(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is weighing whether to expel Chinese journalists after China kicked out three Wall Street Journal reporters, part of a push by the Trump administration to show leaders in Beijing that it will resist restrictions on Americans working in China.
The administration’s options were to be discussed in a meeting of senior administration leaders at the White House on Monday led by Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser who was once a Wall Street Journal reporter in Beijing, according to U.S. officials familiar with the deliberations.
There’s an intense debate over how severely to respond to the expulsions last week. Some advocate ordering dozens -- and perhaps hundreds -- of Chinese reporters to leave, while others say that’s not legally possible or in keeping with American values on freedom of the press, according to several of the officials.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are among those arguing for a more moderate approach, especially as the U.S. needs to work with China in stemming the coronavirus outbreak, one person familiar with the discussions said.
When asked Tuesday about the potential for U.S. retaliation, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman reiterated criticism of American officials and the Journal.
“The U.S. has some officials talking about freedom of speech and expression, but I want to ask if a U.S. media organization published racist comments in the U.S. what would happen?” the spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters in Beijing. “Have American officials forgotten how they have treated CNN and other media?”
While declining to comment on specific actions under consideration, John Ullyot, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Friday that China’s move against the American reporters was an “egregious act.” “This expulsion is yet another attempt to control the press, and prevent the world’s readers as well as investors from reading important stories about China,” Ullyot said.
Steve Severinghaus, a spokesman for the Wall Street Journal, declined to comment on Monday.
China made the rare move of punishing multiple journalists at a single news organization last week after it said the Journal refused to apologize for what it said was a “racially discriminatory” op-ed. The column described China as the “sick man of Asia.” Foreign journalists need press passes issued by the foreign ministry to qualify for visas to report in the country.
Ullyot cited the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China as saying in an open letter that the group is aware of nine journalists either expelled, or effectively expelled from China through non-renewal of visas since 2013, including the three Wall Street Journal reporters on Feb. 19.
One of the reporters is among foreign journalists stuck in the central Chinese city of Wuhan after the government decided to restrict travel last month to curb the coronavirus outbreak. Zhao said separately Tuesday that the reporter could stay in Wuhan on “humanitarian grounds,” but couldn’t write.
Whatever options are pursued, the U.S. officials said, there’s a broad determination to address what’s perceived as a deep imbalance in the way the two countries treat the press.
Chinese outlets, almost all of them controlled by the government, have more than 500 reporters in the U.S., some administration officials believe. There are so many that the U.S. doesn’t track them all. By contrast, China currently lets about 75 American journalists live and work there and routinely uses expulsions and visa denials to punish U.S. outlets for what the government sees as unfair coverage.
“Any suggestion that the United States should emulate the Chinese government’s decision to expel three WSJ reporters by deporting Chinese journalists would be counterproductive and ultimately damaging to First Amendment principles for the entire press community in the United States,” the Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign journalists working in the U.S., said in a statement when asked for comment.
The deliberation fits into the broader effort by the Trump administration to establish more equality in the way China and the U.S. treat each other’s citizens, along with a far more aggressive approach by President Donald Trump to push back on what his advisers argue is increasingly unacceptable behavior by the Communist Party globally.
Last week, the State Department designated five state-controlled media outlets, including Xinhua and the People’s Daily, as “foreign missions,” a move that essentially classifies them as government entities.
That will allow the U.S. to restrict their movements and limit the property they’re permitted to own or rent. More crucially, the move also means China will have to turn over the identification of all personnel who work for those outlets.
In early October, the U.S. slapped visa bans on Chinese officials linked to the mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang Province. Days later, the State Department imposed a new set of rules requiring Chinese diplomats to notify the U.S. before the visit universities and research institutions or visit local government officials.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to comment on Monday. But Pompeo condemned China’s expulsion of the Wall Street Journal reporters last week.
“Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions,” Pompeo said in a statement at the time. “The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.”
(Updates with Chinese response in fifth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Josh Wingrove, Peter Martin and Karen Leigh.
To contact the reporters on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at email@example.com;Saleha Mohsin in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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