The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Tuesday hit back at recent measures against its state-run media in the United States by revoking the press credentials of journalists based in China, including Hong Kong and Macau.
"China demands that journalists of U.S. citizenship working with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post whose press credentials are due to expire before the end of 2020 ... hand back their press cards within 10 calendar days," Beijing's foreign ministry said in a statement on its official website.
"They will not be allowed to continue working as journalists in the People's Republic of China, including its Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions," the statement said.
It said the decision was made "in response to the U.S. slashing the staff size of Chinese media outlets in the U.S., which is expulsion in all but name."
The move comes after Washington designated five Chinese state-run media organizations as representatives of a foreign government, and was intended as a direct retaliation for that decision, the foreign ministry said.
The U.S. State Department said it would now be regarding five Chinese state-run media organizations as foreign diplomatic missions, meaning that they are representatives of their country's government.
Xinhua News Agency, CCTV's global network CGTN, China Radio International (CRI), the China Daily's U.S. distribution arm and Hai Tian Development, which distributes Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily in the U.S had their status changed because they are directly under the control of the Chinese government, officials said at the time.
Xinhua reports directly to China's cabinet, the State Council, while CGTN and CRI are part of a state-owned entity, the China Media Group.
The China Daily is owned by the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department, while the People's Daily is the official mouthpiece of China's ruling party.
The organizations are now required under U.S. law to notify the authorities of all of their personnel on U.S. soil, and to update the Office of Foreign Missions of any personnel changes, similar to the requirements for embassies and consulates. Any property held by the organizations must also be reported.
In response, Beijing imposed similar requirements on five U.S. media organizations: the Voice of America (VOA), The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Time magazine, requiring them to provide information in writing about their staff, finances, operations and real estate held in China.
The foreign ministry said U.S. journalists would now also be subjected to similar visa and other administrations placed on Chinese journalists in the U.S.
"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.," the foreign ministry said.
The VOA said in a statement that it "joins with its colleagues at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post in condemning China's recent moves towards restricting U.S. media operations in China."
"Such restrictions on the free press are wrong and we stand firm in our commitment to free press operations in China and around the world," the agency said in a statement.
'This isn’t apples to apples'
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a regular news briefing that he hoped China would reconsider the expulsions.
"I regret China’s decision today to further foreclose the world’s ability to conduct free press operations, which, frankly would be really good for the Chinese people, really good for the Chinese people in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency are what will save lives," he told a regular news briefing.
"This is unfortunate," he added. "I hope they’ll reconsider."
But he rejected the idea that the move was a justifiable retaliation for U.S. actions.
"This isn’t apples to apples," Pompeo said. "The individuals that we identified a few weeks back were not media that were acting here freely. They were part of Chinese propaganda outlets."
Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said the "cycle of tit-for-tat" between the U.S. and China should end.
"Both countries should lift any applicable restrictions and allow professional media outlets to play their role of reporting the news and calling it like they see it," Nossel said.
She said the move was likely part of Beijing's bid to control the narrative over the COVID-19 epidemic. State media have focused on heroic tales of the fight against the epidemic while sanctioning whistleblowers and citizen journalists for reporting the actual situation on the ground.
Beijing gets heavy handed
Chinese officials have also begun suggesting that the coronavirus that was first detected in Wuhan may have come from outside China.
"The role of government vis-a-vis the media right now should be to offer information and, beyond that, get out of the way of health experts, scientists and credible journalists who are telling the public what they urgently need to know," Nossel said in a statement.
The decision to declare Chinese state media arms of the government came in response to Beijing's growing tendency to interfere with the work of journalists stationed in China.
An annual report released by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) earlier this month 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.
Citing the expulsion from China of three Wall Street Journal reporters in February, 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.
Officials revoked the press credentials of Josh Chin and Chao Deng, who are both U.S. nationals, and that of Philip Wen, an Australian, in response to an op-ed article in the paper titled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia."
Geng said the headline was "racially discriminatory" and "sensational" and hit out at the paper's editors for not apologizing.
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.