By Matthew Pennington
WASHINGTON — All staff of Chinese state-run media outlets in the United States should be required to register with the government as foreign agents as they may be supporting Chinese intelligence gathering and “information warfare,” congressional advisers said Wednesday.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said that Beijing has rapidly expanded its overseas media presence to promote a positive view of the rising Asian nation and the ruling communist party, even as it has tightened its control over media and online content at home, and increased restrictions on foreign journalists in China.
The bipartisan commission recommends that Congress strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires registration by people or companies disseminating information in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments, political parties and other “foreign principals.” The law is applied to foreign lobbying efforts, but the Justice Department has also required registration by media outlets funded by foreign governments.
While some state-run Chinese media outlets do register, the commission says the law is applied unevenly. It calls for all staff of state-run outlets to be registered as they are not part of an open press.
“They should all have to register under FARA,” said Larry Wortzel, who sits on the 12-member commission. “Since 1978, the U.S. cannot use the press for intelligence collection or perception management by law, and that’s not the case with China.”
The commission is mandated to provide recommendations to Congress for legislative and administrative action but its proposals don’t carry legal weight. Its members are selected by leaders of both parties in the House and Senate. They include former U.S. lawmakers, and former U.S. government, military and intelligence officials.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the commission’s annual report. It was released as President Donald Trump returned from a five-nation trip to Asia, including a state visit to China, where he criticized the government over trade but praised its leader, Xi Jinping.
The Russian state-funded TV channel RT registered under FARA this week after pressure from the U.S. government. The U.S. intelligence agencies have alleged RT served as a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin as part of its multi-pronged effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia denies interfering.
Russia’s lower house of parliament retaliated to the U.S. action Wednesday, unanimously approving a bill allowing the government to register international media outlets as foreign agents.
Chinese state-run media outlets have expanded their overseas operations in recent years. The Xinhua news agency reported in 2015 it had 180 foreign bureaus. The commission contended that Xinhua gathers information and produces classified reports for the Chinese leadership on both domestic and international events.
According to the FARA website, Chinese media currently registered include the distribution companies of China Daily, People’s Daily Overseas Edition and Xin Min Evening News. Foreign agents must make a periodic public disclosure of their relationship with whomever they represent, including their activities and money received and disbursed.
State Department data show that in 2016, some 836 non-immigrant visas for foreign media were issued to nationals of China — outnumbered only by Britain, Japan and Germany. That includes both Chinese media based in the U.S. and those who made short-term visits.
The commission says Chinese-state run media and private networks friendly to Beijing have a virtual monopoly in Chinese-language U.S. cable television, “distorting the information available to the Chinese-speaking community in the United States.” It also voiced concern that Chinese communist party-linked corporations involved in the U.S. media industry risk undermining the independence of American film studios by forcing them to self-censor to access the Chinese market.