China Power | Society | East Asia

Restricting Chinese Journalist Visas Will Not Stop China’s Propaganda Campaigns

China’s state media have the resources to carry on. It’s the Chinese journalists affiliated with independent media who will suffer the most.

Chauncey Jung
Restricting Chinese Journalist Visas Will Not Stop China’s Propaganda Campaigns
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

The United States continues to escalate its diplomatic struggles with China by tightening its visa approval policies for journalists from the country. Accusing China of “suppressing independent journalism,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued new regulations on journalist visas granted to Chinese nationals. Starting on Monday, DHS officials will be allowed to review those visa applications more frequently. And instead of the original open-ended visas, the new journalist visas granted to Chinese nationals will be limited to 90 days, with the possibility of extensions.

This is the latest move made by the Trump administration in its ongoing diplomatic conflicts with China. Starting earlier this year, the administration limited the number of Chinese state media personnel able to operate within the United States, which was itself a response to China expelling American journalists in China. The Trump administration’s latest measure is also consistent with its long-time “America First” policies. Earlier in April, Trump also signed an executive order to temporarily halt immigration.

A senior official from DHS claimed that the latest restrictions on reporters who hold Chinese passports will more effectively protect national security, the steps would not address the latest controversies caused by reporters of different nationalities hired by Chinese state media. Furthermore, blanket restrictions based on nationality will not help the United States hold China accountable for respecting the freedom of the press, nor will it help U.S. reporters in China.

Earlier, President Donald Trump got into an exchange with reporter Chang Ching-Yi, who works for a Chinese state-controlled corporation, Shanghai Media group. When Trump asked for Chang’s media affiliation, however, Chang noted that he is from Taiwan. In response to the incident, Trump tweeted “Cut him off now!” while retweeting a post that called for Chang to “be arrested and deported.” But under the administration’s latest policy changes, Chang’s status will not be impacted. Chang was born in Taiwan, and he holds a passport from the Republic of China instead of a People’s Republic of China passport, which the DHS is targeting. Despite working for a Chinese state media outlet, Chang’s visa status will not be subject to more frequent reviews because of his nationality.

Instead, the policy will hurt many Chinese passport holders working for credible international media outlets. According to a newsletter from Chinese journalist group Chinese Storytellers, that includes reporters working for media outlets such as BBC, Reuters, Caixin, and Initium Media. All of these internationally respected media outlets will be impacted, as their reporters in the United States are facing greater uncertainties over their immigration status in the country.

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If the intent was to crack down on Chinese state-owned media operations in the United States, the nationality-based policy clearly did not hit its intended targets. Rather, it will damage the quality of work for many other reputable media outlets that heavily rely on frontline reporters for news stories.

Restricting the number of Chinese journalists in the United States is not going to make China reevaluate its repressive measures against its domestic and foreign journalists. Quite the opposite — it gives further grounds for Beijing to retaliate against reporters from U.S. media outlets who are still in China. While reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post were forced out of China by the regime’s officials, media outlets such as CNN, CNBC, and the Associated Press continue their operations in the country amid extremely difficult and sensitive times. The latest restrictions on Chinese reporters gives the Chinese Communist Party more grounds to retaliate, and the remaining reporters who are still in China are likely going to suffer.

When it comes to spreading its propaganda, China does not necessarily require reporters to be on the ground. From engaging with YouTube influencers to simply translating stories from local U.S. outlets, China is also utilizing other media outlets in its information war. Chinese state media can easily hire American citizens to work in the United States; more simply, state media outlets can simply translate stories from American media to compile propaganda material for domestic and foreign audiences.

The massive Chinese propaganda campaign also utilizes social media influencers to boost its signal on a range of issues. Jerry Kowal, a YouTube influencer, connected with the China Central Television to cover the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The Chinese regime is happy to work with social media influencers as long as they are repeating the regime’s talking points. Nathan Rich, a YouTube content creator who previously had issues with theft and drug crimes, was praised as a warrior who combats the West’s anti-China media coverage by Chinese state media China Daily and Global Times. Different from credible international media outlets that rely on high journalistic standards, the Chinese propaganda apparatus is more flexible in delivering its messages to a range of audiences. It is naive to believe that stopping Chinese reporters from coming into the United States would derail the regime’s efforts to distribute its propaganda messages to the world.

Instead of profiling reporters based on their nationalities, democracies should rather consider real actions to curb China’s influence by targeting its channels of influence and identifying these risks. China currently has control of the content on two of the most popular social media platforms in the world: WeChat and TikTok. Credible reports indicate that both WeChat and TikTok have censored content critical of the Chinese government. Even while China steps up its Great Firewall to prevent the country’s internet users from visiting websites and applications that are not under the regime’s control, it is also exporting censorship beyond its own borders.

WeChat, a Chinese-controlled social media platform, has been used to target the Chinese speaking population around the world to export the regime’s influence and propaganda. TikTok, another Chinese controlled social media platform, is targeting the youth population and has been visibly assisting Chinese government officials in delivering their propaganda messages.

In the age of social media and digital content, China is taking advantage of the latest technologies for its propaganda purposes and is aiming to further its political agendas. While it is easier to fact-check the lies and misinformation that the country’s state media propagate, it is more challenging to halt the Chinese regime from using social media content to advance its preferred narratives. If the goal is to combat foreign interference the United States and the rest of the world should address China’s propaganda use of social media, rather than restricting reporters based on their nationality.