The United States on Monday said it was slashing the number of Chinese nationals permitted to work at the US offices of major Chinese state-owned media outlets to retaliate against Beijing's "long-standing intimidation and harassment of journalists."
Citing a "deepening crackdown" on all forms of independent reporting inside China, administration officials said Beijing's attacks on free speech were worse than they were a decade ago, comparing them to those of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
Effective March 13, Washington will cap the number of US-based employees of Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International and China Daily Distribution Corp at 100 from 160 currently. Beijing's UN ambassador said the move was not "appropriate".
China last month revoked the visas of three Wall Street Journal reporters in Beijing after the newspaper declined to apologise for a column with a headline calling China the "Real Sick Man of Asia". Another reporter with the paper had to leave last year after China declined to renew his visa.
"For years, the government of the People's Republic of China has imposed increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment, and intimidation against American and other foreign journalists operating in China," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
Monday's decision was not particularly linked to the Wall Street Journal case nor the content the Chinese outlets in question produced, senior State Department officials told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"We've been imploring the Chinese for years and years now to improve their treatment of journalists in China. So, this is not linked to any one particular incident," one US official said, but added that the expulsion of Journal reporters was a "fairly egregious" example.
While the US officials said the move was not an expulsion of these Chinese nationals, they acknowledge that the people whose visas are contingent on their ability to work in the United States may be forced to leave the country.
The four outlets were among five designated by the United States as foreign embassies earlier this month, as a first step of this move.
Tensions between the two superpowers have escalated since President Donald Trump came to office three years ago, with disputes over issues ranging from trade to accusations of Chinese spying in the United States and to US support for Taiwan.
"We have some differences but we do not think it is appropriate for the United States to take steps in interfering with the work of journalists coming from China," China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun told a news conference.
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.
"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," Pompeo said, while State Department officials said Washington was ready to take further action if Beijing retaliated.
"If in fact they decide to take this in a further negative direction however of course..all options would be on the table. I can't tell you what in particular we would do, but we'd sit down review the circumstances and then consider all of our options," the official said.
The personnel caps would be placed on the entities as opposed to people hence it would be up to the media outlets to decide the necessary staffing cuts, the officials said.
The United States would also announce in the near future limits on duration of stay for Chinese journalists, administration officials said.