Press Pressed Into US-China Conflict

NO ASPECT OF US-China relations is impervious to the steady drip of national contestation between the two countries. The Trump administration has ordered the five primary state media outlets operating in the United States — the Xinhua news agency, the People’s Daily, China Global Television Network, China Daily and China Radio International — to cut their staff there to 100 from 160.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says this is to establish what he called a long-overdue level playing field. Only around 75 US journalists are working in China, where unofficial caps of foreign correspondents have been in place for years.

However, the new sanction follows the expulsion by Beijing of three Wall Street Journal correspondents, overtly because of an opinion piece published last month by the newspaper under the headline, China is the Real Sick Man of Asia, critical of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

The phrase ‘sick man of Asia’ has historical resonances in China of which, this Bystander would willingly if sadly believe, the Journal’s commentary editors in New York were ignorant. The article was written by an academic who is a columnist for the Journal, not a staff journalist, and several scores of WSJ journalists signed a petition calling for the paper to change the headline and apologise to those offended by it. (The newspaper has not.)

Nonetheless, authorities were probably looking for an excuse to hit a publication that has not been receptive to China’s attempts to set the narrative for how China is covered globally.

These were the first foreign journalists to be expelled in two decades, but there have been up to nine examples in recent years of Western journalists not having their work visas renewed.

Around the same time, although probably coincidentally rather than causally, Washington required the five state media organisations again being sanctioned to register locally on the same terms as China’s diplomatic representatives.

The five will have to register the names of all employees and all real estate holdings with the US State Department. There were no restrictions imposed on their reporting. However, the moves against the five, including the latest, are unprecedented, our friends among the inkstand wretches inform us.

They do, however, show that the Trump administration wants to categorise the five as part of the state propaganda machine (which they are) and over which President Xi Jinping is stepping up his efforts to control better the government’s messaging internally and externally.

The latter includes a substantial expansion of China’s overseas media operations. Many Western officials worry that this could used in potential disinformation campaigns as part of Beijing’s wider cyber operations.

Given China has state-run media and the Trump administration has made an art form of denigrating US media that disagree with him, accusations on both sides of the other damaging the freedom of the press will ring hollow.

Yet the acrimony on this front will do nothing to improve mutual understanding that could help ease the acrimony on all the others.


Filed under China-U.S., Media

3 responses to “Press Pressed Into US-China Conflict

  1. Pingback: Let A Hundred Tweets Bloom | China Bystander

  2. Pingback: US-China Media War Escalates | China Bystander

  3. Pingback: China Presses Back | China Bystander

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