Free Speech Caught in the Crossfire of U.S. Chinese Media Restrictions

By: Gita Howard

In the holy name of reciprocity, the Trump administration has cut the number of visas available for Chinese journalists working at Beijing’s state-run media outlets from 160 to 100.[1] Regarding the decision, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo cited, “imposed increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment and intimidation against Americans and other foreign journalists in China.”[2]

The administration’s decision targets Xinhua China Global Television, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution, and the Hai Tian Development.[3] Instead of providing independent journalism, these outlets are notorious for giving ink to propaganda and government approved narratives.[4] In recognition of their foreign influence, the U.S. State Department reclassified the outlets as “foreign missions” in February, further adding fuel to the U.S.-China media crossfire.[5]

The visa cuts follow China’s expulsion of three U.S. Wall Street Journal foreign correspondents in February. Beijing attributed the expulsion to an editorial titled, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”[6] However, according to Jacob Stokes, a senior policy analyst on China at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, the expulsions were also related to the journalists’ investigative stories concerning China’s human rights violations.[7]

Therefore, the United States’ visa restrictions do not exactly elicit empathy for the Chinese government, particularly in light of the current state of free press in China. Reporters Without Borders ranked China 177/180 in their 2019 World Press Freedom Index, citing detention of journalists, stringent internet regulations, and inhuman treatment for disobeying regulations to back the dismal ranking.[8]

China’s censorship policies have proved particularly problematic during the Coronavirus outbreak. According to a Toronto-based cyber research group, Citizen Lab, Chinese social media platforms started censoring references to the coronavirus and keywords critical of the government’s response as early as December of 2019.[9] And although censorship has long been Chinese government protocol, many are now questioning whether the censorship blocked effective prevention and response to the outbreak.[10]

Also, alarmingly under question is whether the U.S. visa cuts will ultimately prevent access to information during a critical period for public health and human rights.  Beyond the immediate gratification of retaliation, many critics view the administration’s move as counterproductive. “It could play into Beijing’s hands, which is looking for excuses to further restrict foreign media’s operations in China,” stated Yaqui Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch.[11]

The decision provides stark juxtaposition to the United States’ historic reputation as a staunch free speech defender. The United States’ longstanding commitment to free speech is not only provided for in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but is also reflected in its ratification of United Nations treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[12] The U.S. ratified the ICCPR with an unprecedented number of reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs)—instruments which often permit states to reduce their human rights obligations under a covenant.[13] But the United States’ declaration on the ICCPR’s provision on freedom of expression, Article 19, exists not to curb the right to free speech, but rather to enhance it.  The declaration provides that the United States would, “whenever possible refrain from imposing any restrictions or limitations on the exercise of the rights recognized and protected by the Covenant, even when such restrictions are permissible under the Covenant.”[14]

The United States’ dramatic commitments to free speech would seem to support the free flow of information, not with exception to, but particularly when handling high stakes foreign relations. But for now, China does not seem deterred by the United States’ tit for tat tactics.[15] Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted in response to the restrictions, “Now the U.S. kicked off the game, let’s play.”[16]

[1] Kimberly Dozier, The Trump Administration Has Put New Restrictions on Chinese Journalists in the U.S. Will it Work?, TIME (March 2, 2020),

[2]  Id.

[3] Id.

[4] See id.

[5] Id.

[6] Chi Wang, The ‘sick man of Asia’ headline is indefensible. But China’s expulsion of reporters is the wrong answer, South China Morning Post (March 5, 2020),

[7] See Dozier, supra note 1.

[8] Reporters Without Borders, China, 2019 World Press Freedom Index,

[9] Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel, Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Censored Contagion How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media, The Citizen Lab (March 3, 2020),

[10] Amnesty International, Coronavirus: Stop censorship in China,

[11] See Dozier, supra note 1.

[12] Kristina Ash, U.S. Reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Credibility Maximization and Global Influence, 3 Nw. J. Int’l. Hum. Rts. 1, 32 (2005).

[13]  Id. at 3.

[14] Id. at 32.

[15] See Hua Chunying (@SpokespersonCHN), Twitter (March 2, 2020),

[16] Id.

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