BEIJING — There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of instances in which Chinese officials thwarted American diplomats’ efforts to meet with students, local officials and the public in China, U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad said Monday as he defended rules introduced by the Trump administration to track Chinese officials in the United States.
The unusually pointed remarks from the former Iowa Republican governor who has been ambassador to Beijing since 2017 turned on a catchphrase — reciprocity — that U.S. officials have invoked to justify a tougher approach toward China on issues ranging from commerce to diplomacy. They also come as the two governments increasingly curb business dealings and restrict visas for the other country’s scholars, officials and scientific researchers to limit political-influence operations and espionage.
The Trump administration took new steps in recent days to require Chinese diplomats to notify the State Department when they meet with local U.S. officials and institutions.
Chinese officials have rejected the allegation that they limit the work of American diplomats there, and condemned the U.S. measures as a violation of Vienna Convention norms.
Branstad defended the U.S. change as “modest” compared with what he called a systematic Chinese effort to stymie U.S. public diplomacy.
In one recent instance, an event at a university in southern China was abruptly canceled after administrators said students were “too shy” to meet U.S. officials, Branstad said. During a trip in western China, Branstad tried to visit a coffee shop to talk to locals, but Chinese officials arrived first and warned people not to speak.
“There are so many ways that our efforts to have exchanges end up getting blocked,” Branstad said. “There have been hundreds, thousands of them over the period of decades.”
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The State Department does not require Chinese diplomats to seek permission — only give notice — before holding meetings on American soil. Publicly and privately, Trump administration officials argue that China is taking advantage of the liberal American system to spread influence and gain commercially while hobbling U.S. diplomats, business executives and journalists with onerous restrictions in China.
China has dismissed such suggestions.
“As for reciprocity, the U.S. has a far greater number of diplomatic personnel in China than China has in the U.S.,” the Chinese Embassy in Washington said last week on Twitter. “In 2018 alone, American diplomats paid more than 160 visits to Chinese universities.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Friday that China would take unspecified countermeasures.
The Chinese envoy to the United States, Cui Tiankai, also pushed back on Twitter, arguing that a previous U.S. ambassador was able to travel widely across China, while he had not managed to visit every U.S. state.
Branstad called the Chinese tweets “outrageous.”
“He uses Twitter, and yet Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all restricted here in China,” Branstad said, referring to his counterpart.
Local Chinese officials have blocked U.S. diplomats, including Branstad, from visiting cultural centers established by the State Department on Chinese campuses.
Branstad said he was twice denied permission to visit Tibet before being given access last year. Some State Department officials in recent years have also been effectively denied permission to visit Xinjiang, the western region where international observers say Chinese authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of Uighur people, a Muslim minority, in camps.
Foreign journalists also regularly encounter surveillance and harassment while working in China, and face hurdles renewing their visas.
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In the past 12 months, the Trump administration has signed into law and announced moves that would deny visas for Chinese officials accused of detaining Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, or those who limit American citizens’ and officials’ access to Tibet.
The Justice Department also has imposed rules requiring Chinese state media to register as foreign agents.
Chinese authorities, in response, will limit travel for individuals with links to U.S. intelligence or human rights groups, Reuters reported.
For years, China has held public-education campaigns warning citizens about a proliferation of foreign spies working in China.
Since protests erupted in Hong Kong this summer, Chinese officials have characterized the unrest as a political operation orchestrated by U.S. intelligence agencies. Officials also have leaked information about U.S. diplomats stationed in the Hong Kong consulate to pro-Beijing media.