The State Department notified five Chinese media outlets on Tuesday that they must register as "foreign missions," requiring them to share information on all their U.S.-based employees and properties with the U.S. government.
"We're not seeking conflict by any stretch of the imagination, but we're going to call it straight, we're going to call it as we see it," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on the announcement, "And the fact of the matter is each and every single one of these entities does in fact work 100% for the Chinese government and the Chinese communist party."
These designations were similarly used for Soviet outlets, such as Pravda, during the Cold War, although currently, Russian outlets including RT or Sputnik have not been required to register as foreign missions. The most recent designation was the Vietnam News Agency, a state-run outlet that was required to register five years ago, according to a second senior State Department official.
All five Chinese outlets have already been required to register by the Justice Department as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. But this authority will give the U.S. government increased insight into their operations, according to the senior officials, including a list of employees and requiring prior approval for acquiring any new commercial property.
Even U.S. citizens who work for one of these five outlets, which includes the widely available cable news channel CGTN, will have their information handed over to the U.S. government. That includes basic details, such as name, date of birth, residential address and job title, according to one official.
Asked about the timing, they said the outlets had increasingly come under party control under the rule of Xi Jinping, China's president and the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, even reading a quote from Xi about the importance of party control over the media.
"The Chinese Government has been methodical in the way it's analyzed our system, our very open system, one that we're deeply proud of. It's assessed our vulnerabilities, and it's decided to exploit our freedoms to gain advantage over us at the federal level, the state level and the local level," he said. "Today they have free rein in our system, and we're completely shut out from theirs."
In a similar vein, the State Department announced in October that Chinese personnel at the embassy in Washington and consulates across the U.S. would be required to notify the U.S. of any meetings with state and local governments and educational or research institutions. It was a decision to "level the playing field," a senior State Department official said at the time, as U.S. diplomats in China must get approval for any similar meeting while Chinese officials still do not.
The new registration requirement for media outlets will not, however, place any "constraints" on these outlets' activities in the U.S. or the content they produce and publish, according to the senior officials.
But while they wouldn't go so far as to accuse them of spreading disinformation, one official told ABC News, "They are part and parcel of the PRC (People's Republic of China) propaganda apparatus, and anyone that consumes news or any other content that those guys produce should keep that in the back of their mind."
Both officials batted away concerns about possible Chinese retaliation against U.S. or other Western journalists in China, saying press freedom there is already severely restricted.
The U.S. expects all five companies will comply, according to one official, who declined to discuss what enforcement options the administration would take if they did not.