The restrictions come amid growing concern about Chinese influence in the US and elsewhere, and were introduced in response to similar rules on how Western diplomats operate in China.
Two senior State Department officials told CNN that under the new rules, Chinese officials are not required to ask permission for these visits the way their counterparts in China are, only that they have to report the visits to the State Department.
The officials said the goal of the new requirements is to get the Chinese government to reciprocally allow American diplomats to engage with provincial and local officials as well as universities and other research institutes the way that Chinese diplomats can in the US. They said the measure is not directly related to other parts of the US-China relationship.
State Department officials said the Chinese were notified this past week, and that they had already received one notification today of an official meeting. However, the officials refused to specify how the State Department would address any failure to comply with the new requirement, only that they would address it at that time.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington said Wednesday that “the latest restrictions by the US State Department on Chinese diplomats are in violation of the Vienna Convention. So far, the Chinese side does not have similar requirements on American diplomats and consular officers in China.”
“As for reciprocity, the US has a far greater number of diplomatic personnel in China than China has in the US,” the embassy added. “In 2018 alone, American diplomats paid more than 160 visits to Chinese universities.”
The new rules are the latest restriction on how Chinese entities operate in the US, amid concern over Beijing’s influence in multiple spheres, and intense pressure on foreign diplomats, journalists and NGOs operating in China.
Last year, Washington forced state media outlets including broadcaster CGTN and newspaper China Dailyto register as foreign agents with the State Department. Chinese companies such as telecoms giant Huawei have also been blocked from American 5G networks over security concerns.
Also in 2018, Australia announced multiple new laws aimed at tightening Australia’s security and electoral processes, including a ban on foreign donations. The move followed a series of scandals involving China’s alleged influence in Australian politics.
The United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party has been accused of operating in Australia to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and organizations in foreign countries or else silence dissent. Similar concerns have also been raised about the United Front’s operations in the US.
While most attention in Washington has been focused on Moscow as a geopolitical rival, some officials have warned about Beijing’s growing influence and espionage operations in the US.
Earlier this year, US intelligence officials said Beijing is leaning on expatriate Chinese scientists, businesspeople and students to gain access to anything and everything at American universities and companies that’s of interest to China. The FBI has also reportedly urged universities to monitor Chinese students and visiting academics.
For its part, Beijing has also expressed concern over Washington’s operations in China.
China has repeatedly warned of “foreign spies” targeting government workers and Beijing often complains that US and other Western diplomats are interfering in its internal affairs over issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong.