China’s state broadcaster is recalling the head of its American arm and more than a dozen other employees back to China in a leadership shake-up as scrutiny grows in the United States over the unit’s connections to Beijing.
China Global Television Network America, the American arm of China Central Television, announced in a meeting with its staff in Washington on Monday that its director general, Ma Jing, and one of her deputies would be returning to China, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The sudden transfer of the top leaders and at least a dozen other Chinese staffers of the Washington-based broadcaster caught some employees by surprise, said the two people, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the moves.
The major leadership change, the first since Ms. Ma set up the organization in Washington seven years ago, comes as the Justice Department has stepped up enforcement of long-unused foreign influence laws.
Over the past year, the Justice Department has pressured CGTN America to detail its connections to the Chinese state. The Chinese broadcaster has asserted to the American authorities that the Beijing government does not tell it what to broadcast.
[Read more about the scrutiny of CGTN and its programming in the United States.]
Most of the recalled employees were given roughly a month to depart the United States and return to China, one of the people added. The move to pull a large number of vital people from the organization without warning created uncertainty among the staff, according to the person, especially because their replacements would need time to apply for visas.
CGTN America, which reaches 30 million households in the United States, is part of a broad campaign by Beijing to increase Chinese soft power across the globe.
In a filing made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires those doing publicity work on behalf of foreign governments to register with the United States government, Ms. Ma sought to separate CGTN from China’s government. She wrote in the Justice Department filing that the group enjoyed editorial independence from any state control and that it operated like other news media organizations.
The reason for the recalls, as well as the effect they might have on the status of the broadcaster’s filing with the American authorities, were unclear. CGTN America and Ms. Ma did not respond to emailed requests for comment. CCTV did not respond to a faxed request for comment. The Justice Department did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said Ms. Ma’s argument to the American authorities that CGTN did not take orders from Beijing might not have gone over well back home.
“If CGTN is claiming to have editorial independence, it’s deviating from the requirements of the system,” Mr. Zhan said. “It’s very politically incorrect.”
He added that the recall could also be linked to the publicity that the foreign agent registration issue has brought on sensitive topics like the Chinese Communist Party’s networks of control across the media, corporations and other groups.
When pressed to describe their connections to China’s government and the Chinese Communist Party, groups like CGTN America can find themselves in a bind. United States disclosure laws could require breaking the party’s rules on secrecy. At the same time, denying links to the party could be perceived as an affront in Beijing.
The leadership overhaul also followed closely an article by The New York Times detailing how the broadcaster has served as an arm of China’s propaganda machine despite its claims of editorial independence. The article noted, however, that in some cases Ms. Ma offered flexibility that allowed local American journalists to contextualize propaganda videos sent from headquarters in Beijing.
Moving Ms. Ma and others could serve to get them out of the way of any possible legal action, said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. That could also prevent the issue from escalating into a potential distraction from more important issues in China’s relationship with the United States, such as trade talks, Mr. Turley said.
“Removing such officials can reduce the pressure for immediate action,” he wrote in an email. “Ma Jing was a glaring contradiction that had to be removed if the two countries are to avoid a confrontation.”
CGTN America’s filing to the Justice Department put American officials in a difficult position, forcing them to either take action by calling the broadcaster out for making misleading claims, or seem weak, Mr. Turley added.
Still, whoever comes in to replace Ms. Ma is likely to face the same quandary, because that person will be required to register as a foreign agent.
“Both countries would prefer Ma Jing to be out of sight, out of mind right now,” Mr. Turley wrote.
By Paul Mozur
The New York Times