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Briefing With Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell On Designating Additional PRC State Media Entities as Foreign Missions

Special Briefing
David R. Stilwell, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Via Teleconference
June 22, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. I hope everyone had a nice weekend, and Happy Father's Day to all of the dads on the line. I'm happy to have my friend, of course, Assistant Secretary Dave Stilwell to speak with all of you today. I know that he spoke last week, Thursday afternoon, regarding our meetings in Hawaii. One thing I just want to make clear from the top: We need to embargo the contents of this briefing until 15:00, so 3:00 p.m. We – this will be on the record, but everything is just going to be embargoed until 3:00 p.m., 15:00. So if everybody can just please abide by that embargo, I would appreciate it. We'll have an S – excuse me, a SPOX statement coming out at that time, and of course you'll have this briefing as well.

So let's see. Dave is actually here now for another on-the-record briefing to explain the next step in our almost yearlong effort to equalize the relationship with the Communist Party-led China. To remind you, for decades administrations of both parties adopted a "cooperate at all costs" approach to Beijing. We can see clearly what happened. Instead of liberalizing economically and adopting a more open political system, the CCP pushed back in the opposite direction. This administration has recognized that reality. We see the CCP for what it is, not for what we want it to be. We ask the CCP for a fair and reciprocal relationship. Today is a continuation of that process.

We are designating the U.S. operation of four additional Chinese propaganda outlets as foreign missions. This follows our original designation announcement back in February. These entities are not independent news organizations. They are effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, also known as propaganda outlets. Furthermore, we hope our action will increase transparency on the PRC's obsessive control of information and news not just among their state-owned propaganda outlets, but also amongst legitimate journalists and news gatherings in China.

Assistant Secretary Stilwell will of course provide brief introductory comments, and then we'll be on to your questions. Just a reminder, you dial 1 and then 0 to get in the queue. Again, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until 15:00, 3:00 p.m., and we will go from there. Okay, Dave, go ahead.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Morgan, many thanks for that introduction and setting the stage for the announcement of the next phase of getting the relationship back on an even footing. And so as you say, this designation simply means that because we're identifying them – and they identify themselves, frankly, as foreign missions, as taking their direction from the Chinese Communist Party – that they certainly would have to adhere to certain administrative requirements that we apply to all foreign embassies and consulates here in the U.S. So at this time they'll be required to inform the State Department of their personnel rosters, who they actually have here, as well as their real estate holdings. This does not prevent them from reporting legitimate news, however, but we do have to have them acknowledge and let us know who they are and who they work for.

In designating these outlets as foreign missions, we are formally recognizing the China party state's effective control over so-called media entities, including those that operate here in the United States. While the Chinese Communist Party has always tightly controlled China's state news agencies, its control has actually tightened in recent years. Over the past decade, particularly under General Secretary Xi Jinping's tenure, the Chinese Communist Party has reorganized their state news agencies and asserted even more direct control over them. I got to witness this firsthand when I was in Beijing working with a friend who was an advisor to the China Daily outlet there, and he explained to me exactly how the party apparatus works inside of a paper like that to ensure that the word they were putting out was in fact aligned with what the Communist Party wanted. That's not journalism; journalism is reporting the facts, not what the party tells you to report.

So Xi Jinping himself has said that managing China's message is crucial for, quote, "the future and the fate of the Chinese Communist Party and the state," unquote. As he told state media outlets in February of 2016, quote, "All the work by the party's media must reflect the party's will. It must safeguard the party's authority and safeguard the party's unity. They must love the party. They must protect the party and closely align themselves with the party in thought, politics, and action," unquote. And he added that the state media are actually given all the surname of "party," dang, stressing that they are an integral part of the Communist Party facility and organization.

So today's announcement is simply a response to the PRC's actions – or, in fact, inactions. We've heard many times how – Xi Jinping will say this multiple times – that China will continue to reform and open up while at the same time continuing to get tighter and less – more restrictive and less free. And that's been the case in the PRC as you all have witnessed over the last six months or so – or year. To be more specific, the U.S. operations of these entities that we've designated meet the definition of a foreign mission under the Foreign Missions Act because they are, quote, "substantially owned or effectively controlled," unquote, by the Chinese Communist Party and the government of the People's Republic of China.

So China Central Television, CCTV, you've all seen that. That's a state-run TV station that reports to both central committee of the Communist Party as well as the state council. China News Service, CNS, is the second-largest state-owned news agency in China after Xinhua. It's run by the United Front Work Department and they report directly to the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. People's Daily, it goes without saying, is the official newspaper of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and then Global Times is wholly owned by People's Daily and takes its direction from them.

I would want to stress here that the Communist Party does not just exercise operational control over these propaganda entities but it has full editorial control over their content. This foreign mission designation is an obvious step in increasing the transparency of these and other PRC government propaganda activities in the United States. This determination is not intended to reduce or constrain journalistic activity by foreign media outlets. Again, these four entities are not media but propaganda outlets.

Secretary of State Pompeo has made clear that mature, responsible countries understand that a free press is essential, which is why I'm talking to you all. The U.S. Government has long welcomed foreign journalists to report the news of events happening in the U.S. freely without the threat of reprisal. They can report whatever they want. Journalists in the United States regardless of nationality have and will continue to enjoy the freedom of expression that is not permitted in the PRC.

You'll note that this is the second tranche that we've designated. The first five I mentioned earlier, those were the big numbers and the obvious ones. This is the next step in that.

This is not all Chinese media. I mean, there are numbers – there are several who are actually reporting and doing good news in the spirit of journalism, reporting facts. But you all know in recent years PRC has imposed increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment, and intimidation against Chinese American and other foreign journalists operating in China.

A free press would benefit the Chinese people, and they tried – probably most glaringly during the disease outbreak in Wuhan, when a number of journalists were doing their best to warn fellow citizens of what was going on there because the government was not doing that. One – his name is Li Zehua; another lawyer, Chen Qiushi – "Qiushi" happens to mean "seek truth," by the way – they actually put up video reports showing that the numbers of sick people in the hospitals and elsewhere were far greater than what the government was reporting. They and others have all been disappeared. They have not been heard from in a while.

A free press would benefit their people, especially during this global pandemic. We need to know what happened and that information would still be of value in saving lives around the world. PRC Government says it wants the world to know about China. However, its refusal to allow for a free and open press denies the world the ability to really know what is happening there vice what the government wants you to think is happening.

Finally, as Secretary Pompeo has said, we're not just comparing apples to apples. The U.S. system guarantees press freedom while China subordinates the press to the Communist Party. We are formally recognizing that fact in today's action. That's – concludes the formal comments. I'll be happy to take your questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks so much, and just a reminder to dial 1 and 0 to get into the queue. And again, one more reminder that this briefing is embargoed until 3:00 p.m., 15:00, please. First up is Francesco Fontemaggi, AFP.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could tell us how many staff this designation concern, how many people they have here in the U.S., and if you will further reduce their numbers. And also, if you don't fear that, like the last time, Beijing will expel more U.S. journalists as an answer to that. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: That was obviously a concern the last time we did this, and I would caution against any sort of moral or ethical equivalency in this for all. Anybody who has lived in the PRC understands just how hard it is to get a story and how, if you get too close to a subject – like I think you've heard Matt Pottinger's story when he was a journalist in China – you get these unfortunate visits from the MSS.

So please, for everyone, we saw this the last time that we rolled out the first tranche because we had a number of people note that somehow the U.S. is shutting down free reporting here in the U.S., and again, I think you all see the obvious problem with that formulation.

If you want data on exactly how hard it is to operate, for those of you who have not been in Beijing or in the PRC, I point you to a report out of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China called "Control, Halt, Delete," a really good piece that demonstrates that. Again, any form of equivalency to say that the U.S. is kicking out journalists – remember, these aren't journalists. These are members of the propaganda apparatus in the PRC.

To your question about what this sets up in the future, I'm not going to say, except to note that we are – there are legitimate journalists from the PRC who operate freely in the U.S. and report the news, and this is just an acknowledgement that the folks that work for these companies are under orders from their boss and from the party to transmit to the U.S. and tell their story better. By their own admission, their job is to come here and tell you about China and tell you what the party is doing, vice what you would expect journalists to do, is to report back to the PRC about what's going on in the – outside of the PRC. Over.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Next up in the queue, David Brunnstrom, Reuters.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much for doing this. I was wondering, slightly changing the subject to former National Security Advisor John Bolton's book –

MS ORTAGUS: Hey, David, David, that's not what this call's about. If you would like to ask about our new policy action today, we're more than happy to take the question. If not, I can move on in the queue.

QUESTION: Well, I just wanted to ask whether any allies in the region have been in touch with –


QUESTION: – the assistant secretary on this issue for clarification.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you, David. Okay. AT&T, we can mute that line. We'll now go to Will Mauldin, Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. I guess I had a similar question to what was already asked on the potential ramifications for American journalists working in China. Obviously, there are very different sorts of media organizations that we're talking about and very different sorts of actions that each government would do, but at The Wall Street Journal, we've had to have some reporters leave the country in China. That affects the news picture that we get out of China.

What do you think will be China's response to this, and how much of an impact did that have on your decision-making today? Thanks so much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: That's a really good question. It's important to have objective, fair news reporting coming out of the PRC. The – again, the COVID outbreak in Wuhan makes it eminently clear why that is. These things don't just affect the activities or life inside China. These things spill out and affect us all. And it's not just in the disease realm. It's in everything: economics, the system of governance there and how they treat their folks. It's nice – it's good to get a complete picture.

Your organization printed a – maybe the title could have been phrased better, but the topic of the "sick man of Asia" – it wasn't the U.S. that got journalists kicked out. It was just a legitimate news organization in the U.S. or elsewhere simply reporting the facts of what was really going on there, and you felt the reprisal. So this is no different than that.

We would hope that the government would adhere to its claims to be open and accessible and supportive of journalism. Whether they're going to change that approach, in this case I'm not going to hold my breath, but I can't hold up actions to protect ourselves and the American people from their sort of intrusive propaganda machine that comes into our country that we invited in out of concern that they are somehow going to take unfortunate and unrelated actions inside the PRC.

Wall Street Journal reports a great story on the disease inside China and you lose reporters. Again, I don't think you're going to self-censor because of that; I would hope not. That's what is the intent, though, is to, by taking these actions, to get people to think twice before they say anything that the Chinese Communist Party would consider unfortunate or offensive. That's not how we – that's not who we are and that's not how we operate. We're going to continue to do what we do for the right reasons in accordance with the law, and so as far as anticipating what the reaction is going to be, I would again expect organizations like yours and others to note the problem with putting those two things – making those apples-to-apples comparisons because they are not. Over.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks, Will. Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Hi, I have two questions. The first question is: Can you – I think you answered this previously. What are the specific numbers when you talk about each of the news organizations CCTV, CNS, People's Daily, and Global Times?

And Dave, can I also get you to comment on the message you think it sends to foreign journalists and other people who would be listening to this call that you guys are not willing to take questions on the John Bolton book when you're also talking about a message of ensuring freedom of the press in the United States? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Hey, that's pretty easy. This one is focused on a guy from the East Asia Pacific bureau who could speak with great fluency to the topic at hand. If you were to ask me the other, is – my answer would be a deflecting "I really don't know." I got to tell you, I am not checking that story. I am too busy working this particular issue, so – so I – again, I would rethink that approach to how we're handling this. You can ask anybody, especially those who are related to this, but for the subject at hand today in the short seven minutes we have left, I would like to talk about the subject at hand.

So you asked about numbers. We don't know. That's part of what this is going to identify is that these folks, we have allowed them to come into the country as journalists. Now acknowledging the fact that they are not, we know what companies they work for. They will then have to identify themselves as work – that they do work for these organizations. And then from that, we will have a better accounting for who they are, who is on their personnel rosters, and what real estate holdings they have. So it's pretty straightforward.

It's – as I said before, this is housekeeping, right? We're just cleaning up some broken glass and stuff that we hadn't really paid a lot of attention to in the past.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Nike Ching.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thanks much for the call. Is there discussion with the U.S. allies such as the EU that they will follow suit and also designate China's state-run outlets as the foreign missions? The reason I ask is because some of the personnel after being designated by the United States as China's foreign mission went to Brussels and other places, et cetera. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: That's a really good question. The best thing that can come from this, and I'm not going to dislocate my shoulder patting America on its back, but American leadership is important globally, and the things we do give others license to do the same. As you know, the Chinese like to use their strong economic levers as reprisals for doing things that the folks in Beijing don't want. That in no way comports with the entire Westphalian system, the system of sovereignty that they claim to support. And so – but when the U.S. does something like this, it does give others more latitude to follow suit, to do things that they also would like to do. So we're happy to hear that the EU and others are considering taking similar steps.

The second part of your question was – I think she got muted. Okay.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, she was asking about ally designations.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I'm drawing a blank on that one, so.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, no problem. John Hudson, Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I hear your point about false equivalents. So I was wondering if we could just talk about the end result. I mean, the Chinese have a lot of third-rate mouthpieces in this country that aren't particularly influential, while we have a lot of very intrepid trail-blazing journalists in Beijing that do have a big impact. So as Beijing and Washington go up this escalatory ladder, it seems like we just keep losing and losing and losing, and it doesn't have a particularly big impact on the Chinese system. So why is it worth continuing up this escalatory ladder?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Like I said, you can't just allow this stuff. These people are doing more than just propaganda, right, and to understand exactly what that is we have to know who they are. It's about understanding what's going on inside your own country. We're a free nation.

We assume – and we have assumed for 40 years – that this interaction with the PRC would then get them to follow suit in their own country, understand the importance of an open media that speaks freely, that allows – provides feedback to the government for things that may not be working out so well. And had they had that, you wouldn't have had such just horrible things like the Sichuan earthquake, where their own government was building schools without rebar in them. They called them "tofu buildings." And when the earthquake happened, they came apart. If there was a free media inside the PRC, that stuff would have been reported. This is what you all do so well.

So trying to tie what we do to defend ourselves to what they choose to do, to kick out the best investigative reporters – and especially the ones who speak Chinese – this is all their choice. This is not something that they were going to do these things anyway. Like I said, Wall Street Journal – I mean, Wall Street Journal prints an article they consider offensive, and they kick out journalists. Whether it's the U.S. Government or you all reporting the news, they're going to take advantage of this thing as an excuse to prevent bad news from leaving its borders.

And again, you probably know the best possibly example of that is how the world is suffering through a pandemic right now because we were kept in the dark as to how serious this thing was. So again, I would be careful about making that – the Chinese Government does what it does. You can't say that they're doing this specifically because we're doing to them. It's simply an excuse. Over.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Ed Wong, New York Times.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) David and Morgan. Two questions.

One is: In terms of the goal of cracking down on sort of the work of the propagandists here in the U.S, what discussions have taken place around distribution of Chinese media within the U.S., whether it's on television channels or China Daily appearing on – in newsstands? It seems to me that that's the larger issue, and obviously there's press freedom issues involved with that. But I was wondering, is that something you discuss behind the scenes, and would you take any action based on that? It also seems like that's something that would hit the Chinese Government harder, too, like where it hurts, if that's what you're aiming for.

The second question I have is related to the – sort of some bizarre attacks that have come out of the White House on Voice of America, which, as you know, was designated as a foreign mission by the Chinese Government when you did your first round. So it seems like the Chinese Government is attacking an outfit like Voice of America and saying they dislike the reporting, it's an arm of the U.S. Government, while the White House has been publicly attacking Voice of America, saying it disseminates Chinese propaganda. So can you sort of parse out that for me and how what the White House might be doing undermines the standing of Voice of America in the world?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Okay, Ed, I got both questions. On the second one, I would refer you to the White House on that. On the first one, though, here's the point is we really believe in freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and so all I would like to do is identify China Daily inserts and all those things, CCTV, although I just want to identify them as foreign propaganda outlets.

The American people are smart enough to decide whether this is real news or if it's something that the government – the PRC is trying to push you under the guise of free speech and free and open reporting, which is the whole point of what we're trying to do here is to help people understand. I mean, feel free to read China Daily. It actually gives you good viewshed into what the government and the PRC is thinking. I'm not going to rip inserts out of the – I mean, I know that governments – or that companies get funded for that, just like they get funded for other advertising. I just want to identify it as advertising and propaganda, not as news.

They've done a pretty good job of putting these things – slipping them in so they appear like genuine, legitimate news coming from Ed Wong at The New York Times or Washington Post or the others. It's simply identifying what it is for the American people so they at least understand what they're reading.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. We're basically out of time, but I'm going to try to squeeze in one more question from Nick Schifrin, PBS.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. Thanks, Morgan. Can I just zoom out on the China-U.S. relationship? Have you seen any movement from China on some of the topics that the Secretary discussed with Yang Jiechi? And the President over the weekend gave an interview in which he talked about trade and sanctions over the imprisonment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and wondered if there were any sanctions being considered on Chinese officials over the detention of Uyghurs and whether there are any concerns about China reacting in the trade deal if those sanctions were employed. Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Thanks, Nick. I got another press thing right now, so let me just quickly note that legislation in Congress here on the treatment of Uyghurs, it was welcome. It follows the trend over the last nine months, starting with the event at the UN to again flag publicly the Chinese treatment of its own minorities. And again, we're going to continue to do that to help the world understand that the U.S. has, like I said before, taken leadership on this and brought others to help them find their voice on the subject.

Events out of Hawaii, too early to tell is all I can offer you on that one. But please keep an eye out for it. Over.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. We're already over time, so that's going to have to be our last question of the day. We will have a statement out around 3 o'clock, and that's when our embargo will be lifted. However, before I end the call, I do think it's – I'm going to have to address what I consider a pretty offensive question by Nick Wadhams.

We strive every day to give all of you multiple briefings a day. The Secretary goes to the podium once a week and we take as many questions as we can. We try to be very quick over email in responding to what all of you need. And so if there's any question about any books by any officials or anything you may have, we're – have proven to be available 24/7 to all of you and we will always answer them. We like to focus these policy briefings on the policy, but any insinuation that we haven't made ourselves available or responsive to your questions – Nick's insinuation is offensive and I just would like to go on the record that that's totally inaccurate.

Okay, thanks for dialing into the call.

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