shuttered commercial street in Beijing in February 2020.
(Getty Images)

The Trump administration on Monday ordered several Chinese media organizations to dismiss 60 U.S.-based Chinese nationals in retaliation for a “long-standing trend” of actions by Beijing against journalists, including the expulsion last month of three Wall Street Journal reporters.

The action could in effect force many of the Chinese nationals to leave the United States. It applies only to Chinese citizens, not employees of other nationalities.

The state-controlled New China News Agency and three other organizations will be required to reduce their total staff of 160 Chinese nationals to 100, senior State Department officials said. In the case of the New China News Agency, for example, only 59 Chinese nationals may be employed. Overall, the reduction is nearly 40% of the companies’ U.S.-based staff. The other state-run companies are China Global Television Network, China Radio International and China Daily.

Administration officials cited the expulsion last month of three Wall Street Journal reporters, but also a string of measures against both Chinese and American journalists, including the disappearance of citizen activists who reported on the beginnings of the coronavirus in China.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Beijing’s restrictions on the press were “misguided.”


“Our goal is reciprocity,” Pompeo said in an statement. “As we have done in other areas of the U.S.-China relationship, we seek to establish a long-overdue level playing field. It is our hope that this action will spur Beijing to adopt a more fair and reciprocal approach to U.S. and other foreign press in China.”

China’s expulsion of the Wall Street Journal employees — for what Chinese authorities called an offensive op-ed headline — came a day after the Trump administration’s Feb. 18 designation of all four of the Chinese media companies as “foreign missions of the People’s Republic of China,” a category that regards them as extensions of the Beijing government. Like an embassy, all were required to register personnel with the State Department and get permission to lease or buy property.

With Monday’s action, the entities have until Friday to name the employees who will be dismissed, and they must no longer be employed as of March 13.

A fifth company, the distributor of People’s Daily, was also in the Feb. 18 designation but was not subjected to the limit on staffing because it has so few employees, officials said.

The administration officials who announced Monday’s actions emphasized what they described as the distinction between independent U.S. media and “propaganda organs” that work at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese employees who remain on staff will not be restricted in what they cover, the officials said.

“This is no way restricts the ability of people working for Chinese propaganda outlets to conduct their, you know, reporting activities,” a senior administration official said, briefing reporters anonymously in keeping with White House protocol.


In addition to the cap on personnel, the administration is imposing a “duration of stay” addendum to visas that Chinese obtain to work in the U.S. as journalists, which means they will be required to renew the permits periodically. It is a measure similar to a requirement that Beijing uses for U.S. and other foreign journalists working in China.

In Beijing, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China reported in a new survey that conditions for the working press have deteriorated in China substantially. Since President Xi Jinping consolidated power in 2013, the group said, China has forced out nine foreign journalists “either through outright expulsion or by non-renewal of visas.” The organization said it fears more expulsions.

“The influence and pressure brought to bear on foreign journalists in China reflects how Chinese authorities extend their reach and scope in chilling ways to ensure the ‘China story’ has but one narrative — theirs,” the report says, noting that Chinese government officials frequently use state-run media to attack any reporting seen as critical of the country.

Administration officials acknowledged that the new limits on Chinese staffing in the U.S. might trigger further backlash against American journalists in Beijing.

“It would be a shame,” the administration official said. “Kicking out more and more foreign reporters is only going to lead to a situation where China goes completely opaque. That’s going to have a massive knock-on effect on the willingness of investors, businessmen and others to engage there.”

Noting that the Trump administration has also had a hostile relationship with the press, journalism advocacy groups criticized the personnel caps announced Monday.

“China and the United States need to pull back from this dangerous cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation that threatens the free flow of information in both countries — especially during a global health crisis,” Steven Butler, head of the Asia program at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement. “As a democracy with a strong constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, the U.S. in particular must show leadership in the area of press freedom, rather than adopting Beijing’s authoritarian tactics.”