WASHINGTON — The Chinese government has stopped renewing press credentials for foreign journalists working for American news organizations in China and has implied it will proceed with expulsions if the Trump administration takes further action against Chinese media employees in the United States, according to four people with knowledge of the events.
The actions and threats raise the stakes in the continuing cycles of retribution between Washington and Beijing over news media organizations. That retaliation is a prominent element of a much broader downward spiral in U.S.-China relations, one that involves mutually hostile policies and actions over trade, technology, education, diplomatic missions, Taiwan and military presence in Asia.
American news organizations immediately affected by China’s latest actions include CNN, The Wall Street Journal and Getty Images. Journalists from all three organizations tried to renew press cards with the Foreign Ministry last week, but were told the cards, which are usually good for one year, could not be renewed. In total, at least five journalists have been affected.
One journalist said Foreign Ministry officials told him that his fate depended on whether the United States decided in the fall to renew the visas of Chinese journalists working in America who are under new visa regulations imposed by the Department of Homeland Security in May. Other journalists have received similar messages.
The journalist said he was told by Chinese officials that if the Trump administration decided to expel Chinese journalists, Beijing would take reciprocal action. Many of the Chinese journalists work for state-run news organizations.
Foreign journalists working in China must renew their press cards to get new residence permits from the Public Security Bureau, the main police organization. The residence permits are the equivalent of visas that allow foreigners to live in China. The journalists with expired press cards were told by police officials after their discussions with Foreign Ministry officials that they would be given residence permits that are good until November 6.
They were given letters from the Foreign Ministry that said they could continue to work in China for the time being despite the expired press cards, according to a copy of one such letter obtained by The New York Times.
The early November end point for the residence permits corresponds to when the Trump administration might decide not to renew visas for many Chinese news media employees in the United States, which would result in their expulsions.
In May, the administration announced that all Chinese journalists would now have 90-day work visas — a significant reduction from the open-ended, single-entry visas they had gotten previously. The journalists would be allowed to apply for extensions of 90 days each. In early August, the visas expired, but the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the State Department, did not expel any of the Chinese journalists or renew their visas, which meant they got a de facto extension of 90 days, according to the language of the new regulation.
They can continue to live and work in the United States until early November — the same week as the U.S. elections — as they await word on their renewal applications. But American officials could also decide to expel some of them sooner. Officials consider many of the Chinese employees to be propaganda workers and, in a few cases, maybe even spies. More than 100 Chinese journalists and news media employees have been affected.
Chinese diplomats are concerned about the potential expulsions and have spoken to their American counterparts.
China’s recent freezing of press card renewals has affected citizens from a number of countries working for American news organizations. They include David Culver, the only CNN correspondent in China, who is American; Jeremy Page, a British correspondent for The Wall Street Journal; and Andrea Verdelli, an Italian freelance photographer whose credential is with Getty.
Most of the journalists and their news organizations declined to comment or did not reply to emails asking for comment.
CNN released a statement on Sunday that said: “One of our Beijing-based journalists was recently issued a visa valid for two months, instead of the usual 12. However, our presence on the ground in China remains unchanged, and we are continuing to work with local authorities to ensure that continues.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not answer a request for comment. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
There are American news organizations that have not been affected by China’s new limits yet because their journalists’ press cards have not come up for renewal. This is the case with the one New York Times foreign correspondent, an American, who remains in mainland China.
The Chinese government put a similar freeze on press card renewals in late 2013 for journalists from The Times and Bloomberg News because of sensitivities involving coverage. The halt on renewals led to fears of mass expulsions and efforts by Joseph R. Biden Jr., then vice president, to stress to Chinese leaders the importance of a free press during a visit to Beijing. The Chinese government eventually renewed those press cards and granted new residence permits, but refused to issue visas for any new incoming journalists from the two organizations for a couple of years.
This March, China expelled almost all American journalists for The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post from mainland bureaus. That was done after the State Department told five Chinese state-run news organizations they could employ a total of only 100 non-Americans, which resulted in the expulsions of 60 Chinese workers from the United States. Earlier, in February, Washington designated those five organizations diplomatic entities, requiring them to turn over lists of their employees and property assets. (It designated four more Chinese organizations in June.)
On Feb. 19, the day after Washington made the first round of designations, Beijing announced the expulsions of three Wall Street Journal reporters, the first such outright evictions of journalists since 1998. Chinese officials said they took action because of what they called an inflammatory headline — “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” — on a Journal opinion column.
Chinese officials have also forced the ouster of some Chinese employees from the Beijing bureaus of several American news organizations, including The Times, The Journal and CNN.
American officials say their actions against Chinese news media organizations and employees are in reaction to the tightening restrictions Beijing has imposed on foreign journalists in China in recent years. Those include limiting the duration of press cards, residence permits and visas from the standard length of one year to as short as one month in cases where Chinese officials seek to punish a reporter or try to get a news organization to self-censor.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China has released annual surveys that reveal worsening conditions for journalists in the country.
Some Trump administration officials are intent on steering the U.S.-China relationship toward a course of permanent competition and confrontation, one they hope will be difficult to reverse even if President Trump loses to Mr. Biden in the November election. Mr. Trump cares about maintaining robust trade with China and has praised Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader. But he has become more openly critical of China in the run-up to the election, because his strategists see it as an issue that can help divert voters away from the president’s vast failures on the coronavirus pandemic.