The United States on Monday cut by nearly half the number of Chinese nationals allowed to work for Beijing’s state-run media in the US, vowing reciprocity after a crackdown in China.

The move comes two weeks after China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters, although the US said its decision was based on levelling numbers between the countries rather than retaliating over content.

Mike Pompeo and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. Photo: US Gov’t.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China had “imposed increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment and intimidation against American and other foreign journalists operating in China.”

“We urge the Chinese government to immediately uphold its international commitments to respect freedom of expression, including for members of the press,” Pompeo said in a statement.

A State Department official said that five media outlets, which last month were reclassified by the United States as foreign missions, would be allowed to employ a maximum 100 Chinese nationals as of March 13, down from around 160 now.

The United States is not explicitly expelling the other 60 staff members, who in theory can seek other employment, although most are expected to be obliged to leave the country.

Chinese citizens who work for other media outlets in the US are not affected, the official said, and state-run media outlets will not be barred from hiring employees of other nationalities.

“The US government has long welcomed foreign journalists, including PRC (Chinese) journalists, to work freely and without threat of reprisal,” Pompeo said.

“Our goal is reciprocity. As we have done in other areas of the US-China relationship, we seek to establish a long-overdue level playing field,” he said.

Xinhua billboard in New York’s Times Square. File photo: Harshil Shah, via Flickr.

China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, condemned the move, saying during a news conference: “We do not think it’s appropriate for the United States to take steps to interfere with the work of journalists coming from China.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also voiced dismay, saying the United States was furthering a “dangerous cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation” that could impede the flow of information in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

 Growing visa curbs by China 

China on February 19 threw out three reporters from The Wall Street Journal — two US nationals and an Australian — in its harshest move against international media in years.

China said it took action because the newspaper had not apologized for a “racially discriminatory” headline that read “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” and appeared on an opinion column about the nation’s fight against the coronavirus.

In its annual report released Monday, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said that Beijing was using visas as a weapon to intimidate foreign press “like never before” and feared it was preparing to kick out more reporters.

Wall Street Journal. File Photo: Jennifer Feuchter, via Flickr.

It said China had also been reducing the time-frame in which journalists can stay, with at least 12 correspondents issued credentials for half a year or less, more than double the number from a year earlier.

A senior US official said that President Donald Trump’s administration was also considering limiting the duration of stay for Chinese staff of state media.

Last year the United States issued 425 journalist visas to Chinese citizens, including family members, according to official data.

The organization most affected by Monday’s order will be the state news agency Xinhua, which will be allowed to keep 59 Chinese staff in the US, according to a State Department official.

The China Global Television Network will be permitted 30 nationals. The China Daily can have nine Chinese employees and China Radio International will be permitted two.

The fifth organization is the US distributor of the official People’s Daily, which is not believed to employ Chinese nationals.

In reclassifying the five outlets under foreign missions last month, the State Department required them to seek permission to buy property and also to provide lists of their staff, including the growing number of Americans they employ.

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