The action is part of a broader tit-to-tat between China and the United States, with the media in both countries acting as delegates.
The five-page form, entitled “OFM State Department (Foreign Missions Office) Questionnaire”, requires personal information from employees, as well as information about spouses, children and anyone else they live with, along with where the employee has worked in the last five years. A copy of the form was shared with CNN by two CGTN employees who did not want to be named out of fear of retaliation.
All CGTN employees, including those who are American citizens, have until Monday to complete the questionnaire.
In an e-mail to staff, shared by one of the CGTN employees, the CGTN legal department wrote that information is normally only requested from diplomatic staff.
“We sincerely regret that OFM is requesting to provide this information, but our request to OFM for reasonable housing for employees who are US citizens or permanent residents has been rejected,” says the email.
A State Department spokesman told CNN that the form sent to CGTN employees was not created by the government, but that the information is the same as that of any employee on a foreign mission, such as an embassy or consulate. Foreign missions are required to provide information via a secure online web portal.
“The Department of State needs to have a register of people employed by all foreign missions in the United States,” said the spokesman. “This information is managed in accordance with any existing protection under the Department’s policy and the 1974 privacy law.”
CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state television, has staff in over 70 countries. Its offices employ both local and Chinese employees, although Chinese executives have the final say in publishing.
The five Chinese state media outlets labeled as foreign measures – CGTN, Xinhua, China Radio International, China Daily and People’s Daily – now require US government approval to buy or rent office space, are limited in the number of employees Chinese people who have can have staff and must record staff changes, including new hires and staff departures at the State Department, just as foreign diplomatic missions do.
The second CGTN employee told CNN to see the State Department questionnaires as a way of pushing Americans to leave the network.
“Several people have told me that they are thinking of quitting, but the pandemic is making it harder to do it,” said the employee. “There is a sense that the State Department wants to brand us as spies and create the impression that if we continue to work here we will be unemployed in the future. Including family members increases the intimidation factor.”
The employee argued that while there are “valid concerns” about China’s lack of press freedom, the United States “should be better than that” and allow for press freedom, even if it is “unpopular speech”.
“The US Department of State has increased its control over the Chinese media, violating the holy commitments of the United States to freedom of speech and the press,” the statement said. “The suppression of the American government will not stop us from providing the world with higher quality news.
Hopefully the US government will stop politicizing legitimate news operations. CGTN offers a window on Chinese culture and a platform for Chinese perspectives on international affairs. “
Michael Callahan contributed to this report.