The news media industry has become caught in the crosshairs of tensions between China and the US, with both countries placing restrictions on each other's journalists.
Beijing revoked the visas of three Wall Street Journal reporters last month over a headline in an opinion piece carried by the newspaper, that referred to China as the “real sick man of Asia”. The Chinese government called the term "racially discriminatory" and said the decision to revoke the credentials of the three journalists came after the newspaper "neither issued an official apology nor informed us of what it plans to do with the persons involved," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press briefing. The journalists were given five days to leave the country—one still remains in Wuhan reporting on the COVID-19 situation.
The move represented the largest single expulsion of foreign correspondents since 1989, according to the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China. The FCCC described the move as an "unprecedented form of retaliation against foreign journalists in China", describing China's media environment as one of "harassment, surveillance and intimidation from authorities".
In response, the US on Tuesday (March 3) placed new restrictions on Chinese news outlets, forcing them to cut nearly half their US-based staff.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that five media outlets would be required to reduce their total number of staff to 100 from 160. The rule change applies to China's official news agency Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Daily, China Radio International and the People's Daily.
The Chinese journalists affected by the restrictions at the five outlets will not be forced to immediately leave the US, but their visas are tied to their employment, so they will likely have to leave the country.
Pompeo, who had previously denounced China's expulsion of the WSJ reporters, said the decision was based on levelling numbers between the countries rather than hitting back over content. He said the move did not place any restrictions on what those media outlets could report on in the US.
"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," said Pompeo. "We urge the Chinese government to immediately uphold its international commitments to respect freedom of expression, including for members of the press."
China has threatened to retaliate against the staff cuts, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian branding the move as "bullying", according to media reports.
"Out of a Cold War mindset and ideological bias, the US State Department uses groundless reasons to politically oppress Chinese media organisations based in the US," Zhao said at a press briefing.
He said the move exposes "the hypocrisy of the United States' so-called freedom of the press as blatant double standard and hegemonic bullying".
In the 2019 World Press Freedom index, compiled by civic group Reporters Without Borders, China ranked 177th out of 180 countries, down from 176 in 2018. The US also slid in the ranking from 45 in 2018 to 48 in 2019.
The latest tussle between the two countries follows an 18-month long trade war between the two superpowers. The US has so far imposed tariffs on US$550 billion worth of Chinese products, while China has set tariffs on US$185 billion worth of US goods. The two signed phase one of a truce agreement in January.