The Trump administration says it will begin treating five major Chinese state-run media entities with US operations the same as foreign embassies, requiring them to register their employees and US properties with the State Department.
- US officials say the move comes after China intensified use of media to spread pro-Beijing propaganda overseas
- President Xi Jinping sees media as a way to promote Chinese soft power abroad
- Western media outlets operating in China already face harsh restrictions
Two senior State Department officials said the decision was made because China had been tightening state control over its media, and President Xi Jinping had made more aggressive use of them to spread pro-Beijing propaganda.
The control over both the content and editorial control have only strengthened over the course of Xi Jinping’s term in power, said one official.
“These guys are in fact arms of the CCP’s [Chinese Community Party’s] propaganda apparatus.”
China’s ‘Xi Jinping thought’ app
China’s new hottest app on the block is a propaganda resource that teaches “Xi Jinping thought” and requires the Communist Party’s 90 million members to read it daily.
Beijing was not informed in advance of the decision and would be notified on Tuesday afternoon, one official said.
Beijing’s control of China’s state-owned media has become “more and more draconian,” the second official said. Both officials spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Tensions between the two superpowers have escalated since President Donald Trump came to office three years ago, with disputes ranging from trade tariffs to accusations of Chinese spying in the United States and to US support for Taiwan.
Global ambitions for expanded influence
Tuesday’s decision, the officials said, is not linked to any recent developments in Sino-US relations and has been under consideration for some time.
The new determination is being applied to the Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International, China Daily and Hai Tian Development USA, the officials said.
When the international arm of China Central Television (CCTV) news rebranded and became CGTN in 2016, Mr Xi urged the media organisation in a congratulatory letter to “tell China stories well” and spread China’s voice.
The message was seen as part of Beijing’s ambition to build a new global narrative around China while also challenging liberal democracy as the ideal developmental and political framework.
In late 2018, CGTN billboards began springing up across Australia, as the network became available on Foxtel and Fetch TV.
China Daily is an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party. Hai Tian Development USA distributes the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the party’s Central Committee.
Fairfax media — now taken over by Nine News — raised eyebrows when it included the China Watch lift-out in its newspapers on a monthly basis as part of a paid deal with China Daily, although it is understood to have ceased in November 2018.
Republican Florida senator Rick Scott applauded the State Department’s decision, tweeting he had “been saying for months now outlets like China Daily should clearly be marked as the Chinese propaganda that they are”.
US a ‘far more liberal environment’
The five entities’ US operations will have to disclose their personnel rosters and hiring and firing decisions and register properties in the United States that they rent or own with the State Department, the officials said.
They also will have to seek advanced approval before they lease or purchase new US properties, they said.
Asked if there were concerns that Beijing would retaliate against Western media based in China, one official noted that foreign news outlets there already worked under strict rules and that the new disclosure rules imposed no restrictions on the five state-owned Chinese entities’ US operations.
“These guys operate in a far more liberal environment here in the United States than any foreign press enjoy in the People’s Republic of China,” the official said.
Media freedom in China is among the worst in the world — ranking 176 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
A leaked 2013 government edict openly attacked Western media saying: “the West’s idea of journalism undermines our country’s principle that the media should be infused with the spirit of the party.”