trump and Xi Jinping
Credit: The White House/flickr

A decade ago, I first saw signs that Chinese news organizations were operating as global spy dens and diplomatic outposts. Last week, America decided not only to call them out for what they do, but to punish them further for this activity within the United States.

It’s about time.

It’s also time to counter China and help American journalism survive.

My 2018 book “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering” detailed how China’s global news organizations are used to advance its national interests. China—and also Russia—uses its foreign news bureaus as fronts for editors and journalists to work as both witting and unwitting spies. My research over the years shows that these news bureaus’ primary responsibility is to report to their countries’ political leadership in Beijing.

Chinese state-run news organizations task their correspondents with actively taking advantage of America’s open society. That means exploiting First Amendment journalism rights and the relative naivete of unsuspecting subjects and institutions.

China’s reporter-agents collect and analyze critical information about the United States and other countries. Bureaus then package and deliver it to their masters back home. In the process, they also repurpose it as a quasi-journalistic propagandistic product for a mass foreign audience in their newspapers and broadcasts. To audiences, it looks and feels like real news, but it’s really just a byproduct of intelligence gathering.

For this reason, the State Department recently led the charge against five Chinese news organizations: Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and The People’s Daily. As a result, the United States has further downgraded their status. Last year, CGTN and Xinhua fell under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), requiring them to report to the U.S. Justice Department. The DOJ did not explain why, but the reason is that these seemingly benign institutions really are just extensions of the state, delivering a slanted, Beijing-approved, often heavy-handed propaganda message. They were also operating surreptitiously as intelligence gathering shops.

China’s state-run bodies must serve the state. They live or die by the authority and funding they receive from the country’s leadership and, in this case, the Chinese Communist Party. Whether Xinhua or CGTN, these Chinese information-gathering institutions do the Party’s bidding and coordinate the priorities of its United Front Work Department propaganda. China is willing to spend billions of dollars to promote its United Front work and support the growing network of Xinhua and CGTN bureaus around the world.

However, the advertising-based business model for American and other Western news organizations has collapsed, diminishing not only the frequency of publication—goodbye Saturday editions—but also dramatically reducing the number of journalists, researchers and editors at nearly every single news source. This is bad news for everyone. It is bad news for democracy.

Not only is the Chinese government outspending the West’s traditional news organizations, it is hiring some of its former reporters and editors. These freshly unemployed or underemployed Western professionals bring with them their Rolodexes, networks and access. In the process, they become unwitting foreign agents. Further, readers and audiences feel comfortable with the deceptive news product delivered by these familiar and credible journalists. We accept familiar faces appearing on China’s television networks.

The goal of China’s relatively new entry into the global news and information marketplace is a troubling development around the world. Western open societies welcome and protect traditional news organizations as important components of society. They have traditionally been bulwarks of democracy and an integral part of a system of checks and balances.

China has taken advantage of America’s openness, not merely with unfair foreign trade in its commodity and consumer markets, but now in the marketplace of ideas. It is right that the government has called out China for this behavior and activity.

But it’s also time for American society and government to invest in traditional American news institutions to help them not only to survive but to thrive in this newly competitive global information environment. Both the government and the public need to recognize and support American news organizations for the sake of maintaining democracy’s infrastructure.

Washington’s targeting Chinese news outlets has led to retaliation against American journalists in China. Three Wall Street Journal foreign correspondents were expelled last week. That’s rough, of course, but for years China has been using other means to limit the presence of undesired foreign correspondents in the country. The easiest, preferred method was to deny Western journalists visas.

Expect more Chinese retaliation against Western journalists. Some will be accused of spying. The real retaliation, however, will be the further demise of the credibility, strength and economic viability of traditional American journalism.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).