WASHINGTON – As China moves forward with the expulsion of almost all American journalists from the top three American newspapers, Trump administration officials have intensified discussions about whether to evict employees of the Chinese media who they say act primarily like spies.
The action is under consideration because some US officials want to retaliate against China in a new conflict that has revolved around news organizations and is being fueled by hostility to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the virus began to spread throughout the United States, Washington and Beijing have waged a global information war on the outbreak. President Trump and his advisers are trying to attribute responsibility to China, where Communist Party officials initially covered the dangers of the virus as it was first discovered. However, Trump has been criticized for major flaws in the American response.
Some US intelligence officials have lobbied for years to expel employees of Chinese media organizations, who they say mainly report intelligence. Officials now see an opportunity to present a solid case after Beijing abruptly announced this month that it would expel almost all American citizens reporting from mainland China to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
China also required those organizations, as well as Voice of America magazine and Time, to provide information on employees, budgets, assets and other operational details.
US officials view state outlets in China as a potent threat in the Increasing strategic rivalry between the two superpowers, both because of the spread of propaganda throughout the world and because of their ability to provide cover to intelligence agents.
"The propaganda media reporting to the Chinese Communist Party are foreign agents, not & # 39; journalists & # 39;" said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, he said on Twitter on Thursday.
"Even Secretary General Xi says they should 'speak for the party,'" he added, referring to comments that Chinese President Xi Jinping made in 2016 while touring the headquarters of state media organizations. In recent days, Ms. Ortagus and Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have participated in an information duel on Twitter.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted on using the term "Wuhan virus,quot; to refer to the coronavirus, which sparked tensions at an online meeting on Wednesday of the Group of 7 nations' foreign ministers. Trump has used the term "Chinese virus,quot; despite widespread criticism that the label is racist and encourages attacks on Asian-Americans. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, has pushed the conspiracy theory that the United States Army could have brought the virus to Wuhan, where the pandemic began.
In this context, some US officials want to act quickly against Chinese intelligence agents. US counterintelligence officials They have looked more closely at the work of diplomats, journalists, scientists, and other Chinese in the United States, although some critics have denounced it as a new "red scare." In September, the United States secretly expelled two employees of the Chinese Embassy in Washington who had been caught driving at a sensitive military base in Virginia with their wives; It appears to be the first expulsion of Chinese diplomats accused of espionage in more than 30 years.
Any expulsion of Chinese media employees accused of doing intelligence work could include those based in the United Nations, where China has a permanent seat on the Security Council, according to an intelligence official familiar with the plans. Most Chinese employees of state organizations work in Washington for large organizations.
Some Chinese intelligence agents pose as journalists at those agencies and at smaller state outlets, using "unofficial cover,quot; in the language of spies, say Chinese spy experts. Some US officials have spoken of completely shutting down those small teams, as well as any Chinese organizations or companies accused of being a front for intelligence work.
US officials declined to estimate the number of Chinese intelligence officers in the United States who they say use journalism as a cover or the amount they would like to expel.
The F.B.I. it forwarded questions to the State Department, which said it does not comment on intelligence matters. The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
US intelligence officials have long claimed that many Chinese journalists abroad play a hybrid role in not only providing reports for publications and broadcasters in China, but also providing information to the Beijing intelligence apparatus.
The move now under consideration would try to avoid evicting most of those who play a hybrid role and focus more on people who the United States government believes are primarily spies, according to intelligence officials. The newspaper reports submitted by those Chinese citizens are simply a screen for secretly gathering information, officials said.
The United States is taking a closer look at China Central Television, the main state network that has extensive operations abroad, the intelligence official said. It has one arm, China Global Television Network, which runs its own operations and broadcasts in foreign languages.
China's main overseas spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, has agents in various media outlets, say intelligence officials and experts on Chinese espionage. The People's Liberation Army also has intelligence agents abroad with media coverage.
US officials were angered by China's announcement of the new wave of expulsions of non-spy American journalists. Officials viewed the action as part of Beijing's attempts to censor reports of the government's missteps of the coronavirus outbreak.
Officials are now looking for a way to retaliate beyond continuing a cycle of retribution that hurts people who practice real journalism. They say taking the fight to the intelligence services would do that, as well as allowing Americans to avoid criticism that they are restricting press freedoms.
One option that some officials have discussed that does not involve spies is to limit the reach and distribution of Chinese media in the United States, be it television networks or newspapers. But that runs into the thorny issue of press freedoms. For years, the Chinese government has blocked online access to major foreign news websites and applications, and often censors broadcasts on international television networks.
The wave of expulsions of journalists in the two countries began when China announced on February 19 that It would evict three reporters from the Wall Street Journal, the first direct expulsion of foreign journalists since 1998.
Following that announcement, which came a day after the Trump administration imposed new rules on five Chinese state-run media organizations, US officials struggled with how to respond. Some raised the idea of expelling Chinese state media employees who did intelligence work. Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser and former China-based Wall Street Journal reporter, led a meeting on February 24 to discuss options.
Management announced on March 2 that it was issuing new visa quotas for Chinese citizens working in five Chinese media organizations. In total, they could employ only 100 Chinese citizens in their American operations. That would result in the de facto expulsion of approximately 60.
A senior State Department official said last week that the "Chinese government,quot; had met the March 13 deadline to identify employees who would remain in the organizations. Chinese officials were unlikely to have selected intelligence officers to send them back to China, US officials said.
China retaliated against the new quotas by expelling journalists in The Times, The Journal and The Post, which affected at least 13 Americans, even though those newspapers are not linked to the United States government.
"Did they really believe that they could silence a country like China without consequence?" Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
"China clearly no longer sees Western journalists as helpful or critical in spreading its message," said Daniel M. Kliman, a member of the Center for a New Security in the United States and a former Asia policy official at the Pentagon. "With the expansion of state organizations worldwide, it seems they don't need Western journalists."
On Tuesday, the editors of the three newspapers issued an open letter to China.
Beijing's decision to expel journalists during a pandemic, they said, was "particularly damaging and reckless as the world continues to fight to control this disease, a fight that will require the free flow of reliable news and information."