USC Annenberg Professor Nick Cull looks at the impact of the Covid 19 crisis on the battle of images between the United States and China.
Two senior State Department officials spoke to the media on the Department's decision to label Chinese media entities (Xinhua News Agency; China Global Television Network (CGTN) - part of China Central Television, CCTV; China Radio International (CRI); China Daily Distribution Corporation; and Hai Tian Development USA (distributor of People's Daily in the U.S.) as foreign missions. The officials explained the reasoning behind the designation and what it would mean.
This transcript was provided by the U.S. State Department. The briefing was in Washington, D.C.
MODERATOR: Okay, so we have two briefers here to talk about the Office of Foreign Missions designation of Chinese media entities as foreign missions. So we have xx and xx. They’ll be referred to as senior State Department officials from here on out. The briefing will be on background. They’ll both have some opening remarks, and then we’ll turn to your questions. Okay.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I’ll talk a little bit about why we’re doing what we’re doing, and then can talk about what that actually means.
So we are designating five Chinese state-run media organizations as foreign missions. That’s the Xinhua News Agency; China Global Television Network which falls under China Central Television, CCTV; China Radio International; China Daily Distribution Corporation; and Hai Tian Development USA, which is the distributor for the People’s Daily here in the United States.
Again, I’ll defer to on what this actually means in terms of what they’ll be required to do, but we are – we’re making this designation based on the very indisputable fact that all five of these are subject to the control of the Chinese Government. Obviously, the Chinese Communist Party has always had a pretty tight rein on media in general and state-run media in particular, but that has only further tightened since Xi Jinping took over. Since he became general secretary, China’s Communist Party has reorganized China’s state news agencies and asserted even more direct control over them, both in terms of content, editorial, et cetera, et cetera.
Xi Jinping’s got a number of quotes on this score that are – there’s many of them. One of them is that, “Managing China’s media messaging is crucial for the future and fate of the Chinese Communist Party and the state.” There are many others of a similar ilk that demonstrate exactly how much of a function of the state Xi Jinping considers the media to be.
In addition to the very clear state control of these media organizations, the PRC Government has also expanded its overseas media operations in recent years, including here in the United States. I can talk a little bit briefly about each one of these organizations and how we came to make the determination that it was foreign mission.
For Xinhua, this is an institution directly reporting to China’s State Council, which is the chief administrative authority of the PRC Government. China Global Television Network is part of the China Media Group, which is a media company run by the PRC Government. The same goes for China Radio International; that’s also part of the China Media Group. China Daily Distribution Corporation acts on behalf of the China Daily, which is an English-language daily newspaper owned by the Publicity Department of the CCP. And then fifth, Hai Tian Development USA acts on behalf of the People’s Daily, which is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
And then just to reiterate, each one of these entities meets the definition of foreign mission under our Foreign Mission Act, which is to say they are either substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government. And that’s why we have now determined that we will be treating them as foreign missions.
One thing I want to clarify – I’m sure you guys all know this very well, but it’s worth pointing out that some people conflate this with FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That’s a separate authority, a Department of Justice authority. It’s a separate regulatory or statutory regime administered by DOJ that requires agents of foreign principals, including foreign governments, that are engaged in certain activities to disclose their relationship with and conduct on behalf of the foreign principals. This is separate. That’s a DOJ authority. They are the ones that implement the Foreign Agent – the FARA. This is a totally separate authority. This is under the Foreign Missions Act. And again, a foreign mission is, as defined by that law, as an entity that is substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government.
I think I’ll leave it at that and then ask to talk a little bit about what this designation will actually mean for those five entities.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. Again, as – we have designated them as foreign missions. That does not mean that they are embassies or consulates or have traditional diplomatic privileges or immunities. What we are doing is imposing two requirements on these entities.
The first is that they will – are required to notify the Office of Foreign Missions within the State Department of their current personnel in the United States, basic information about those individuals, and then as – if there’s any changes to those employment situations. So if anyone departs or new people come on, they would notify us, just like the standard requirement for an embassy or consulate.
The second is that they would need to notify us of their current real property holdings, whether they are owned or leased; and in connection with that, prior to acquiring, whether by purchase or lease any new real property, they would need to obtain prior approval from my office. Those are the only two requirements that are in place, and all of that was notified to each of these entities earlier today.
MODERATOR: Okay. Are we good?
QUESTION: You’re the Office of Foreign Missions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Correct.
MODERATOR: So we’ll take questions.
QUESTION: Can I —
MODERATOR: I guess we’ll start with Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you. Actually, can I go second? Because I forgot what my question was. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Sure. Sure.
QUESTION: Could I —
QUESTION: Sure. Could I ask you, first of all, what made you choose to do it now, and particularly to Chinese state media outlets? There are plenty of countries that have media outlets that are seen as offering propaganda for the regime. Why in particular do this with China as opposed to plenty of other countries? Why now? And do you think or fear that there’d be any repercussions for journalists from democratic countries who are working in mainland China now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll take a swing at those questions.
The 2017 National Security Strategy, a big part of that is great power, competition in China, obviously, looms large from – in that lens. And obviously, I can’t speak about what came before, but certainly viewing China as a competitor and one that we are going to – we’re not seeking conflict by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re going to call it straight, we’re going to call it the way we see it. The fact of the matter is each and every single one of these entities does, in fact, work 100 percent for the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party.
This process took some time. Obviously, we considered it very carefully, but we think it’s altogether appropriate that we basically call these entities what they are, which are organs of the Chinese one-party state propaganda apparatus.
I will not speculate on whether, and if so how, Beijing might choose to respond. I’m not – we’re not in any way, shape, or form constraining any of the journalistic activities these entities engage in. We’re just saying we’re going to treat them as a foreign mission, and as said, require that they share a little bit of information about their employees and real estate holdings.
Of course, as you know, Western journalists already suffer very severe restrictions on their ability to do their jobs inside of the People’s Republic of China. So that’s obviously worth keeping in mind.
QUESTION: So when you talk about them notifying you of their personal – that would include, like, American citizen employees as well, correct?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Correct.
QUESTION: But for foreigners – for, like, Chinese nationals – don’t you guys already have access to that information? Don’t they need, like, J-1 visas? Wouldn’t you – don’t you already know who their foreign employees who – at least any employee who would need a visa to come here?
And then just secondly on that, you talk about five organizations, but do you have an idea now, before they’ve actually registered with you, how many offices or employees they actually have? Do you have a way to crosscheck to make sure that they’re telling the truth? Like, they might have a bureau in San Francisco or Seattle, or something like that, not just one in New York or Washington.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So working those in reverse, so we are – we’ve (inaudible) sent letters and made contact with each of the five entities today. So we will begin that process of clarifying our current understanding against what they have to share with us. And so we certainly have some information, but this is – another aspect of this is it helps improve our understanding of how these entities do operate in the United States. And so we’ll see what information we have in hand.
QUESTION: And just employees on – don’t you already have access to the —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, the State Department is a big place, and certainly visas aren’t – certainly if somebody tracked all the visas and went down individually, yeah, they could probably put that together, but we aren’t currently centrally capturing that information, at least not in my office.
QUESTION: There’s been a major emphasis by this administration on counterintelligence operations against China and Chinese espionage operations here in the United States. I’m wondering if this is in any way related to trying to identify Chinese espionage officers, intelligence officers, who may be working undercover at any of these entities. And will that information be passed on to counterintelligence officials here in the United States when they give you the identities and the names of their employees?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I mean, this is a very clear justification, right. I mean, there is no dispute that all five of these entities are part of the PRC party state propaganda news apparatus. I mean, they take their orders directly from the top, and we’re merely recognizing that by placing them on our foreign missions list. Will there be more transparency when and after they share the information that ’s office will get from them? Absolutely, but I – I mean, I want to make it clear: We’re doing this because we actually view them as foreign missions and that’s what we do with foreign missions – we put them on the foreign missions list.
QUESTION: Sure, I understand that. But could this information also be valuable to U.S. counterintelligence officials who have been pressing efforts to uncover Chinese – what have been increased Chinese intelligence operations here in the United States?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m going to pass on that one and go to the next question.
MODERATOR: Yeah, we’re not going to speculate on what the intelligence value might be here. Yeah, Nicole.
QUESTION: Yeah, , I just wanted to follow up on Shaun’s question. When he asked you why now, you cited the 2017 NSS. That was almost three years ago.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yep.
QUESTION: So again, why now? And secondly, it does mention China, but it also mentions Russia. And outlets like RT could arguably be described in exactly the same way, so why not Russia as well, or others?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not going to comment on the Russia one because I’m only the .
QUESTION: Okay. Who could speak to that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I know we have designated media organizations from other countries as foreign missions before. Why we’re doing it right now – again, the process is not a super-fast one. We very carefully considered this before coming to this determination. But as I pointed out, yes, we all know these guys have been state-controlled for forever, but that control if anything has gotten more stronger over time and it’s far more aggressive – their activities outside of China, including here in the United States. And so based on that, we decided it was time to act.
QUESTION: Can speak to why just the one country? Why not —
MODERATOR: Do you have anything to add?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Not really.
QUESTION: Why not Russia?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, I – at the moment, we haven’t announced any new restrictions for those types of (inaudible) or requirements.
QUESTION: Okay. It just seems like a weird – a mission, given Russian media and Russian social media.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What I will say, not being a Russia expert, but I can tell you about these Chinese, and these guys are part and parcel. They’re on the org chart; they fall directly under the politburo propaganda jurisdiction. So without reference to – and the way it works in any other country, it is clearly the case with the People’s Republic of China that we’re dealing with organs of the party state.
MODERATOR: Okay. Lara.
QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about the discussions and the deliberations you all had about to the effect that there might be a chilling effect on journalists not just from the United States, but from other democracies or other countries that support a free press in China as a result of this?
And then also it’s a little ironic that this briefing is on background if we’re talking about press rights and protecting what a free press does that we don’t have an on-the-record quote from a government official defending and justifying this. So I would ask if there’s any part of this that we could put on the record.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll have to get back to you on the latter one —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: — but for now, we’re working under the ground rules. Can I —
QUESTION: Well, maybe you could give us – we could quote from the Federal Register Notice, if you can give that to us. I mean, that’s going to be —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Federal Register is – I mean, can’t you guys access that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Public record?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s a public —
QUESTION: Yeah, I just tried to find it and it’s not up there yet.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, okay.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It probably will not be on there until Thursday at the earliest, just for the publication schedule. That’s my – I think they do Tuesday, Thursdays – that —
QUESTION: Okay. Is this effective immediately?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: But to your first question, I mean, obviously, we’re painfully aware of the very tough operating environment that U.S. and other foreign journalists operate under in China. Again, we – this is not intended to put any sort of constraint on what the CGTN or the Xinhua people do here in the United States with regards to their journalistic operations. But obviously, it’s impossible for me to speculate on how Beijing is going to react. It’s already the case that freedom of the press is under severe siege in the People’s Republic of China, and that was long before this announcement came about in – earlier on this afternoon.
So I mean, we’re going to have to defer to our Chinese counterparts on what they’re going to do about freedom of the press in the PRC.
QUESTION: So are you saying there will be no restrictions on what they do journalistically? So they can travel if they want to cover the campaign, they can come here to the State Department as some of them have before to ask a question of Secretary Pompeo – they don’t need permission – do they need permission to sign a lease for an apartment?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: For office?
QUESTION: For office.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: This is not for the individuals; this is for these five offices, right?
QUESTION: For the five. So – but there are no journalistic restrictions on them?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That is correct.
QUESTION: So what is the purpose of this?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we’re going to be getting the information about their employees and their holdings, so there’s going to be some transparency. And now that they are on our office – now that they’re on the list of foreign missions, I think there is a – we are serving a certain purpose by making clear that these guys are part and parcel of the PRC Government. These are not independent journalistic outlets.
QUESTION: And at the moment, they are the only country in which there are news organizations on the foreign mission list?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know that that’s the case.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, they’re not the only one.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I would not say —
QUESTION: What are the others?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Off the top of my head, so I know that one that we recently did several years ago was the Vietnam News Agency about five years ago.
MODERATOR: Okay. Nike.
QUESTION: Yeah. Could you talk about the repercussion if the five entity and their employees choose not to comply with the requirements? And secondly, do you happen to have a number of the Chinese nationals and U.S. citizens, employees? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think we have that information yet, but —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Correct. We do not currently have a list of employees, but we hope to have one soon. That’s one of the requirements. We don’t want to speculate about what are the enforcement actions. There are some provisions in the Foreign Missions Act that talk about property acquired without obtaining our permission generically. We could – the law says that that lease could be invalidated if that’s the case. But we’re not – we don’t expect them not to comply. These are really basic requirements and very minimal impact.
MODERATOR: Yeah, Jen.
QUESTION: You said you wouldn’t speculate on what Beijing will do, but have you thought about what will happen if Beijing does retaliate against any U.S. media outlets or any other media outlets operating in China. If they try to revoke licenses for example, what will the State Department response be?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, we have a very long track record of speaking up for freedom of the press in China and will continue to do that. If you – again, I don’t want to predict what they may or may not do, but I think it would be faulty logic to attribute that to this action. But like I said, and as clarified, we’re not doing anything to restrict the activities of these folks here in the United States. They’re going to continue to enjoy our free and open system. And let’s not forget that before today, there were already plenty of restrictions on foreign journalists operating in China, so I just want make sure that that point is highlighted and you keep that in mind.
QUESTION: Just to go back to Jonathan’s question but asking it more generically, what will be done with the list of employees, especially U.S. citizens? Who will they be sent to and how will you treat them? And then per the historical question, if you – just to make sure RT, Sputnik, other Russian media are not on this list right now. Do you have any idea if Russian or Soviet media in the past have been designated on this list?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So certainly maybe all of the Soviet news entities at that time were designated. I know ITAR-TASS —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Pravda was on there.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Pravda.
QUESTION: They were all on this —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah.
QUESTION: — this same designated list?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The same – same designation, the same law. There’s a number of them, some I wouldn’t even recognize today. And then you ended up —
QUESTION: Just generically, like —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t have any Russia experts here, so I’m kind of – personally, I’m not comfortable talking about the Russia angle, just because that’s not my brief.
QUESTION: I know. I was just asking historically.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. Okay.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: But what was the first part of your question?
QUESTION: The first question was just what are you going to do with the list? Where does it go, especially U.S. citizens’ data? What’s the use for it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So I would refer you to I think it’s the SORN – I think that stands for System of Records Notice. It’s on the State Department website. It goes into great detail about how at least my office, Office of Foreign Missions, handles its – this type of data. And so that – it’s at least a page of description there, so I would refer you there.
QUESTION: Can you give us some highlights?
QUESTION: Some of that would be?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It just says it’s certainly available within the – to the federal government. We are – this generic data, there had to be a reason for it. But it’s available upon request from state and local governments. Again, speaking – we have lots of data about just saying that the Chinese embassy or the British embassy – the same type of information. There are some requirements of when we would share that data. Sometimes if there’s a valid law enforcement reason, there’s a process for that. But it’s all detailed heavily on the website.
QUESTION: For personnel, does – what does that include? Age, address, visa number, Social Security number if they’re Americans? Or is it just name?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It does not include Social Security number. That’s not something we’re capturing. It would – basic data, I think date of birth, residential address, I think what is their job title, something – not much more than that.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry, is it only staff, or is it also contractors?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’d say – we don’t draw that distinction if they’re —
QUESTION: You don’t draw a distinction. So anyone who works for the embassy.
MODERATOR: Okay. One or two more.
QUESTION: So previously when the State Department asked diplomats here from China to let them know in advance about meetings, was that done also under the Foreign Missions Act or under another authority?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, it was.
QUESTION: It was. Okay. We just didn’t know that at the time.
QUESTION: But these don’t have to do that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Correct. This group was explicitly exempted from that requirement that you mentioned.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. So basically this is like expanding that previous requirement that you made in October?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, no, because that requirement is not applicable to this group. That – so – the —
QUESTION: I mean you’re making more people disclose under this act.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: But that – the requirement that you’re referring to – the act is – does – is a broader authority. The action in October was limited – was for —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Diplomatic personnel.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Correct. That’s about – or Chinese Government officials visiting the U.S., whether assigned here or TDY, that they would notify us of certain types of meetings or visits with certain types of institutions. This – that was – that action was taken against Chinese foreign missions, which now these five are, but in this action, we waived that October requirement for this group.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So they do not have to notify five days in advance of meetings with sub-national government officials?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Right, taking into account some of the press freedoms we didn’t – we’re not looking to interfere with that, so we didn’t want to have any challenge there.
QUESTION: Okay. I just – I didn’t – I think I didn’t really know the name of this act at the time when that came out and I’m just, like, putting it together.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Ah, got it.
QUESTION: And then just to triple-clarify, for the real estate disclosures, that has to be made by the actual entities, not the individual personnel, right? Like, if I work for Xinhua, I don’t have to tell you a house I bought?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Correct. This is about – anything that those entities – the entity themselves would seek to acquire.
QUESTION: Right, right, right.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Real property.
QUESTION: Okay. And then last, in terms of, like, compliance, I mean, with FARA, my understanding is that Xinhua never did register even though DOJ told them to, and even though it is, as you say, fairly basic disclosures. So I would like to know a little bit more about what type of enforcement you would look at if people don’t provide this information.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, they’re required to comply with this, and I think we’re not prepared to go beyond that.
QUESTION: I mean, would you be able to refer noncompliance to DOJ?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That’s kind of a four-fer.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s kind of a four-fer here.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Right.
QUESTION: Sorry. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: No, I’ll back it up. I’d like to know too.
MODERATOR: So, last question. In the back.
QUESTION: You said there were no journalistic constraints on their activities. Do you have concerns about the content that they’re producing, though? Do you consider it – all of it to be propaganda or disinformation?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know that I’d want to characterize every single thing that comes out of those five entities, but they are, in fact, part and parcel of the PRC propaganda apparatus. And I think it’s – anyone that consumes news or any other content that those guys produce should keep that in the back of their mind. I’m sure if they reported 1+1=2, I’d have to say that’s actually spot on, that’s pretty correct, but there’s a whole range of stuff beyond that.
QUESTION: And for this record, this has nothing to do with coronavirus, does it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Not at all.
QUESTION: That’s purely coincidental?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.
QUESTION: Just a technical thing. Does this change visa status?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Does not, (inaudible) the answer.
MODERATOR: Okay. And that’s it.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There we go.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
USC Annenberg Professor Nick Cull looks at the impact of the Covid 19 crisis on the battle of images between the United States and China.
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