WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration is considering a sweeping ban on travel to the United States by members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families, according to people familiar with the proposal, a move that would almost certainly prompt retaliation against Americans seeking to enter or remain in China and exacerbate tensions between the two nations.
The presidential proclamation, still in draft form, could also authorise the US government to revoke the visas of party members and their families who are already in the country, leading to their expulsion.
Some proposed language is also aimed at limiting travel to the US by members of the People's Liberation Army and executives at state-owned enterprises, although many of them are likely to also be party members.
Details of the plan, described by four people with knowledge of the discussions, have not yet been finalised, and President Donald Trump might ultimately reject it.
While the President and his campaign strategists have been intent on portraying him as tough on China for re-election purposes, Mr Trump has vacillated wildly in both his language and actions on the Chinese government since taking office in 2017.
He has criticised China on some issues, particularly trade. But he has also lavished praise on President Xi Jinping, pleaded with Mr Xi to help him win re-election and remained silent or even explicitly approved of the repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
There are practical issues as well. The Chinese Communist Party has 92 million members. Almost three million Chinese citizens visited the US in 2018, although the numbers have plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic and the current ban on most travellers from China. The US government has no knowledge of party status for a vast majority of them. So trying to immediately identify party members to either prevent their entry or expel those already in the US would be difficult.
The presidential order would cite the same statute in the Immigration and Nationality Act used in a 2017 travel ban on a number of predominantly Muslim countries that gives the president power to temporarily block travel to the US by foreign nationals who are deemed "detrimental to the interests of the United States".
The 2017 ban was fought in the courts and expanded this year.
Such a broad ban would be the most provocative action against China by the US since the start of the trade war between the two countries in 2018. It would further poison US-China relations, even after several years of open clashes over economics, technology and global influence have led some diplomats and analysts to draw comparisons to a new Cold War.
Officials at the White House, State Department and Department of Homeland Security have been involved in the discussion over the ban. Spokesmen for the White House National Security Council and the State Department declined to comment on Wednesday, and one for the Department of Homeland Security did not return a request for comment.
Officials at those agencies also continue to debate a variety of formulations for banning Chinese travel to the US short of barring all party members, such as targeting only the 25 members of the ruling Politburo and their families.
In recent months, top administration officials have tried to draw a distinction between party members and other Chinese, saying the party must be punished for its actions - and its global ambitions must be thwarted. They have loudly denounced what they call the evils of the Chinese Communist Party, pointing to the role of its officials in the cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, the detentions of one million or more Muslims in internment camps and the dismantling of civil liberties in Hong Kong.
The Communist Party is both a powerful and mundane part of life in China. While its leaders maintain control of domestic and foreign policy, those on lower rungs do everything from supervising schools to managing neighbourhood-level governance.
In recent decades, many citizens joined to get a leg up in a wide range of sectors: business, academia and even the arts. Many party members do not conform to official ideology; some are Christians who attend underground churches, for example.
Many Chinese outside the party praise the top leadership but complain about corruption among local officials.
Counting party members as well as their families, the ban could technically bar travel to the US for as many as 270 million people, according to one internal administration estimate.
"The overwhelming majority of CCP members have no involvement or input into Beijing's policymaking, so going after the entire party membership is like China sanctioning all Republicans because of frustrations with Trump," said Mr Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"Such a move would inflame public opinion in China, as this would target nearly 10 per cent of the entire Chinese population and would do so based on blanket assertions of guilt."
Besides the iterations of the 2017 travel ban, the Trump administration has put in place other entry restrictions. This year, during the pandemic, it has banned entry for most citizens of China as well as those from the European Union and some other nations. And last month, it blocked employment visas and extended restrictions on issuance of green cards, moves that would keep as many as 525,000 foreign workers out of the US for the rest of the year.
The State Department has also announced visa restrictions on various categories of Chinese citizens. These include officials responsible for the mass internment and surveillance of Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region and journalists working in the US.
In May, US officials said the government was cancelling the visas of graduate or higher-level students in the US who had ties to certain Chinese military institutions - the first ban on a category of Chinese students, who make up the largest group of international students in the country.
After Mr Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act on Tuesday, the State Department was expected to propose names of Chinese officials overseeing repression in Hong Kong for visa and economic sanctions.
And on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a ban on some employees of Chinese technology companies, including Huawei, that "provide material support to regimes engaging in human rights abuses globally". He added: "Telecommunications companies around the world should consider themselves on notice: If they are doing business with Huawei, they are doing business with human rights abusers."
Despite Mr Trump's admiration for Mr Xi, national security officials have tried to push tough policies on China that are designed to counter what they view as dangerous expansionist actions by Chinese leaders and agencies. The pandemic and Beijing's recent actions on Hong Kong have helped push relations between the two nations to the lowest point in decades.
At the same time, some of Mr Trump's top economic advisers have promoted a softer approach to China, warning of further damage to the world economy and falling stock markets. Those advisers and allies among American executives are likely to oppose a broad visa ban on Communist Party members, some of whom do business with American corporations.
A broad ban would give the State Department new powers to block top Chinese political and business leaders and their families from entering the US. Mr Xi's daughter, Ms Xi Mingze, attended Harvard University under a pseudonym several years ago.
It would also allow the department to formalise a process by which US officials could inquire about party status during visa application interviews and on forms. Under the draft proclamation, the Department of Homeland Security would share responsibility for carrying out the ban.
Several Chinese citizens who have travelled to the US in recent years said they did not recall any question on visa applications asking if they were party members.
Language in the draft proclamation stresses recent egregious behaviour by China, in particular theft of intellectual property by Chinese state actors and so-called exit bans used by security officials to prevent some US citizens from leaving China. This month, the State Department renewed a travel warning saying the Chinese authorities engaged in "arbitrary enforcement of local laws for purposes other than maintaining law and order", which could include "detention and the use of exit bans".
On Tuesday, the Trump administration reversed course on an order that would have subjected international students to deportation if they did not physically attend classes during the pandemic, after American universities filed a lawsuit.
Still, the administration has stood by its visa actions focused more narrowly on China. The Chinese government has continued with its own harsh visa actions, and even widened them to the non-renewal of work permits for Western journalists in Hong Kong.
At a speech in Beijing this month, Mr Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, said the China-US relationship was facing its "most severe challenge" since the normalisation of diplomatic ties in 1979.
"Some say that China-US relations will not be able to return to its past," he said. "But that should not mean ignoring the history altogether and starting all over again, let alone impractical decoupling. It should mean building on past achievements and keeping pace with the times."