Washington on Monday ordered several U.S.-based media organizations run by the Chinese government to cut their staff numbers, hitting out at Beijing's "long-standing intimidation and harassment of journalists."
U.S. based employees of China's Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International and China Daily Distribution Corp., which last month were designated foreign agents by the State Department, will need to be reduced from 160 to just 100 by March 13, official said.
The move was in direct response to Beijing's treatment of journalists, which was highlighted in an annual report released by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) on Monday.
The report found that 82 percent of members who responded to its survey had experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting in China, while 44 percent said digital and physical surveillance concerns had affected their ability to carry out reporting activities, including contacting sources and doing interviews.
Forty-four percent said their Chinese colleagues had experienced harassment at least once during 2019, while 51 percent said they were obstructed by police or other officials while trying to do their jobs.
The report said it had built up "a detailed picture of sustained attacks by the Chinese state on the foreign press, a worsening reality that should be cause for global concern."
"As China reaches new heights of economic influence, it has shown a growing willingness to use its considerable state power to suppress factual reporting that does not fit with the global image it seeks to present," the report said.
"For the second consecutive year, not a single correspondent said conditions improved," it said.
'Visas as weapons'
Citing the expulsion from China of three Wall Street Journal reporters last month, the FCCC said Chinese authorities are now "using visas as weapons against the foreign press," either refusing to renew work visas as in the case of the Journal's Chun Han Wong in August, or issuing "severely truncated visas" to resident journalists.
It said since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, China has forced nine foreign journalists to leave the country, either through outright expulsion or non-renewal of visas.
"Twenty-two percent of respondents faced difficulty renewing their credentials, up from 13 percent the year before," the report found. "Almost all of them believed this was related to their reporting."
Meanwhile, Chinese employees at international media organizations continued to face intensifying intimidation and harassment, including being detained, interrogated and threatened, the FCCC found.
China's ever-expanding surveillance network, which employs facial recognition technology and physical monitoring, as well as evidence of the hacking of e-mail and encrypted messaging apps is making journalists' jobs harder still, it said.
"For years, the government of the People’s Republic of China has imposed increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment, and intimidation against American and other foreign journalists operating in China," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement announcing the staffing cuts to Chinese media organizations.
One U.S. official told Reuters: "We've been imploring the Chinese for years and years now to improve their treatment of journalists in China. So, this is not linked to any one particular incident."
The U.S. official said it was hoped that the restrictions on Chinese media organizations would "spur Beijing to adopt a more fair and reciprocal approach."
"If in fact they decide to take this in a further negative direction however of course...all options would be on the table. I can't tell you what in particular we would do, but we’d sit down review the circumstances and then consider all of our options," said the official in comments reported by Reuters.
While the U.S. isn't expelling any individuals, some of the staff members may be forced to leave due to the fact that their visas depend on their ability to work in the U.S.
The move drew criticism from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), however, which called on Washington to immediately suspend the plan.
"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," CPJ Asia program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement on the group's website.
"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," Butler said.
China is the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with at least 48 journalists behind bars at the end of 2019, the CPJ said.
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.