As Washington and Beijing’s relationship deteriorates, the White House has cracked down on China’s state media outlets in the United States. This comes amid Washington’s increasingly tough approach to Beijing’s power over information, which has included curbs on WeChat, TikTok, and Huawei.
The Donald J. Trump administration and many Democrats worry that Chinese state media outlets will use propaganda to shape Americans’ views and possibly collect intelligence. They fear Beijing could use its growing power over information to inject conspiracies [PDF] into U.S. discourse and affect U.S. politics. Indeed, in recent years, China has increasingly promoted false narratives online and via state media.
To reduce China’s power over information, Washington has forced major Chinese state outlets operating in the United States, such as newswire Xinhua and broadcasting company China Global Television Network (CGTN), to register under the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The Trump administration has made multiple Chinese outlets register as foreign missions, which allows Washington to obtain information about their operations. It has also capped the number of Chinese nationals who can work in the United States for Beijing’s major state media outlets.
China’s Expanding State Media
Beijing has stated that it wants to have more influence over global discourse and is trying to expand the reach of its state media outlets. Companies including Xinhua and CGTN, which claims to reach 1.2 billion people globally, have gone on hiring sprees in cities in the United States and abroad. Beijing has reportedly pressured [PDF] U.S. cable operators to favor its state media companies.
At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping has tightened government control over state outlets’ content. These outlets broadcast propagandistic coverage of topics important to the Chinese government, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Beijing Hasn’t Gained the Audience
China’s outlets deserve a high degree of scrutiny. Yet while they are widely available in the United States, people are not necessarily tuning in or reading. Sarah Cook, of Freedom House, estimates that CGTN’s U.S. viewership numbers lag behind those of New Tang Dynasty TV, an independent Chinese-language station. Chinese state media outlets, including CGTN, have also struggled to win audiences elsewhere in the world. The Lowy Institute shows that CGTN is only the tenth-most-popular broadcaster in the Asia-Pacific. The exception is Xinhua, which is gaining readers globally.
Smaller, local outlets run by members of the Chinese diaspora often wield more influence than big state media. These local outlets are increasingly being taken over [PDF] by owners with links to the Chinese government or who support Beijing. This shift to mostly pro-Beijing coverage means Chinese-language readers and viewers around the world, including the three million people who speak Chinese at home in the United States, have fewer options for factual coverage of China’s policies.
Modifying the U.S. Approach
Applying such tough measures against Chinese state media could backfire. Washington potentially overstates the influence of China’s state media outlets, and rather than modeling an open society, it risks appearing as if it does not care about press freedom. Washington’s approach also invites retaliation against U.S. reporters in China at a time when the world needs factual information about the country. Indeed, Beijing already has expelled American reporters working for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. government should modify its approach. Former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief John Pomfret has suggested that the U.S. government cap Chinese state media’s number of personnel in the United States if Beijing agrees to allow a similar number of U.S. reporters in China. Washington should then allow Chinese outlets to send whomever they want to work for state media only if Beijing agrees to let U.S. media companies send any reporters they want. Washington should also protect independent Chinese-language outlets from pressure by Chinese officials.
Washington should also strengthen U.S.-funded international media agencies such as Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). Unfortunately, the Trump administration has done the opposite. The new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent of VOA and other outlets, recently removed several top officials and dissolved the boards of VOA and RFA. If the administration undercuts these outlets’ editorial independence, it would undermine their international appeal.