New rules limiting visas will affect all mainland reporters regardless of whether they work for Chinese state media

The restrictions, expected to affect more than 500 reporters, will limit journalists’ stay to three months, with extensions possible

Du Chen is itching to return to the United States. Amid the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese tech reporter has been stranded in his native Beijing since he travelled there for the Lunar New Year holiday – and has come to realise that he has lived abroad for so long that almost all his friendships in the city have vanished.

Calling Du back to Silicon Valley, where he has lived with his wife since 2016, is his social life, much of his professional network and an empty flat for which he is still paying rent.

But also awaiting Du – if and when he is finally able to return – is a looming cloud of fresh uncertainty about his future in the US, in the wake of new visa restrictions that drastically limit the length of time Chinese journalists are allowed to work in the country.

Announced by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on May 8 as a response to Beijing’s treatment of American journalists, the new regulations slash what was previously an indefinite permit for Chinese “I visa” holders to report from the US to just three months, with the option to apply for extensions.

Estimated by the DHS to affect more than 500 reporters this year, the move is the latest in a series of tit-for-tat measures both countries have taken targeting each other’s correspondents and outlets, with Beijing most recently having moved to expel American journalists working at three major US newspapers there.

After the expulsion by Beijing, many Chinese journalists in the US had been bracing for retaliation. But the new DHS rule’s sweeping remit – determined by an individual’s nationality rather than the kind of outlet they work for – has sent shock waves through the community.

In the days since it was announced, the DHS move has raised anxieties about personal predicaments, prompted fears about the future of Chinese journalism and stoked long-standing debate about what kind of methods democratic, liberal powers can or should use to challenge the behaviour of authoritarian governments.

“I did plan to live in the US for as long as I can because I think, for one, China is not really the greatest place to work as a journalist,” said Du, 31, who covers technology, business and culture for PingWest, a private Chinese news outlet covering the tech industry.

But now, amid the “constant spiralling down” in relations between the US and China, especially in the field of journalism, Du is readying himself for the possibility that he may be forced to leave either his profession or his adoptive country.

“It’s a really bad situation for many of us since we will be living our lives in the US in 90-day increments,” he said.

While affected journalists (the order excludes those from Hong Kong and Macau) can apply for an extension to stay beyond the 90-day window, the Trump administration plans to use the process to increase scrutiny of Chinese reporters and anticipates their overall number in the US to fall, according to Reuters.

Of particular concern to some is a stipulation that, if an application for an extension is unsuccessful, the individual faces immediate expulsion from the US – regardless of the time remaining on the original 90-day permit.

“You can only plan for your professional and personal lives over a three-month time frame, with the constant fear that you may have to leave the country at any time,” said Zhang Qi, US correspondent for Caixin, the privately owned financial news outlet based in Beijing.

Beyond fears about having to uproot one’s life in an instant, some also worry about the effect that the action – as well as the prospect of further retaliation from Beijing – could have on journalism at large.

A restriction on Chinese nationals by the US, Du noted, “diminishes the diversity in the industry by potentially removing lots of really great Chinese journalists providing a diverse voice, providing a globalised voice in this industry”.

Many of those affected have done “tremendous reporting in areas that have nothing to do with China”, said Jin Ding, a Washington-based co-founder of Chinese Storytellers, an English-language platform promoting the work of Chinese nonfiction writers.

“All the things [the Chinese government has] done definitely have not helped us,” said Ding. “But at the same time, associating the Chinese government with Chinese in America … is completely just unfair.”

Even those who have personally fallen foul of Beijing’s targeting of journalists have spoken up in support of reporters affected by the administration’s response. “There are Chinese journalists who do valuable work in the US,”

reporter Gerry Shih, who was expelled from China in March, tweeted soon after the US restrictions were announced.

The most recent restrictions mark only the latest escalation in a brewing dispute between Beijing and Washington over the treatment of each other’s foreign correspondents.

China has long drawn criticism for its treatment of journalists and its stringent censorship laws – this year the country ranked 177th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index – but the most recent tussle began in February.

Ostensibly offended by the headline of an opinion piece in

, Beijing expelled three of the newspaper’s reporters – two Americans and one Australian.

Two weeks later, Washington set a cap on the number of Chinese citizens who could work in the US for five designated state-owned media outlets.

By mid-March, China had announced it would expel US journalists working there for three American newspapers –

– triggering the Trump administration’s latest action.

“The US did not start this game,” said one Washington-based Chinese journalist, who has built her reporting career working in the US over several years.

But while the journalist, not authorised by her employer to speak on the record, was not surprised that the Trump administration had chosen to retaliate, she said she had not expected “the brush to be this broad”.

An unknown number of reporters from China, like Du and Zhang, work in the US for privately owned Chinese media organisations. Still others work for non-mainland Chinese outlets, ranging from international news giants like the BBC to Hong Kong’s Initium Media, a digital news provider.

“Who benefits the most when independent Chinese reporters cannot report freely in the US, let alone in their own country?” the Washington-based reporter asked. “The US does not benefit.”

The DHS did not answer questions about whether it had considered that the rules would affect journalists who did not work for Chinese state-owned media outlets. Nor would it say how many of the 561 I visas issued to Chinese citizens in 2019 were issued to employees of state-owned media outlets.

In a statement, the department said it had taken the action to “address the actions of the People’s Republic of China and to enhance reciprocity in the treatment of American journalists”.

“China has expelled numerous American journalists without consequence as they perform their critical reporting functions,” the statement said.

Many of those affected by the new rule acknowledge that the disruptions it will cause should not be compared to the treatment journalists face in China. “Beijing has tightened the grip on reporters for many years,” said the Washington-based journalist. “My slight pain right now cannot compare to them at all. It must be way tougher.”

But for Chinese reporters across the US, the blanket policy may well feed rampant suspicion they already face about their credibility or intent. Even as Du took to Twitter to share some of his on-the-ground reporting following the announcement of the restrictions, he was confronted by questions as to whether he was “a CCP operative”.

Du is not alone. While covering the Trump administration in Washington, Zhang has faced smears that she is a “propagandist” for Beijing, despite Caixin’s long record of investigative reports that often challenge official narratives – a reputation that has only grown during the coronavirus outbreak.

That comes at a time when US President Donald Trump himself has singled out Chinese and Chinese-American reporters at his coronavirus briefings, telling CBS correspondent Weijia Jiang on Monday that she should “ask China” when she questioned him on his administration’s messaging about testing. Weeks earlier, he grilled a Chinese reporter from a Hong Kong outlet on whether she worked for the Chinese state.

“Every time I tell others that I work for a Chinese media [outlet], I have got to say that we practise genuine journalism and our work has won plaudits from both domestic and international peers,” said Zhang, 29.

Calling for more nuance, she fears that the US administration’s “cookie-cutter approach” to its treatment of Chinese journalists will only prove to be counterproductive.

Analysts warn that by restricting journalists’ access to pressure Beijing, the US is not only betraying its own values but also fighting a losing battle.

“In a race to the bottom of censorship and media restriction, China is going to win that game every single day of the week,” said Alex Dukalskis, a China fellow at the Wilson Centre and expert in human rights and transnational justice.

Faced with a Chinese government that had “no problem” censoring, intimidating and expelling journalists, a smarter strategy would be to take the “moral high ground” and defend the free press, he added.

“Don’t denigrate journalists, don’t call them the ‘enemy of the people’, don’t do all of those things that give authoritarian states a level of easy evidence to make an equivalence argument,” Dukalskis said.

Some supporters of the Trump administration’s new restrictions contend that the government is merely following the letter of its own law: The country’s Immigration and Nationality Act does stipulate that I visas are to be granted to other countries’ citizens “upon a basis of reciprocity”.

Still, Dukalskis said, “there is a difference between what’s legal and what’s the right thing to do, strategically and morally”.

Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, said the US should take a more precise approach.

“Reciprocity and visa penalties should be applied to people from the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, embassy officials, and others from the Chinese party-state apparatus who are actually the ones making these decisions regarding foreign journalists in China,” she said.

That strategy, Cook argued, was more likely to succeed in “inducing the desired change than targeting Chinese journalists in the United States – especially ones working for outlets that have no connection to the Chinese government”.

For one New York-based reporter working for a privately owned Chinese financial news outlet, the new rules have accelerated plans to eventually return to China from a matter of years to a matter of months.

“People are really upset and disappointed,” the reporter, who has worked in New York for about four years, said of her Chinese peers working in the US.

Now awaiting the outcome of an I visa renewal that she filed before the new restrictions were announced, the reporter requested anonymity for fear of causing complications in that process.

It would not be easy to continue her profession back in China, she noted: there are “a lot of restrictions on what you can write and how you write”. Instead, she is considering a job in finance that would let her continue reporting on the side.

“I will keep writing,” she said. “That’s a sure thing.”

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