The Department of Homeland Security said on Friday that Chinese journalists working for non-American news outlets would be limited to 90-day work visas — a significant reduction from the open-ended visas previously granted to journalists with Chinese passports. They will be allowed to apply for extensions, although those will also be limited to 90 days.
In announcing the new restrictions, American officials said the rules were necessary to counterbalance the “suppression of independent journalism” in China. The move raises the likelihood of further retaliation from Beijing against journalists from United States news outlets: In March, the Chinese government expelled journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, arguing that the move was “entirely necessary and reciprocal.”
The new American rule, which goes into effect on Monday, is the latest tit-for-tat action in a monthslong dispute between the United States and China over each other’s media presence in their countries — a conflict that has become a proxy for deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two superpowers.
American officials cited the expulsions by China as justification for the latest restrictions, writing that Beijing’s actions were “not merely ‘reciprocal’ as it claims, but instead an escalation of hostile measures targeting a free press within its borders.”
They noted that American journalists in China, customarily granted one-year visas, had also been issued shorter and shorter visas, sometimes for a few months, after writing coverage critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Journalists in Hong Kong and Macao are exempt.
Chinese state-controlled media quickly criticized the latest restrictions. The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, published an article quoting several Chinese academics who said the decision showed American officials’ “lack of confidence” and “double standard.”
“The U.S. has long labeled itself as valuing ‘freedom of the press,’ but its actions were full of hypocrisy,” the tabloid quoted Zhang Tengjun, an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, as saying.
The relationship between China and the United States had already frayed under President Trump, especially during a protracted trade war between the world’s two largest economies. But the pandemic has unleashed a new level of vitriol and recrimination.
Mr. Trump and federal officials have repeatedly emphasized China’s early attempts to cover up the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and have cast doubt on the veracity of China’s reported death toll.
Mr. Trump has also suggested that the United States could seek damages from China for the pandemic’s economic wreckage and deadly toll. Critics say the Trump administration’s threats were in part to distract from the White House’s own bungled response to the outbreak.
Beijing, meanwhile, has seized the crisis as an opportunity to cast itself as an alternative to the United States for global leadership. Chinese diplomats have repeatedly compared the death toll in China — which experts agree is probably undercounted — to the soaring numbers in the United States, which was slow to respond to the threat of the virus.
The announcement from Washington on Friday was not unexpected. Intelligence officials have long considered some of the journalists at Chinese state media outlets to be spies, and after the expulsions of American reporters in March, some American officials had pushed for a stronger crackdown on their Chinese counterparts.
The Trump administration had already designated several Chinese news agencies as foreign government functionaries, meaning that their employees would be scrutinized more closely than other foreign journalists.