WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - For years they have operated as news organisations in the United States, deploying scores of journalists to cover the major events of the day and to report back to their readers and viewers at home, even if the most important of those was the leadership of the Communist Party of China.
Now, the Trump administration has declared them not practitioners of journalism, but rather operatives of the Chinese state.
The State Department informed China on Tuesday (Feb 18) that its five foremost news agencies - Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and The People's Daily - will now officially be treated as foreign government functionaries, subject to the same rules as diplomats stationed in the United States.
The new action was described on Tuesday afternoon by a senior State Department official.
The decision - debated in Washington for years but never carried out, in part because of concerns over restricting the freedom of the press - comes at a time when the administration has moved aggressively on multiple fronts to fight what officials describe as extensive Chinese influence and intelligence operations in the United States.
In the past month alone, prosecutors have brought cases against Chinese intelligence operations involving scientific research at Harvard and the 2017 hack of Equifax, one of the nation's largest credit reporting agencies. They also charged Huawei, the telecommunications company, and two of its subsidiaries with federal racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets.
The legal assault on Chinese entities has unfolded even as bilateral tensions have flared over China's handling of the coronavirus epidemic, which prompted the evacuation of US diplomats and other citizens from Wuhan, the city in central China at the source of the outbreak.
It is part of a concerted effort to put new pressure on China's government barely a month after President Donald Trump signed a temporary truce in the trade war he started
China's critics in Washington, some of whom have long called for action against the country's state media, hailed the decision.
At the same time, the decision could lead to retaliation against American journalists who work in China, especially those affiliated with the US government, like Voice of America.
"China has long masked intelligence operations with journalistic credentials," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, echoing a suspicion held in national security circles.
"The danger is China could reciprocate against our journalists," he said. "The difference is our journalists in China are actually journalists."
The immediate impact of the designation remained unclear.
One administration official said the designation would not immediately interfere with the work of the organisations or their employees. It would, however, require China to register all of them with the State Department, as they now must do with diplomats in the Chinese Embassy in Washington or in consulates around the country.
The official said that news organisations were included because they were "substantially owned and effectively controlled" by China's government.
The US government has already targeted some of the news agencies under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires anyone lobbying on behalf of foreign governments to submit regular reports on their activities to the Justice Department.
Partly in response to Russia's interference in the 2016 election, the administration has forced parts of China's official propaganda apparatus to register. They included CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, Beijing's main domestic network, which was forced to register beginning last year. One of the others, China Daily, has been registered as a foreign agent since 1983.
The new action goes further, treating the news organisations as part of China's diplomatic missions whose activities are regulated under the Foreign Missions Act. Enacted in 1982, the law is a legal tool intended to ensure equitable treatment for American diplomats serving in countries around the world, often under onerous government restrictions. It deals with everything from providing visas to acquiring property to extending diplomatic immunity in matters of criminal wrongdoing.
Last fall, for example, the State Department began requiring Chinese diplomats to give notice before they plan to have any meetings with local or state officials and with educational and research institutions.
That move came in retaliation for similar Chinese government rules imposed on American diplomats. With the latest change, the department would have the power to impose similar restrictions on Chinese journalists.
American officials have become much more suspicious of the activities of Chinese diplomats and have increased scrutiny of their travels and meetings. In September, the State Department secretly expelled two Chinese Embassy officials in Washington after they were caught driving on a sensitive military base in Virginia with their wives. The expulsions appear to be the first of Chinese diplomats suspected of espionage in more than 30 years.
It was not clear why the administration decided to act now on the Chinese news organisations, although the administration official said the move reflected long-simmering frustration over the forbearance shown to Chinese official media in the United States, despite evidence that the organisations serve as a front for intelligence agencies.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally mandated agency, warned in its report in 2017 that "Chinese intelligence-gathering and information-warfare efforts are known to involve staff of Chinese state-run media organisations".
In recent years, a growing number of American officials have discussed imposing strict visa reciprocity on Chinese news organisations after Beijing increasingly began limiting visas and residence permits issued to foreign journalists and curtailed the lengths of those documents.
Unlike Russia's information campaigns in the United States, which have been artfully tailored to sow distrust in the US government and the democratic system, China's media efforts in the United States have tended to reflect more traditional forms of government propaganda.
Reports on CGTN or in China Daily, for example, are more likely to extol the country's economic and diplomatic achievements than to denigrate American democracy.
Xinhua, which is China's main news agency and serves as a channel for most major announcements, maintains bureaus around the world, with its largest in Washington and New York. It is common practice for many of them to produce internal documents, intended for consumption not by the public but by high-ranking officials.
Some disagreed with the action. "I don't see any evidence that they are doing anything nefarious that would warrant this response," said Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor at Georgia State University and the author of "Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism".
China Daily, the English-language version of one of the main state newspapers, regularly publishes advertising supplements in newspapers around the country, including The New York Times. They generally offer an informative, if anodyne, view of world affairs refracted through the lens of the Communist Party.
"The China Daily advertisement insert is clearly labelled and meets our advertising acceptability standards," said Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, a Times spokeswoman. "The New York Times covers China thoroughly and aggressively, and at no time has advertising influenced our coverage."
However, some experts on China say China Daily pushes insidious propaganda onto foreign readers, especially in its attempts to whitewash vast human rights abuses against Uighurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities.
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, has repeatedly denounced China Daily. The paper, she said on Twitter last year, was "nothing more than a mouthpiece for a government that conflates peaceful criticism with terrorism, crushes peaceful protests, and arbitrarily detains shocking numbers of #Uyghurs and other #Muslims".
One issue in particular drew the attention of the White House in 2018. An advertisement placed in The Des Moines Register highlighted the benefits of free trade for Iowa's farmers at a time Trump was excoriating what he called China's unfair trade practices.
Trump, in typical fashion, responded on Twitter: "China is actually placing propaganda ads in the Des Moines Register and other papers, made to look like news. That's because we are beating them on Trade, opening markets, and the farmers will make a fortune when this is over!"