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China Threatens Retaliation for US Denial of Journalist Visas

The New York Times Beijing based correspondent Steven Lee Myers, left, chats with other foreign journalists after a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, March 18, 2020.
The New York Times Beijing based correspondent Steven Lee Myers, left, chats with other foreign journalists after a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, March 18, 2020.

China has threatened to retaliate after the United States did not renew visas for some 40 Chinese journalists, whose 90-day permit to work in the U.S. expired Thursday.

No retaliatory move, however, was immediately announced Friday, after Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of state tabloid Global Times previously warned that the “Chinese side will retaliate, including targeting U.S. journalists based in Hong Kong.”

Instead, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin Friday denounced the U.S. action as “a unilateral provocation” during a routine media briefing, urging the U.S. “to correct its mistakes and cease its oppression of Chinese media workers.”

Tell right from wrong?

Prior to that, the ministry’s office in the former British colony also released a written statement, urging Hong Kong-based foreign journalists “to understand the consequences and tell right from wrong.”

The ministry reiterated that “if the U.S. persists with escalating its actions against Chinese media, China will take a necessary and legitimate response.”

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The official statement came as a response to an open letter issued one day earlier by the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which called on both the U.S. and Chinese governments to stop “using journalists’ visas as a weapon in international disputes and…taking action against journalists for the decisions made by their home countries.”

“This downward spiral of retaliatory actions aimed at journalists helps no one, not least of all the public that needs accurate, professionally produced information now more than ever,” said the letter.

Unusual delays in issuance of visas

The club added that several media outlets in Hong Kong have experienced unusual delays in getting new or renewed visas for journalists working in the city.

The latest journalist visa drama will surely escalate U.S.-China tensions and invite retaliation from China, which will pose a new threat to American journalists working in China, two analysts told VOA.

Since early this year, the two countries have clashed over media exchanges.

In mid-February, the U.S. State Department listed five U.S.-based Chinese media outlets as foreign embassies since they work for the Communist government’s propaganda efforts and in March ordered them to reduce the number of Chinese journalists on staff from 160 to 100.

China later retaliated by expelling Beijing-based U.S. journalists working at three American newspapers -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

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Journalistic tit-for-tat

In May, the U.S. hit back by shortening the validity period of visas for Chinese journalists to a maximum of 90 days.

According to Global Times, one of its U.S.-based reporters has filed to extend the 90-day limit after her visa expired on Thursday. Her application is neither rejected nor approved.

The journalist said she is allowed to stay in the U.S. for another 90 days until early November, but not allowed to work unless her visa is renewed, the report added.

Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based political analyst, described the media tit-for-tat as just one facet of escalating Sino-U.S. tensions.

“Like everything else in the bilateral relationship, it’s one among many different issues whether it’s trade, or human rights in China or Taiwan, South China sea, technology industries, being one that’s in the news in recent days as well,” Feingold said.

Change is required

“So, it’s on the agenda that the United States identifies as something that requires a change,” he added.

Feingold said the U.S. actions are based on years of frustration over unequal restrictions China has placed on American diplomats and journalists working in China while China’s government-funded media propagandists face no such restrictions in the U.S.

There is, however, little sign that the Communist government in Beijing is interested in taking in criticism or changing its journalistic practice, said Cédric Alviani, head of Reporters Without Borders’s (RSF) East Asia bureau in Taipei.

While denouncing U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on journalists, Alviani added that any government’s move to limit the influence of state propaganda and disinformation – which the Chinese state media are openly engaged in – isn’t an erosion of press freedom.

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Media as collateral?

But an anticipated media war, in which the U.S. and Chinese governments simply use journalists as a collateral to fight each other, should not be encouraged, he said.

“It’s normal that the U.S. democracy would try and limit the influence of the propaganda media within its borders. But by using the impression that it is some kind of war using the media as a collateral, somehow, it’s posing a new threat to foreign journalists based in China,” Alviani told VOA.

The level of hostility between the Chinese and Americans over recent media exchange policies is also rising.

Most Chinese netizens on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, expressed negative views toward the U.S. actions against Chinese media.

For example, one netizen wrote, “What’s there to be afraid of. Let’s take the opportunity to kick all American journalists in Hong Kong out since they are very mean” in response to a news report on Thursday.

In a Twitter post, famed U.S. author Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” Tuesday responded to Hu’s threat of China’s retaliation by saying, “Retaliate all you want…Your China can’t get along without us. We, however, can get along without you. In fact, we would be far better off without you. So leave.”