China freezes credentials for journalists at US outlets, hinting at expulsions

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – The Chinese government has stopped renewing press credentials for foreign journalists working for American news organisations in China.

The government has also implied that it will proceed with expulsions if the Trump administration takes further action against Chinese media employees in the United States, according to six people with knowledge of the events.

The actions and threats raise the stakes in the continuing cycles of tit-for-tat between Washington and Beijing over news media organisations. That retaliation is a prominent element of a much broader downward spiral in US-China relations, one that involves mutually hostile policies and actions over trade, technology, education, diplomatic missions, Taiwan and military presence in Asia.

American news organisations immediately affected by China’s latest actions include CNN, The Wall Street Journal and Getty Images.

Journalists from all three organisations tried to renew press cards with the Chinese Foreign Ministry last week, but were told the cards, which are usually good for one year, could not be renewed. In total, at least five journalists in four organisations have been affected, several reporters said.

One journalist said Foreign Ministry officials told him that his fate depended on whether the United States decided in the fall to renew the visas of Chinese journalists working in America who are under new visa regulations imposed by the Department of Homeland Security in May. Other journalists have received similar messages.

The journalist said he was told by Chinese officials that if the Trump administration decided to expel Chinese journalists, Beijing would take reciprocal action. Many of the Chinese journalists work for state-run news organisations.

Foreign journalists working in China must renew their press cards to get new residence permits from the Public Security Bureau, the main police organisation. The residence permits are the equivalent of visas that allow foreigners to live in China.

The journalists with expired press cards were told by police officials after their discussions with Foreign Ministry officials that they would be given residence permits that are good until Nov 6.

They were given letters from the Foreign Ministry that said they could continue to work in China for the time being despite the expired press cards, according to a copy of one such letter obtained by The New York Times.

The early November end point for the residence permits corresponds to when the Trump administration might decide not to renew visas for many Chinese news media employees in the United States, which would result in their expulsions.

In May, the administration announced that all Chinese journalists would now have 90-day work visas – a significant reduction from the open-ended, single-entry visas they had received previously. The journalists would be allowed to apply for extensions of 90 days each.

In early August, the visas expired, but the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the State Department, did not expel any of the Chinese journalists or renew their visas, which meant they got a de facto extension of 90 days, according to the language of the new regulation.

They can continue to live and work in the United States until early November – the same week as the US elections – as they await word on their renewal applications. But American officials could also decide to expel some of them sooner.

Officials consider many of the Chinese employees to be propaganda workers and, in a few cases, maybe even spies. More than 130 Chinese journalists and news media employees have been affected.

Chinese diplomats are concerned about the potential expulsions and have spoken to their American counterparts.

China’s recent freezing of press card renewals has affected citizens from a number of countries working for US news organisations. They include Mr David Culver, the only CNN correspondent in China, who is American; Mr Jeremy Page, a British correspondent for The Wall Street Journal; and Mr Andrea Verdelli, an Italian freelance photographer whose credential is with Getty.

Most of the journalists and their news organisations declined to comment or did not reply to e-mail messages asking for comment.

CNN released a statement on Sunday (Sept 6) that said: “One of our Beijing-based journalists was recently issued a visa valid for two months, instead of the usual 12. However, our presence on the ground in China remains unchanged, and we are continuing to work with local authorities to ensure that continues.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not reply to a request for comment.

Ms Morgan Ortagus, a US State Department spokesman, said in a statement that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had recently told the US Embassy in Beijing that it was denying press card renewals to foreign journalists and refusing to process pending visa applications for journalists who were expelled earlier this year.

“The United States is, of course, troubled that these proposed actions by the PRC will worsen the reporting environment in China, which is already suffering a dearth of open and independent media reporting,” she said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

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