Of the US-facing Chinese state media outlets, only the distributor of the China Daily in the US has registered under FARA, according to the senators’ letter. A recent filing shows that the company had a budget of nearly $7.8 million between May and October of 2017, which it used to distribute the paper and to place ads in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

There’s already precedent for the move the lawmakers are calling for. In November, the Department of Justice successfully got the Kremlin-backed Russia Today outlet to register as a foreign agent under FARA after US lawmakers raised concerns over RT’s role in spreading Russian propaganda. That led to RT journalists losing their press accreditation to cover Congress.

Still, the move should make all journalists uneasy. The biggest concern? That “reciprocity,” in practice, deteriorates into tit-for-tat retaliation.

It’s already tough enough for foreign journalists to cover China, where they face difficulties getting visas and restrictive rules about reporting. A war over the media would exacerbate problems for well-meaning reporters in both countries. Days after RT was made to register under FARA, for example, Moscow retaliated by passing a law that would require Voice of America and CNN’s branches in Russia to do the same.

It’s unclear how many people the US-facing content from Chinese state media is reaching at the moment, or who they are. It’s plausible that with time, their reach could equal or surpass that achieved by Russia’s RT, which had at least 35 million daily viewers as of 2016. 

They can do that in part because they have something their private US counterparts increasingly don’t—money. American legacy publishers are competing with digital upstarts and solo bloggers for precious ad revenue, arbitrated by Facebook and a few other companies. Chinese state media outlets, should they want to, can pay top dollar (paywall) for both journalists and reach, with little regard for their bottom line. According to a paper from the University of Notthingham’s China Policy Institute, the top four state-backed outlets received $6 billion from the Chinese government in 2008 to expand overseas.

Curbing China and Russia’s ability to broadcast in the United States might please consumers wary of fake news and foreign propaganda invading their Facebook feeds. But it would move Washington a tiny bit closer toward Beijing and Moscow’s model of state control. That could damage US credibility when it advocates for a free and fair press, as it often has globally. And it would come as Trump continues to berate American press for spreading “fake news” against him.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues that limiting foreign state-backed media’s press freedom will only embolden it in its mission to polarize America. “Allowing any government—especially the current US administration—to determine what is journalism and what is not is a terrible idea,” he writes.

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