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Washington CNN  — 

The United States will begin treating five major Chinese media companies as extensions of Beijing’s government, requiring them to comply with rules governing foreign embassies and consulates.

A senior State Department official said Tuesday that Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily and People’s Daily will be designated as “foreign missions,” effective immediately, in accordance with the Foreign Missions Act.

The change in designation means these companies will now need US government approval to buy or lease office space and will have to register personnel changes, including new hires and staff departures, with the State Department just as foreign diplomatic missions do.

The official justified the step by saying the outlets are owned and effectively controlled by the government in Beijing and that each meets the definition of a foreign mission.

‘Propaganda machine’

“They are part and parcel of the People’s Republic of China propaganda machine,” the official said. “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,” the official added. “These guys are on the organizational chart.”

None of the media outlets responded to CNN’s requests for comment. The Chinese Embassy also did not immediately return requests for comment.

But on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang condemned the US decision and accused Washington of prejudice and hypocrisy.

“We deplore and reject the wrong decision of the US,” Geng said, adding that media facilitate communication between different countries. “The US touts its press freedom. However, it is wantonly restricting and thwarting Chinese media outlets’ normal operation there. This is totally unjustified and unacceptable. We urge the US to discard its ideological prejudice and Cold War zero-sum game mentality and stop ill-advised measures that undermine bilateral trust and cooperation.”

Geng added that China would “reserve the right to take further measures in response.”

In the same briefing, Geng announced that China is revoking the press credentials for three Wall Street Journal journalists in Beijing in retaliation for the paper’s recent op-ed titled “China is the real sick man of Asia.”

The State Department official, speaking on background, said the move was not meant to “put any constraint” on the work done by employees of the five firms, or change how they operate, but was intended to create some transparency. A second senior State Department official said the Chinese entities were informed Tuesday.

The Trump Administration is acting now, the first official said, because Chinese leadership has tightened its control over these media outlets while it has expanded their global reach in recent years. State control “has gotten stronger over time, and it’s far more aggressive, their activities outside of China including here in the United States,” the first official said. “Based on that, we decided it was time to act,” they said.

This official also pointed to the 2017 National Security Strategy, which identified great power competition as a central focus and China as one of the US’ main competitors, along with Russia.

No move against Russian outlets

Neither official could explain why Russian state-owned media outlets operating in the US were not being designated as well.

The move on the media companies comes as senior US officials have turned up the volume on their criticism of China on the world stage, even as they seek Beijing’s cooperation on foreign policy issues from Iran to North Korea and wants its help in understanding and containing the novel coronavirus.

Both Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used appearances at an international security conference in Munich last week to excoriate Beijing. “The United States has woken up the world to China’s unfair trading practices and the Chinese Communist Party’s newly aggressive turn, whether on the military, diplomatic, or economic front,” Pompeo said in Munich. In subsequent stops in Angola and Ethiopia, he warned against Chinese investment practices.

In Washington on Tuesday, the first State Department official said they would not speculate on China’s response or possible retaliation against American journalists working in the country. “Western journalists already suffer very severe restrictions,” the official said.

Neither official offered an answer when asked if the information about personnel could be used in counterintelligence efforts against China, a recent administration focus. The second official said that making the media entities register as foreign missions “helps improve our understanding of how these entities do operate in the United States.” This official added that the administration doesn’t currently have a list of the media companies’ employees.

Guidelines about the the way information about the media outlets’ foreign and American employees will be used will be laid out in a System of Records Notice on the State Department website and a notice about the change will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, the second official said.

Asked what happens if the entities do not comply and provide the required information, the second official said, “We don’t expect them not to comply.”