Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has been at the center of Beijing's 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy. Photo: ABC News

Trump administration officials have intensified discussions over whether to expel employees of Chinese media outlets suspected of being spies, in retaliation for China’s planned expulsion of American journalists from major outlets, The New York Times reported.

Since the virus began spreading across the United States, Washington and Beijing have waged a global information war over the outbreak, the report said.

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. Trump, though, has been criticized for vast failures in the American response, the report said.

Some American intelligence officials have pushed for years to expel employees of Chinese media organizations who they say mainly file intelligence reports, the report said.

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 the outlets disseminate propaganda around the world and because of their ability to provide cover for intelligence operatives, the report said.

“Propaganda outlets that report to the Chinese Communist Party are foreign agents, not ‘journalists,’” the State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said on Twitter.

“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.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted on using the term “Wuhan virus” to refer to the coronavirus, stoking anger in Beijing, while President Trump used the term “Chinese virus” despite widespread criticism that the label is racist, the report said.

Meanwhile, a mid-level spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, has pushed the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the US Army might have taken the virus to Wuhan, where the pandemic began.

Against that backdrop of anger and distrust, some US officials want to move quickly against Chinese intelligence operatives, the report said, dealing China a massive blow.

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.” 

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, the report said.

But most Chinese employees of state-run organizations work in Washington for large organizations.