WASHINGTON — As China moves forward with expelling almost all American journalists from three major American newspapers, Trump administration officials have intensified discussions over whether to evict employees of Chinese media outlets who they say mainly act as spies.
The action is under consideration because some U.S. officials want to retaliate against China in a new conflict that has revolved around news organizations and is being fueled by hostility over the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the virus began spreading across the United States, Washington and Beijing have waged a global information war over the outbreak. President Trump and his aides are trying to pin responsibility on China, where Communist Party officials initially covered up the dangers of the virus as it was first discovered. Mr. Trump, though, has been criticized for vast failures in the American response.
Some American intelligence officials have pushed for years to expel employees of Chinese media organizations who they say mainly file intelligence reports. The officials now see an opening to make a strong case after Beijing abruptly announced this month that it would expel almost all American citizens who report from mainland China for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
China also demanded those organizations, as well as Voice of America and Time magazine, turn over information on employees, budgets, assets and other operational details.
American officials view the state-run outlets in China as a potent threat in the growing strategic rivalry between the two superpowers, both because it disseminates propaganda around the world and because of its ability to provide cover for intelligence operatives.
“Propaganda outlets that report to the Chinese Communist Party are foreign agents, not ‘journalists,’” the State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said on Twitter on Thursday.
“Even General Secretary Xi says they ‘must speak for the Party,’” she added, referring to remarks that President Xi Jinping of China made in 2016 as he toured the headquarters of state-run media organizations. In recent days, Ms. Ortagus and Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, have engaged in an information duel on Twitter.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted on using the term “Wuhan virus” to refer to the coronavirus, which ignited tensions at an online meeting Wednesday of foreign ministers of the Group of 7 nations. Mr. Trump has used the term “Chinese virus” despite widespread criticism that the label is racist and encourages attacks on Asian-Americans. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, has pushed the conspiracy theory that the U.S. Army might have taken the virus to Wuhan, where the pandemic began.
Against that backdrop, some American officials want to move quickly against Chinese intelligence operatives. American counterintelligence officials have more closely scrutinized the work of Chinese diplomats, journalists, scientists and others in the United States, though some critics have denounced this as a new “red scare.” In September, the United States secretly expelled two employees of the Chinese Embassy in Washington who had been caught driving on a sensitive military base in Virginia with their wives; it appeared to be the first expulsion of Chinese diplomats accused of espionage in more than 30 years.
Any expulsion of Chinese employees at media outlets accused of conducting intelligence work could include ones based at the United Nations, where China has a permanent seat on the Security Council, according to an intelligence official familiar with the plans. Most Chinese employees of state-run organizations work in Washington for large organizations.
Some Chinese intelligence operatives pose as journalists at those agencies and at smaller state-run outlets, using “nonofficial cover,” in the parlance of spies, experts on Chinese espionage say. Some American officials have spoken of entirely shutting down those small outfits as well as any Chinese organization or company accused of being a front for intelligence work.
American officials declined to estimate the number of Chinese intelligence operatives in the United States they say use journalism employment as a cover or the number they would like to expel.
The F.B.I. referred questions to the State Department, which did not respond. The Chinese Embassy did not reply to a request for comment.
American intelligence officials have long asserted that many Chinese journalists abroad play a hybrid role in which they not only provide reports for publications and broadcasters in China, but also give information to Beijing’s intelligence apparatus.
The action now under consideration would try to avoid evicting most of those who play a hybrid role and focus more on people the U.S. government believes are mainly spies, according to intelligence officials. The journalistic reports filed by those Chinese citizens are simply a screen for covertly collecting intelligence, the officials said.
The United States is scrutinizing most closely China Central Television, the main state-run network that has extensive operations overseas, the intelligence official said. It has an arm, China Global Television Network, that runs its own operations and broadcasts in foreign languages.
The main Chinese overseas spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, has operatives at various media outlets, say intelligence officials and experts on Chinese espionage. The People’s Liberation Army also has intelligence operatives overseas with media cover.
American officials were infuriated by China’s announcement of the new wave of expulsions of American journalists, who are not spies. The officials saw the action as part of Beijing’s attempts to censor reporting about the government’s missteps over the coronavirus outbreak.
The officials are now seeking a way to retaliate beyond continuing a cycle of retribution that harms people who practice actual journalism. Taking the fight to the intelligence services would do that, they say, as well as allowing the Americans to avoid criticism that they are clamping down on press freedoms.
One option that some officials have discussed that does not involve spies is limiting the reach and distribution of the Chinese outlets in the United States, whether those are television networks or newspapers. But that runs into the thorny issue of press freedoms. For years, the Chinese government has blocked online access to major foreign news websites and apps, and it often censors broadcasts by international television networks.
The wave of expulsions of journalists in the two countries began when China announced on Feb. 19 it would evict three Wall Street Journal reporters, the first outright expulsions of foreign journalists since 1998.
After that announcement, which came a day after the Trump administration imposed new rules on five Chinese state-run media organizations, American officials grappled with how to respond. Some raised the idea of expelling Chinese state media employees who did intelligence work. Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser and a former Wall Street Journal reporter based in China, led a meeting on Feb. 24 to discuss options.
The administration announced on March 2 it was issuing new visa quotas on Chinese citizens working at five Chinese media organizations. In total, they could employ only 100 Chinese citizens in their American operations. That would result in the de facto expulsion of about 60.
A senior State Department official said last week that the “Chinese government” had met a deadline of March 13 to identify employees who would remain at the organizations. It was unlikely that Chinese officials had selected intelligence operatives to send back to China, American officials said.
China retaliated against the new quotas by expelling journalists at The Times, The Journal and The Post, affecting at least 13 Americans, even though those newspapers are not tied to the U.S. government.
“Did they really believe they can silence a country like China without any consequences?” Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
“China clearly no longer sees Western journalists as useful or critical to getting its message out,” said Daniel M. Kliman, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Asia policy official in the Pentagon. “With the expansion of state-run organizations globally, it seems they don’t need Western journalists around.”
On Tuesday, the publishers of the three newspapers issued an open letter to China.
The decision by Beijing to expel the journalists during a pandemic, they said, was “uniquely damaging and reckless as the world continues the struggle to control this disease, a struggle that will require the free flow of reliable news and information.”