Not So Quiet on the Western Front: How U.S. Regulation of Chinese Media Outlets Has Created New Tensions in the U.S.-China Relationship

By: Alexandria Johnson

The United States and China entered into 2020 with a trade deal and hopes that this agreement foretold a more cooperative future.[1] Two months into the new year, these hopes were crushed as COVID-19 tore through the globe and tensions heightened in a new arena: the media.[2] Once the virus appeared in the U.S., one of President Trump’s earliest reactions was to claim that it came from an individual traveling from China.[3] Following the President’s lead, administration officials and the Wall Street Journal (”WSJ”) continued to associate China with the virus. Executive officials repeatedly referred to the disease as the “China virus” and the WSJ published a derogatory and offensive article title, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”[4]  

On February 18, 2020, the Trump administration designated five Chinese media entities as foreign missions.[5]The Foreign Missions Act of 1982 authorizes the State Department to designate entities as “foreign missions” if they are engaged in “diplomatic, consular, or other activities of” or are “substantially owned or effectively controlled” by a foreign government.[6]  In a February 18 briefing, a senior State Department official announced the five entities and their relationship to the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).[7] The designation requires the entities to provide the State Department with basic information about their current personnel and any changes in employment.[8]  Furthermore, companies must report their real property holdings and obtain government approval to buy or lease property.[9]  

The day after the State Department announced the “foreign mission” designations, the Chinese government responded to the administration and the WSJ by revoking the press credentials of three WSJ journalists and demanding an apology.[10] In turn, in March and May, respectively, the U.S. imposed restrictions on Chinese citizens working in the U.S. for Chinese-run media companies and limited visas for Chinese journalists to ninety days.[11]  The Chinese government responded by requiring the China branches of Voice of America, the New York Times (“NYT”), the WSJ, the Washington Post, and Time Magazine to submit information on their staff, finances, operations, and real estate holdings in the country.[12] It also required employees of the NYT, WSJ, and Washington Post with American citizenship to turn in their press cards if their credentials were set to expire before the end of 2020.[13]  Between June and October, the United States designated ten more Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions”.[14]

 So far in this dispute the Foreign Missions Act has been relegated to media enterprises. Historically, its use has included a encompassed companies in a variety of industries.[15]  In 2014, the State Department designated the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative’s Office as a “foreign mission,” and in 2012 and 2010 it applied the same designation to the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Vietnam Trade Promotion Center respectively.[16] If the U.S. and China continue to engage in this tit for tat then the U.S. could apply the “foreign missions” designation to companies or organizations whose main purpose is to improve relations and facilitate trade between the two countries. This could effectively weaken the recently improved trade relationship between the  U.S. and China. It is also likely that China would continue to target U.S. media companies. Most recently, the Chinese government responded to the State Department’s most recent designations by giving six U.S. media outlets a week to report on their operations in Beijing.[17] Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times indicated that such demands would continue and could even extend to the media outlets.[18] Such outlets have allowed for international coverage of pro-democracy protests in the region.[19] While Xijin is not a government official he has predicted the behavior of the CCP in the past.[20]

With the election coming to a close and the possibility of a new administration on the horizon, this conflict is on a crash course and shows no signs of slowing down. The winnowing of press operations by either nation might act serve as a symbol of each government’s individual dominance, but it also eliminates valuable sources of information. As the U.S. enters the final stages of the election and the world prepares for the possibility of change or more of the same that media access is integral to furthering U.S. policy and fostering relationships. 


[1] Dharshini David, US and China Sign Deal to Ease Trade War, BBC (Jan. 15, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51114425 (referencing statements from President Trump and Chinese leaders which indicate that the deal will lead to a stronger relationship between the U.S. and China and is a win-win that would foster better relations, respectively).

[2] Nathaniel Taplin, Trump’s Trade Deal With China is Another Coronavirus Victim, Wall St. J. (Apr. 30, 2020), https://www.wsj.com/articles/trumps-trade-deal-with-china-is-another-coronavirus-victim-11588245539

[3] Eugene Kiely et al., Timeline of Trump’s COVID-19 Comments, FactCheck.Org (Oct. 2, 2020), https://www.factcheck.org/2020/10/timeline-of-trumps-covid-19-comments/ (noting that in a CNBC interview on January 22 President Trump regarding COVID-19 said “We have it totally under control. It’s on person coming in from China.”); but see Helen Branswell, When Did the Coronavirus Start Spreading in the U.S.? Likely in January, CDC Analysis Suggests, STAT (May 29, 2020), https://www.statnews.com/2020/05/29/cdc-local-transmission-coronavirus-united-states/ (noting that California authorities found an infected woman who had not traveled outside the country and had no known contact with anyone who did two days after the patient in Washington traveling from China tested positive). 

[4] Rachel Sandler, Trump Calls Coronavirus A ‘Chinese Virus’ Despite Racism Charge—And A Warning From WHO, Forbes (Mar. 18, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2020/03/18/trump-calls-coronavirus-a-chinese-virus-despite-racism-charge-and-a-warning-from-who/?sh=206b7e4575e3 (referencing statements from Mike Pompeo referring to the virus as the “Wuhan virus” and a tweet from the White House offering the Spanish Flu, West Nile Virus, Zika, and Ebola as examples of viruses named for places); see also Kimmy Yam, The WSJ Criticized For Op-ed With Derogatory Reference to China in Title, NBC News (Feb. 7, 2020), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/wall-street-journal-slammed-op-ed-derogatory-reference-china-title-n1132836 (commenting that the title of the WSJ op-ed is a derogatory phrase used to perpetuate stereotypes about Chinese people).

[5] Conor Finnegan, US Forces 5 Chinese Media Outlets to Register as Foreign Missions, ABC News (Feb. 18, 2020), https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/us-forces-chinese-media-outlets-register-foreign-missions/story?id=69054342.  

[6] 22 U.S.C. §4302(a)(3) (2018).

[7] Special Briefing, Senior State Department Officials on the Office of Foreign Mission’s Designation of Chinese Media Entities as Foreign Missions, U.S. Dep’t of St. (Feb. 18, 2020) https://www.state.gov/senior-state-department-officials-on-the-office-of-foreign-missions-designation-of-chinese-media-entities-as-foreign-missions/ (designating Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation, and Hai Tian Development USA as “foreign missions” because they are either the administrative arm of the CCP, part of a media company run by the CCP, operated by a newspaper owned by the CCP, or an official newspaper of the CCP).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] China Revokes 3 WSJ  Reporters’ Credentials, AP (Feb. 19, 2020), https://apnews.com/article/7a255b11a8a11bf2a40791f65a8a9388.

[11] Jennifer Hansler, State Dep’t to Cap Number of Chinese Citizens Employed by State Media in US, CNN (Mar. 3, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/02/politics/us-cap-chinese-media/index.html (quoting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “[t]he U.S. government is today instituting a personnel cap on certain PRC-controlled state media entities in the United States”); Tal Axelrod, US Issues New Visa Restrictions for Chinese Journalists, The Hill (May 9, 2020), https://thehill.com/policy/international/china/496942-us-issues-new-visa-restrictions-for-chinese-journalists  (summarizing a Department of Homeland Security Federal Registrar announcement that Chinese journalists working for China state-run media entities would only have access to 90-day work visas rather than the open-ended visas they initially qualified for).

[12] Ken Moritsugu, China to Expel American Reporters After US Curbs its Media, AP (Mar. 18, 2020),https://apnews.com/article/666d6df51b5a6f42e57aeb4ee9a41852

[13] Id.

[14] Press Statement, Designation of Additional Chinese Media Entities as Foreign Missions, U.S. Dep’t of St. (June 22, 2020) https://www.state.gov/designation-of-additional-chinese-media-entities-as-foreign-missions/ (designating the U.S. operations of China Central Television, China News Services, the People’s Daily, and the Global Times as foreign missions); Press Statement, Designation of Additional PRC Propaganda Outlets as Foreign Missions, U.S. Dep’t of St.  (Oct. 21, 2020), https://www.state.gov/designation-of-additional-prc-propaganda-outlets-as-foreign-missions/  (designating U.S. operations of Yicai Global, Jiefang Daily, Xinmin Evening News, Social Sciences in China Press, Beijing Review, and Economic Daily as foreign missions). 

[15] See Designation and Determination under Foreign Missions Act, 79 Fed. Reg. 16,090 (Mar. 24, 2014); see alsoDesignation and Determination Pursuant to the Foreign Missions Act Concerning the Designation of Entities in the United States That Are Substantially Owned or Effectively Controlled by the Government of Azerbaijan as Foreign Missions and the Determination That Property Transactions on the Part of Such Entities Are Subject to Foreign Mission Act Regulation, 77 Fed. Reg. 34,122 (June 8, 2020); see also Designation and Determination under Foreign Missions Act, 75 Fed. Reg. 17,822 (Apr. 7, 2010).

[16] Id.

[17] Reuters Staff, China Gives Six U.S. Media Outlets A Week to Report on Operations, Reuters (Oct. 26, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-media/china-gives-six-u-s-media-outlets-a-week-to-report-on-operations-idUSKBN27B1TU (reporting that China’s foreign ministry ordered ABC, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Feature Story News, the Bureau of National Affairs, and Minnesota Public Radio within a week).

[18] Hu Xijian (@HuXijin_GT, Twitter (Oct. 21, 2020, 1:52 PM), https://twitter.com/HuXijin_GT/status/1318973533565771776(stating that “as long as Chinese media outlets suffer actual harm, Beijing will definitely retaliate, and US media outlets’ operation in HK could be included in retaliation list”).

[19] See e.g. Laignee Barron, “I Absolutely Will Not Back Down” Meet the Young People at the Heart of Hong Kong’s Rebellion, Time (Jan. 22, 2020), https://time.com/longform/hong-kong-portraits/ (profiling the leaders of the Hong Kong protest movement); see also Hong Kong Democracy Protests: CRT’s Live Blog, Wall St. J. (Oct. 6, 2014), https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-CJB-24238 (documenting the events of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests since 2014). 

[20] Peter Martin, U.S. Escalates China Tensions With Further Media Restrictions, Bloomberg (Oct. 21, 2020), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-21/u-s-escalates-china-tensions-with-further-media-restrictions

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