US President Donald Trump speaks about US relations with China, at the White House on May 29, 2020, in Washington, DC. Photo: Getty Images / AFP

About 40 Chinese correspondents dispatched to the United States by Xinhua, the People’s Daily, China Central Television, China Global Television Network and China News Service are said to be packing to leave the country, because their expiring visas are yet to be renewed by Washington.

The unexplained delay in renewing the visas of these Chinese journalists, who are scattered around a number of American cities, could further fray China-US bilateral ties. 

It is understood that the coverage of US affairs by Chinese state media will be crippled, if all of these Chinese journalists eventually have to leave their American posts. Chinese media organizations have stepped up their US coverage, in particular negative news such as the Covid-19 scourge and Black Lives Matter protests bedeviling the country, as casting the US in an unfavorable light suits Beijing’s propaganda drive.

The visa delay is just the latest challenge facing Chinese reporters in the US. In May, Washington cut the validity period of their long-stay visas to just three months, meaning they will have to file renewal applications and go through all the red tape again each quarter. 

It is said that the 40 Chinese journalists are among the first batch to have applied for visa renewals this month, under the new regime regulating Chinese media outlets. These reporters chose to abide by the stricter rules to signal their willingness to cooperate, thus they did not expect that the US State Department would still dawdle over the approval process.

In February, Washington also designated five Chinese state media outlets as foreign missions, subjecting them to additional scrutiny as well as a headcount limit. As a result, 60 Chinese journalists were forced to leave, and Beijing swiftly expelled 10 Americans in retaliation.   

In a string of posts chastising the US, the Global Times, China’s nationalistic tabloid sister of the People’s Daily, noted on its Weibo account that Beijing would respond with “reciprocal treatment” for American reporters in China while preparing to pull all of its Chinese media professionals out of the US.  

The paper’s chief editor, Hu Xijin, also revealed that the visas of some Chinese reporters will expire as soon as Thursday. 

A chief attache at Beijing’s embassy in Mexico City, who worked at the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs department before his latest posting, told Asia Times that Chinese media outlets in the US would be “running on empty” if these 40 journalists left. 

He added that one way for Beijing to dissuade Washington could be asking Hong Kong’s government to delay visa approvals for the many American diplomats and reporters stationed there.

Hu, chief of the Global Times, also wrote on his Weibo account that the hundreds of US correspondents working in Hong Kong and the many US diplomats posted to the city should remind the Trump administration “which country would end up losing more” if the president, after shutting Beijing’s consulate in Houston last month, was bent on banishing Chinese journalists.

But Cheng Xiaohe, an international relations professor with Renmin University, said Beijing should let Hong Kong decide on its own when renewing visas for foreign journalists, since meddling in affairs that fell under the purview of the city’s autonomy would give Washington more excuses to badmouth Hong Kong and besmirch Beijing’s image. 

In the meantime, the US Consulate in Hong Kong is reportedly reviewing security protocols after Consul-General Hanscom Smith was reportedly watched and tailed before his Tuesday meetings with some prominent opposition politicians from the city’s Liberal Party. 

The US Consulate General in Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times

The consulate has declined to comment on reports suggesting Beijing may target American diplomats and journalists. The US mission to the former British colony and its 500-strong staff were spared when Beijing sought revenge for the closure of its Houston consulate. Instead of targeting Hong Kong, Beijing ordered Washington’s mission in Chengdu to shut.

Nonetheless, the US consulate in Hong Kong put on sale in June a number of upmarket villas and condos once used as senior staff quarters.   

US media giants who run their Asian newsrooms in Hong Kong are also said to be drafting contingency plans amid all the uncertainties. Last month, the New York Times confirmed that it would move some members of its digital production team from Hong Kong to Seoul. 

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s government issued a statement refuting what it called “malicious rumors” that the city would soon announce punitive measures against foreign diplomats and nationals deemed to be interfering in the city’s internal affairs. 

The city’s Security Bureau, which issued the statement, said that talks about arresting US diplomats were purely “fake news,” adding that the intention of these groundless rumors was to create confusion and chaos.