WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is ordering China’s major state media companies to sharply reduce the ranks of Chinese nationals in the U.S. in retaliation for years of tightening restrictions on American news outlets by Beijing.

State Department officials said Monday that a personnel cap is being imposed on four Chinese media companies, forcing them to reduce their Chinese employees in the U.S. to 100 in total, from 160.

The companies targeted—Xinhua News Agency, China Radio International, China Global Television Network and China Daily—must comply with the new limits by March 13, the officials said. Those outlets purvey Chinese government views, and the State Department last month said their U.S. operations will be subject to the rules for representatives of a foreign government, not treated as independent news media.

The Trump administration has adopted a get-tough policy toward Beijing, using tariffs, investment reviews and other tools as punishment for what it sees as a lack of reciprocity in its treatment of American businesses, products and, now, news organizations.

In announcing the new cap, the State Department officials cited “a longstanding, negative trend” in Beijing’s treatment of foreign journalists.

Beijing in February ordered three Wall Street Journal reporters expelled over a headline on an opinion column that the Chinese government and many Chinese say was offensive. The headline referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia.”

The U.S. officials didn’t cite the Journal expulsions by name. When asked, a State Department official called them “an egregious example.”

“Irrespective of the reasons that the Chinese government may give for why it expelled this or that reporter, it’s clear that the Chinese Communist Party simply doesn’t want light being shed on a vast range of everyday activities, policies and conditions inside of China,” the senior administration official said.

The affected media outlets and the Chinese embassy didn’t respond to requests for comment. In Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the U.S. of employing a “Cold War mindset” in capping the number of Chinese nationals who can work for Chinese news outlets in the U.S.

“The US is conducting political oppression on Chinese media agencies in the U.S.,” Mr. Zhao said during a routine press briefing, adding that the U.S. move “essentially means that these journalists are expelled.”

Asked whether China would expel additional American journalists or implement a similar cap on U.S. journalists in China, Mr. Zhao said: “We reserve the right to make further responses and take further measures.”

On Twitter, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying took a more confrontational approach that hinted at possible retaliation against the U.S.

“Reciprocity?” she tweeted. “29 US media agencies in China VS 9 Chinese ones in the US. Multiple-entry to China VS single-entry to the US. 21 Chinese journalists denied visas last year.”

“Now the US kicked off the game, let’s play,” she added.

William Lewis, chief executive of Dow Jones & Co. and publisher of the Journal, said in a statement: “Our focus is on supporting our journalists, their work and their safety while continuing our commitment to providing readers with a strong understanding of the important stories coming out of China.” He said, “We did not ask the U.S. government to take this action.”

The expulsion of the Journal reporters was the first time Beijing has ejected so many journalists simultaneously from one foreign media organization in at least four decades. The Communist government under President Xi Jinping has increased policing and censorship of expression inside China and sought to use the issuing of visas and press credentials, as well as police harassment, as levers to intimidate foreign reporters based in China.

About 100 American journalists work for U.S. or other foreign news media in China, the State Department officials said. In contrast, the officials said, the U.S. issued “I” visas for foreign media representatives and their relatives to 425 Chinese nationals in 2019. A comparable figure for how many relatives accompany American journalists in China wasn’t available.

Under the policy announced Monday, the State Department officials said the U.S. wasn’t expelling Chinese nationals but issuing the caps and leaving it to the Chinese media companies to choose whether to reduce the numbers of reporters, or executives and other personnel, to comply.

Asked whether the move could spur retaliation against American journalists in China, the officials demurred and cited the need for reciprocity.

“We don’t have many tools to effect this, but to allow state-run media propaganda organs to operate freely in the U.S. while normal media don’t have the same access in China—it’s time to address that,” a second senior administration official said. “This is housecleaning. We should have addressed this in the past, but we’re getting at it now.”

As it tightened controls at home, China’s government has pushed state media outlets to expand their presence overseas to promote Beijing’s views and sway international public opinion. In the past few years, their U.S. operations have fallen under scrutiny by both the State Department and the Justice Department.

In February, the State Department designated the four state media companies now subject to employment caps as “foreign missions.” A fifth entity, the U.S. distributor of China’s official People’s Daily newspaper, received the same designation, though isn’t affected by the caps because it has two employees and both aren’t Chinese nationals, the officials said.

The “foreign missions” status, usually reserved for diplomats and official representatives of foreign governments in the U.S., provided the regulatory justification for the new policy. As foreign missions, those outlets are required to declare their personnel and property to the State Department, and Monday’s announcement gave the four until Friday to provide the names of those individuals they would no longer employ in the U.S.

Under the caps—which don’t affect legal residents of the U.S.—China Radio International is limited to two Chinese nationals, China Daily may employ nine, China Global Television Network is limited to 30 and Xinhua News Agency to 59. The State Department didn’t provide figures for how many Chinese nationals currently work at those outlets in the U.S.

The Justice Department has also pushed Xinhua and China Global Television Network to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law meant to curb foreign propaganda and regulate foreign-state advocacy in the U.S. Only CGTN so far has complied, registering last year out of what it said was “an abundance of caution and in the spirit of cooperation with U.S. authorities.”

After CGTN registered, the committee that controls press credentials on Capitol Hill revoked the network’s press passes, saying that foreign agents were ineligible for press credentials. Without credentials, the network has limited access to Capitol Hill. Xinhua so far retains its press credentials.

Corrections & Amplifications
State Department officials said a personnel cap is being imposed on the U.S. operations of four Chinese media companies. An earlier version of this article in one instance incorrectly said five Chinese media outlets are being targeted by that restriction. (March 3).

Write to Courtney McBride at courtney.mcbride@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

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