China's foreign ministry hit out on Wednesday at the "politicization" of the media after reports that Washington has ordered two of Beijing's state media behemoths to register as agents of a foreign government under lobbying laws.
The U.S. Justice Department had demanded that China's official Xinhua News Agency and state-owned international broadcaster CGTN register as foreign agents, which could limit their access in Washington, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal and by Bloomberg news agency.
"Media serve as an important bridge and link to help the people from different countries to better understand and communicate with each other," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
"We hope that the relevant side provides convenience and creates conditions for the media in carrying out their normal work, and not put up barriers, still less politicizing their role," Geng said.
Geng said China has had discussions with the United States on the issue.
"Both sides have had contact and communication on this issue," he told reporters.
According to the Wall Street Journal report, registering with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, would put Xinhua and CGTN in the same legal category as lobbyists working for overseas entities and could cause them to lose their congressional press credentials.
Similar measures have already been applied to the U.S. affiliates of Russia's state-run RT television network and its government-controlled Sputnik Radio, after the organizations were accused by U.S. intelligence of being part of a Moscow-led effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The report cited a January letter from a bipartisan group of senators including Marco Rubio calling for more information about the operations of Chinese state media on U.S. soil.
Xinhua News Agency is directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and answers to the country's cabinet, the State Council, while CGTN is the English-language network of Beijing-based state broadcaster CCTV, under the direct control of the ruling party's Central Propaganda Department.
'Telling good China stories'
In March, the administration of President Xi Jinping strengthened its hold on all forms of public expression, enlarging its powerful propaganda department to absorb agencies responsible for regulating the mass media, as the president himself embarked on an unlimited -- and controversial -- term in office.
'The new leadership structure was introduced to "strengthen the party’s centralized and unified leadership in public opinion work by the media," the party's central committee said in a directive at the time.
"After this adjustment, the main responsibility of the Central Propaganda Department will be to implement the party’s propaganda guidelines," it said, adding that the department will also formulate and implement media and publication policy and manage the sectors.
The country's international broadcasters will be tasked with "propagating the party's theories, directions, principles and policies" as well as "telling good China stories," it said.
Liu Hu, a former reporter with Guangzhou's Modern Express newspaper who was detained for exposing official corruption, said the U.S. requirement was entirely understandable.
"They are going back to the original purpose for these organizations, which were set up as propaganda organs for the Communist Party and the government," Liu said. "They have no way to be objective, because they are entirely subject to party and government."
"It is entirely fair that the U.S. should seek to impose controls on these organizations, and it should have done so from the start," he said.
Hong Kong-based publisher Bao Pu said Xinhua and CGTN are also taking on an expanding role as propaganda arms of the government overseas.
"It is clear beyond doubt that an organization like Xinhua News Agency is an agent of the Chinese state," Bao told RFA. "What people want to know, though, is what impact its actions are having in the U.S."
The move to force Xinhua and CGTN to register as foreign agents comes amid reports that Beijing is sending an ever-increasing number of agents to operate in foreign countries.
In October 2017, exiled billionaire Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok, revealed a document to the National Press Club in Washington backing up his claim that China has stepped up its U.S.-based spying operations, sending dozens of new operatives from the state security police to work in the country.
Guo said the new spying operations use the Bank of China branches in New York city and Washington D.C., as well as Chinese diplomatic missions in the U.S., as a base.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.