US officials push for expelling suspected Chinese spies at media outlets

Since the virus began spreading across the United States, Washington and Beijing have waged a global information war over the outbreak. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - As China moves forward with expelling almost all American journalists from three major US newspapers, Trump administration officials have intensified discussions over whether to evict employees of Chinese media outlets who they say mainly act as spies.

The action is under consideration because some US officials want to retaliate against China in a new conflict that has revolved around news organisations and is being fueled by hostility over the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the virus began spreading across the United States, Washington and Beijing have waged a global information war over the outbreak. President Donald Trump and his aides are trying to pin responsibility on China, where Communist Party officials initially covered up the dangers of the virus as it was first discovered. Mr Trump, though, has been criticised for vast failures in the US response.

Some US intelligence officials have pushed for years to expel employees of Chinese media organisations who they say mainly file intelligence reports. The officials now see an opening to make a strong case after Beijing abruptly announced this month that it would expel almost all US citizens who report from mainland China for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

China also demanded those organisations, as well as Voice of America and Time magazine, turn over information on employees, budgets, assets and other operational details.

US officials view the state-run outlets in China as a potent threat in the growing strategic rivalry between the two superpowers, both because the outlets disseminate propaganda around the world and because of their ability to provide cover for intelligence operatives.

"Propaganda outlets that report to the Chinese Communist Party are foreign agents, not 'journalists,' " the State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Twitter on Thursday (March 26).

"Even General Secretary Xi says they 'must speak for the Party,' " she added, referring to remarks that President Xi Jinping of China made in 2016 as he toured the headquarters of state-run media organisations.

In recent days, Ms Ortagus and Ms Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, have engaged in an information duel on Twitter.

Any expulsion of Chinese employees at media outlets accused of conducting intelligence work could include ones based at the United Nations, where China has a permanent seat on the Security Council, according to an intelligence official familiar with the plans. Most Chinese employees of state-run organisations work in Washington for large organisations.

Some Chinese intelligence operatives pose as journalists at those agencies and at smaller state-run outlets, using "non-official cover," in the parlance of spies, experts on Chinese espionage say. Some US officials have spoken of entirely shutting down those small outfits as well as any Chinese organisation or company accused of being a front for intelligence work.

US officials declined to estimate the number of Chinese intelligence operatives in the United States they say use journalism employment as a cover or the number they would like to expel.

The FBI referred questions to the State Department, which said it does not comment on intelligence matters. The Chinese Embassy did not reply to a request for comment.

US intelligence officials have long asserted that many Chinese journalists abroad play a hybrid role in which they not only provide reports for publications and broadcasters in China but also give information to Beijing's intelligence apparatus.

The action now under consideration would try to avoid evicting most of those who play a hybrid role and focus more on people the US government believes are mainly spies, according to intelligence officials.

The journalistic reports filed by those Chinese citizens are simply a screen for covertly collecting intelligence, the officials said.

US officials were infuriated by China's announcement of the new wave of expulsions of American journalists, who are not spies. The officials saw the action as part of Beijing's attempts to censor reporting about the government's missteps over the coronavirus outbreak.

The officials are now seeking a way to retaliate beyond continuing a cycle of retribution that harms people who practice actual journalism. Taking the fight to the intelligence services would do that, they say, as well as allowing the Americans to avoid criticism that they are clamping down on press freedoms.

One option that some officials have discussed that does not involve spies is limiting the reach and distribution of the Chinese outlets in the United States, whether those are television networks or newspapers.

But that runs into the thorny issue of press freedoms. For years, the Chinese government has blocked online access to major foreign news websites and apps, and it often censors broadcasts by international television networks.

The wave of expulsions of journalists in the two countries began when China announced Feb 19 it would evict three Wall Street Journal reporters, the first outright expulsions of foreign journalists since 1998.

After that announcement, which came a day after the Trump administration imposed new rules on five Chinese state-run media organisations, US officials grappled with how to respond.

Some raised the idea of expelling Chinese state media employees who did intelligence work. Mr Matthew Pottinger, deputy national security adviser and a former Wall Street Journal reporter based in China, led a meeting Feb 24 to discuss options.

The administration announced March 2 it was issuing new visa quotas on Chinese citizens working at five Chinese media organisations. In total, they could employ only 100 Chinese citizens in their US operations. That would result in the de facto expulsion of about 60.

A senior State Department official said last week that the "Chinese government" had met a deadline of March 13 to identify employees who would remain at the organisations. It was unlikely that Chinese officials had selected intelligence operatives to send back to China, US officials said.

China retaliated against the new quotas by expelling journalists at the Times, the Journal and the Post, affecting at least 13 Americans, even though those newspapers are not tied to the US government.

"Did they really believe they can silence a country like China without any consequences?" Ms Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

"China clearly no longer sees Western journalists as useful or critical to getting its message out," said Mr Daniel Kliman, a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security and a former Asia policy official in the Pentagon. "With the expansion of state-run organisations globally, it seems they don't need Western journalists around."

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