U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, on November 18, 2019.
Drew Angerer—Getty Images
March 2, 2020 9:35 PM EST

In an act of diplomatic reciprocity, the Trump administration is cutting the number of Chinese nationals allowed to work for Beijing’s state-run media outlets in the U.S. by nearly half, citing China’s expulsion of three U.S. correspondents last month and Beijing’s increasingly hostile actions toward foreign — and local — press.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that China has “imposed increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment and intimidation against American and other foreign journalists operating in China,” and that the U.S. would be instituting “a personnel cap” on five Chinese media outlets that the State Department reclassified as “foreign missions” last month — in other words, agents of foreign influence rather than genuine media outlets.

The Trump Administration’s move comes as the world braces for a potential global pandemic from the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, whose circulation was initially silenced at the source in Wuhan, China, helping contribute to the spread of the highly contagious and hard-to-detect deadly virus. Beijing’s also accused Washington of helping spur months of anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong.

Civil and human rights watchdog organizations are warning it could backfire. “It could play into Beijing’s hands, which is looking for excuses to further restrict foreign media’s operations in China,” said Yaqiu Wang, China Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

A senior Trump Administration official said the action was in response to a “sustained and deepening crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party on all forms of independent journalism,” including the “disappearance of citizen journalists who were chronicling the Wuhan virus pandemic,” as well as the “arrest of three Hong Kong thought leaders, including newspaper and magazine publisher, Jimmy Lai, in Hong Kong.”

Chinese officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The state-run Chinese outlets impacted by the cap are Xinhua China Global Television, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution, and the Hai Tian Development. Collectively, they will now be allowed to employ a maximum 100 Chinese nationals as of March 13, down from around 160 now. And the administration may in future limit the time those Chinese nationals are allowed to stay in the country, according to two senior administration official who briefed reporters Monday on condition of anonymity.

Pompeo says the measure had nothing to do with what the “entities” have published. “Our goal is reciprocity.…It is our hope that this action will spur Beijing to adopt a more fair and reciprocal approach to U.S. and other foreign press in China.”

In making their case for the administration’s action, one of the administration officials quoted China’s leader Xi Jinping, describing how state-run outlets fit into the People’s Republic of China. “Media operated by the party and the government are a propaganda battleground…We must uphold the correct way to guide public opinion and uphold the doctrine of primarily reporting positive news,” the official quoted Xi as saying.

The Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China released a report on Monday that nine foreign journalists have been expelled since 2013, noting that the February expulsion of three foreign correspondents –— The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin, Chao Deng and Philip Wen — was “the biggest group expulsion in three decades.”

Kicking out the The Wall Street Journal writers served a double purpose, according to Jacob Stokes, a senior policy analyst on China at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington. Beijing blamed the expulsions on an editorial headline that called China the “sick man of Asia,” but the expelled reporters had also written hard-hitting investigative stories about alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, where Beijing has been detaining members of the Muslim Uighur minority in camps, and alleged abuses of power by Chinese leaders.

“Crying foul about the ‘sick man of Asia’ op-ed allows Beijing to rally nationalist sentiment and redirect anger over the COVID-19 outbreak away from the government and toward foreigners,” Stokes said. In the longer term, he said the move is intended to convince Chinese people that Western news outlets are controlled by Washington, and therefore can’t be trusted.

Wang of Human Rights Watch warned the Trump Administration’s action could lead to a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation. “Instead of adopting the China government’s authoritarian anti-free press tactics, the U.S. government should uphold press freedom, a constitutionally guaranteed right, on its own soil,” with no cap on the number of Chinese journalists here, she told TIME Monday.

That’s a concern evidently shared by U.S. journalists who continue to work in China. During Monday’s press briefing, a Voice of America reporter asked officials if the White House expected Beijing to retaliate against journalists working in the country for foreign government-funded media like VOA or the BBC.

One of the administration officials pointed to his earlier response, in which he said that further actions against any foreign journalists “would only end up hurting China,” because foreign businesses would balk at investing in a country that had gone “completely opaque.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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