Washington is sharply reducing the number of Chinese allowed to work in US bureaus of major Chinese state-owned media in retaliation for Beijing’s “increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment and intimidation” of American journalists, the nation’s top diplomat said on Monday. The media landscape is the latest front in the growing tension between Beijing and Washington over issues ranging from trade and education to visas and trade secrets theft. “Our goal is reciprocity,” said US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in a statement. “As we have done in other areas of the US-China relationship, we seek to establish a long-overdue level playing field. It is our hope that this action will spur Beijing to adopt a more fair and reciprocal approach to US and other foreign press in China.” The move comes in the wake of action taken by Beijing last month to revoke the visas of three Wall Street Journal reporters after the newspaper stopped short of apologising for the headline of an opinion column. The headline referred to China as the “real sick man of Asia”, an echo of the 18th and 19th centuries when Chinese was weak and frequently subjected to foreign domination. US officials, however, said they did not think the Journal incident was a major reason for the new restrictions. Monday’s US announcement targets five organisations the Trump administration considers propaganda arms of the Chinese government. The restrictions are expected to reduce the number of their US-based Chinese employees to around 100 from the current 160. The “institution of a personnel cap”, as the State Department termed the restrictions, applies to state news agency Xinhua, China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International, China Daily and Hai Tian Development USA. All five saw tighter registration restrictions imposed on them two weeks ago. The employment restrictions dovetail with Trump administration statements in recent months that China and the US are locked in an ideological battle for influence as Beijing’s global economic and military footprint expands. They also follow increasingly strident warnings from American government officials and lawmakers about the threat that China poses to national security. Pompeo in his statement sought to draw a distinction between upholding free speech and the activities of Chinese state-backed organisations in the US. “The decision to implement this personnel cap is not based on any content produced by these entities, nor does it place any restrictions on what the designated entities may publish in the United States,” Pompeo said. Fang Hong, spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said Chinese media outlets in the US had been covering news “based on the principles of objectivity, impartiality, truthfulness and accuracy”. She added that China firmly opposed the new US media restrictions. “This is a typical political drive based on the Cold War mentality and ideological biases,” she said. “The US side is using the excuse of seeking reciprocity to keep down China’s media outlets.” The State Department said the organisations must tell them which Chinese employees they choose to keep in the US by March 6. The employment restrictions will go into effect on March 13. China ‘using visas as weapons’ against foreign journalists Beijing gave The Wall Street Journal ‘s reporters five days to leave China after the offensive headline ran, although one of the correspondents was in Wuhan covering the coronavirus crisis and had her departure delayed by the quarantine. “We urge the Chinese government to immediately uphold its international commitments to respect freedom of expression, including for members of the press,” Pompeo said. “Unlike foreign media organisations in China, these entities are not independent news organisations.” Xinhua, China Radio, the English-language China Daily and CGTN – an English-language broadcaster – are all controlled by China’s central government. Hai Tian is the New York-based distribution agent for People’s Daily , the official newspaper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. According to a senior State Department official who declined to be identified, Xinhua will be allocated 59 visas for Chinese nationals, CGTN 30, China Daily nine and China Radio two. The restrictions would not immediately apply to their American employees. “If you want to hire lots of Americans, go for it,” said the official. Opinion | Media spat a sign of souring relationship Under tighter requirements imposed on the five Chinese organisations on February 19, Chinese staff were already required to register with the State Department in the same way that embassy and consular staff are. The outlets also had to declare their US real estate holdings and request approval for additional purchases. China ranked 177th out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom index, down from 176 in 2018. The US also slid in the ranking done by civic group Reporters Without Borders to number 48 in 2019 from number 45 in 2018. Trump administration officials often slam US media, referring to coverage they don’t like as “fake news”. A senior administration official declined in a background briefing to say whether President Donald Trump’s often hostile language toward the US media undercut their argument towards Beijing. An important objective behind the personnel restrictions is to stand up for US media outlets trying to report the news out of China, senior administration officials said on condition of anonymity. Given China’s importance on the world stage, investors, businesspeople, educators and policymakers globally need information “without fear or favour” to make responsible decisions, they added. China’s tight grip on information is of particular concern amid criticism that Beijing hid the extent of the coronavirus outbreak during its inception in Wuhan. A more open environment could have helped “keep the American people safe and to allow us to work with international partners to contain and mitigate disease outbreaks”, an official said. Opinion | Attacks on journalists cannot be tolerated “We’re witnessing an assault on free speech inside of China that goes even beyond what it was a decade ago,” said a senior administration official, amid “a deepening crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party on all forms of independent journalism inside China and even outside China’s borders”. Administration officials cited several concerning incidents. Recently, citizen journalists who chronicled the spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan have “disappeared” in China, they said. Book publisher Gui Minhai received a prison sentence for effectively publishing books the Chinese government did not like. And three Hong Kong “thought leaders”, including newspaper and magazine publisher Jimmy Lai, were recently arrested. US officials added that Washington has issued 3,000 US visas for Chinese citizens working in media since 2015 with no limit on the amount of time they can stay. During the same period, Beijing issued 75 visas to those working for US media in China for durations as short as 30 days, they said. On Monday, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a report that the Chinese government has “weaponised” visas as part of a stepped-up campaign of pressure on foreign journalists. US mulls expelling Chinese journalists after WSJ reporters kicked out Asked what the US will do if Beijing responds by taking retaliatory steps against US journalists based in China, an administration official largely sidestepped the question. “It would be a shame,” the official said, adding that more revoked visas would leave investors deeper in the dark. “We must respond as Beijing continues to use intimidation to silence members of a free and independent press,” the official said. “This administration seeks reciprocity across the bilateral relationship.” Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.