SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So want everybody – to just lay down the ground rules at the beginning, just remember, please, that this interview is embargoed until the very end, so please no tweeting or putting anything out until the interview is complete. This also going to be on background, so this is with a senior State Department official. Of course all of you know it’s with [Senior State Department Official One]. We wanted to talk about the actions from yesterday, and if I pipe in or someone else pipes in, we’ll just continue to use the senior State Department official line. So [Senior State Department Official One] is going to start with a few minutes of opening remarks and then we’ll get into the Q&A. And just a reminder, please mute yourself if you can.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right, thank you for that. I’m looking forward to answering questions on China’s recent actions as well as our own, but I think it’s helpful to take a look – a running look at how we got to where we are today.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m sorry, [Senior State Department Official One], just one second. We’ve had a few blips of people get on since we started, so for everyone that was not here when we began the call, it’s background only and embargoed until the end of the call.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. So in December, this organization presented a speech called “The U.S.-China Bilateral Relationship: The Lessons of History” where we looked at the last 40 years that the U.S. has tried very diligently to build a – basically a normal relationship with the PRC. The response from the – from Beijing has been mixed, but generally speaking, it’s been a lot – it’s been one-sided. The U.S. has been reaching out and giving and there’s been very little meeting in the middle. So the whole time I think for the last 40 years you can characterize a relationship of them competing while we’ve been trying to cooperate. This administration has understood that this is a relationship characterized by strategic competition. Doesn’t mean it’s adversarial; no enemy or any of those in there, but it is time to compete. So what you’re seeing from the Chinese side is that they’re, one, not used to having to compete on this scale; two, they’re not very happy about it.
Our objectives are the same. We want to develop a productive relationship with the PRC. It’s going to take a little bit of a harder stance, we think, to get them to buy into that. The second part is our strategy hasn’t really changed either. Our strategy’s been the same for probably 70 years in the region, and that is to continue fostering liberal democratic processes as well as supporting free, fair, and open global and regional trade (inaudible). If you’ve read anything about what the Chinese objectives are, it is not that. They’re looking for something that more closely mirrors their model of governance if you read China Today.
But to get to that, to establish the position of (inaudible) approach to the relationship —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hey guys, please mute. Sorry.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: To accomplish that, our response has been, as you’ve seen, looking to build some reciprocity in this relationship. In terms of reciprocity, you start off in September with – we tried to – a diplomatic relationship more reciprocal. Anybody who’s lived in China, either in the media or as a diplomat, knows that you are treated far differently in the PRC than you are here as far as openness, access, and all the rest. I’ll let you judge how that went, but the message I think was received in Beijing as we simply asked their diplomats to give us five days’ notice before they met with certain (inaudible) national (inaudible).
Second part: In January we announced media reciprocity. Again, the same thing – we asked their media that are sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party acknowledge that through determining that they were foreign missions. They are still allowed to do what they do in this country, but they just had to acknowledge the fact that they weren’t the same media organizations that you all represent. They basically were there to represent the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective. And one of you from PBS gave me a good summation of that. Here’s the quote: Journalists are constrained by facts while foreign missions are constrained by their governments. So that’s the approach we’ve taken as far as media reciprocity.
The response by the Chinese to this particular initiative has been mixed and in some ways I think overly – they sort of overreacted. In this case, they’re trying to (inaudible). It’s a strategic competition, therefore we treat each other the same. Because we’re resisting in the media space and the economic space, they’re having a much more difficult time advancing their interests. In fact, there’s actually resistance not just from the U.S., though, but from many other countries who have experienced the same thing.
So we’re getting a much more shrill narrative from the PRC, and this current conversation relates to the most recent and the most flagrant by a spokesman, by their ministry of foreign affairs – Zhao Lijian tried to attribute the current global pandemic to the American military, and that is just irresponsible and unacceptable.
As you watched – I don’t know if you watch what comes out of Chinese official media, but it’s become more and more fantastic and fictional. Here’s a quote from today’s People’s Daily: The U.S. even tries to create a chilling effect by expelling a large number of journalists from other countries – that’s absolutely not true – building a wall to the external world to report and understand the U.S. That’s actually what they’re doing, and so there’s a psychological term for that. Another quote: U.S. is conducting a disguised expulsion while it is, in fact, political repression. I leave it to you to decide if that’s the case. And here’s one more quote: “China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the U.S.”
Finally, there’s going to be questions about whether – how this links to the current pandemic, global pandemic. And one, we’re concerned that the PRC is doing its best to distance itself from that. That’s why we – they accuse the U.S., that’s why they determine – they say that the origins are indeterminate. The current (inaudible) you’re seeing in the media comes from, I think, their response to a Wall Street Journal editorial with the headline “Sick Man of Asia,” a term that was used by the Chinese multiple times, most recently in a People’s Daily editorial of 2012, which led to the expulsion of journalists from The Wall Street Journal. These weren’t just Americans. (Inaudible) in there as well. And this is part of a long-term process of making it difficult for media to operate in China, whether it’s through visa restrictions – if you remember The New York Times got kicked out of China in 2012, I think, for reporting on Xi Jinping’s family and corrupt activities. Bloomberg had the same experience back then, and this has been ongoing over time. They don’t do it always through expulsions; they do it through visa manipulation, like instead limiting the time on visas, et cetera.
So to summarize, we’re just looking for reciprocal treatment. If you want to be a great power, then you should expect to play on a level playing field, and you – the media – should be allowed to operate as freely in China as you do here in the U.S. I would hope that that message resonates with all of you.
And with that, I’ll terminate my comments and take some questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. So we’ll make sure on the next call we have a more organized way to do this so that it’s not a free-for-all. I apologize for this. I don’t know who’s on the line, so [Moderator], if you have a list, maybe you can just sort of call out and give – and call out that way. That might be easier than having a free-for-all.
MODERATOR: Sure. Happy to do that. Matt, you want to go first?
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks, and apologies in advance if my daughter or my dog chime in here. (Laughter.)
Can I just ask, [Senior State Department Official One], are you guys planning any reciprocal action after the expulsions from yesterday? And secondly, why – from the President and the Secretary and you, you guys – very senior levels of the U.S. Government seem to be, like, intentionally trying to antagonize the Chinese over this. Why is that the – or at least that’s the way critics look at it. Why is that not the case?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: As far as upcoming activities and plans, as you know, we don’t talk about – at least don’t speculate. Obviously, we have lots of other things we can do if we want to try to, again, go with (inaudible), but we’re not going to – I’m not going to talk about it. I have no intention of doing that.
And this links to your second question about intentional antagonism. Let me just go back to my opening comments, all of this being off the record for whoever just called in. I mean all of this is on background —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On background.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: — for whoever called in. So let me go back to my initial comments, is we’ve tried for 40 years to make this relationship work, and it is difficult to continue doing that, especially in a space now where the pressures on people in the – in China, especially during corona outbreak – the pressures to self-censor or to block the investigation go on. This is life and death. People are dying from this. You can’t mask data, you can’t hide data – the Secretary said this yesterday – by simply delaying access to the market, to other areas of interest by the WHO and American CDC. So this is not intentionally antagonistic; this is simply trying to get to the bottom of something that’s destroying peoples’ lives and it’s destroying the global economy.
And this isn’t just about right now. This happened in SARS in 2003. I mean, look back at the comments from the – from Beijing after – how they handled it then, and the comments in January from the Chinese Communist Party saying that this is not SARS, we have beaten this thing, we learned our lessons, when the exact opposite is true. Look, I mean, you – I don’t know how you want to characterize this, but to me, it’s simply trying to defend us and the world from yet another one of these that’s going to happen again in an environment where information is actively suppressed and not allowed to move up.
MODERATOR: Okay, next question from Shaun Tandon, AFP.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for doing this call. Can I just follow up on that? You’re saying that there are lots of things that we can do. You said that you don’t want to do them, but what can be done, actually, at this point to make sure that the journalists can keep doing their jobs in China? And is there any dialogue between Washington and Beijing to try to resolve these issues?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Dialogue is part of diplomacy, and that’s what we do here in this building. And so yeah, we can – we will work through this. But as far as other things, how about things that the rest of the world can do? We saw some very positive statements out of the major news print outlets yesterday about censorship and removing journalists and all that, and I think a more – a broad stance other than the U.S. Government to acknowledge what’s going on here would be of great use.
MODERATOR: Next question is from Ben Marks, NHK.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing the call. Last week you had the Chinese ambassador at the State Department. With regards to these Chinese allegations that the virus came from the U.S., did you ask them to provide any kind of evidence or any basis for these claims?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I did not. One, the details of conversations – diplomatic conversations are best left unstated. This is how you maintain an open dialogue. If everything we say gets out in the press, then of course it’s going to be more difficult to have a conversation. So I’m not going to read – I’m not going to talk about what we talked about, but I’ll just tell you that there’s nothing for the U.S. side to acknowledge, talk about, or debate. Nothing could – how in the world could you even – the whole idea is ridiculous, and that’s what we called it. It’s attempts to distance themselves from a problem of their own creation.
MODERATOR: Courtney McBride, Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m just wondering, did Beijing advise the department ahead of the announcement on the press card revocation that it was planning to escalate? I know that the State Department disputes the idea that this is somehow a retaliation for a comparable U.S. action, but did they give you a heads-up about it? And also, if that is the case, were the outlets informed, or – and how is the department supporting those affected?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It was a surprise to us. I was doing something else and I got a – someone forwarded it to me pretty much within 10 minutes of the release. So no, there was no prior coordination, which is unfortunate, because again, if we can work these things in the background, that prevents overreactions and then the subsequent blowback. But I would again note that the people who should be as bothered as the U.S. Government are the media, you all, who are going to be – you will lose the ability to observe and report what’s happening in the PRC. It affects what you do, it affects the safety globally, and again, I’m happy that you all came up online and noted the failure in this. You can’t push these things away. You have to acknowledge them and deal with them.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ve got Nick Schifrin for the next question.
QUESTION: Hey, [Senior State Department Official One], thanks for doing this. I hope you can hear me fine, and like Matt, forgive me if the dog starts barking.
Two questions: Back to Matt’s question about the use of “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus.” You just said that this is getting to the bottom of something that’s destroying people’s lives, it’s trying to defend us and the world from yet another of these diseases. How does the use of “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” actually defend the U.S. or somehow get to the bottom of what’s going on?
And the larger question that I heard from many China watchers yesterday, and I wondered if you agree: It’s a shame that the U.S. and China aren’t working together in a moment where the world needs to work both politically and economically and diplomatically together, and I wonder if that’s kind of the context that you see it as well.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I appreciate that and I really appreciate the opportunity to comment. As far as working together, if you recall, the first thing U.S. did was call the CDC. CDC reached out to the PRC and says, “We’re here to help. Let us know what we can do.” The WHO followed up and says, “We’re here to help. Tell us what you do.” You guys can do the math, how long it took. Like, by my calculation, it took a month for the WHO to actually be allowed into the country to investigate.
So when you say why are we – I’ve seen this allegation before, the U.S. is actively resisting and is picking fights when we should be cooperating. Believe me, we’ve tried. We’ve tried to cooperate when there was still an opportunity to resolve this before it became a global pandemic. And again, if you check the record, it will show that we did not get that access or opportunity.
So we did offer up $100 million for China and globally for dealing with this thing. We were able to use it in Southeast Asia and other places. We did deliver 17.8 tons of equipment early on to Wuhan to help them as we knew that they were having trouble with medical equipment and masks. We delivered it; it was donated by the very generous American people. And so that’s the first part.
The second part about the language is, one, I don’t know that there is a official mandated use of terminology on these things, but what – I think what you’re saying is a reaction to a very clear effort that you all observed as well to push the responsibility for this away. I’ve been watching – I don’t know if you’ve seen the HBO series Chernobyl, but – although it doesn’t deal with a pandemic, it deals with a similar crisis, and an environment where information is suppressed and bad news is not allowed to travel. The reason we want to make sure that the origins and the full story about what happened – the reason we want that to be out in the clear is so that not just China, but the world, can assess this, and then make plans and deal with it when it happens again.
And I’ll point you to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in the U.S. Go to the CDC website and look at the timeline for the reporting on that. I think it was on the 17th of April we detected this new virus in the U.S., on the 18th of April reported it broadly to the U.S. Within a week we had sequenced it and shared it on a public space for everyone to see, and the world got on it right away. It still created lots and lots of havoc that – there was no delay. It was – we tried to maintain as open an environment as possible. And I’m going to ask you put the H1N1 response against the current corona response.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], sorry, the WHO does actually specifically try and create a title for these diseases that do not reference the location of origin in order to avoid any kind of – any kind of stigma on the people from that location. So I do believe there actually is WHO guidance avoiding the origin.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Ebola is related to the Ebola River. I did the research on that. There are probably 20 or 30 of these (inaudible) diseases here lately, and if you look – I understand the 2015 guidance and all that, but there is utility in identifying the source of these still.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Next?
MODERATOR: We’ve got Lara Jakes from The New York Times and Jennifer Hansler from CNN for the next two questions.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. This is a very technical question – technical question from Lara. I’m just wondering if China has or the five Chinese news organizations or propaganda organizations that were operating in the United States had complied with the restrictions that the State Department put on previously – so not just registering their staff and their locations and their property, but also whether you saw those 60 employees either be cut from the staff or returned to China. Thank you. I’m going to go back on mute.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, as far as I can tell, they did. And again, we appreciate the prompt response from the Chinese Government to identify the personnel and the rest. And as far as I can tell, there was compliance.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. I was wondering if you can talk to us about whether there are any points of cooperation between the U.S. and China right now on the coronavirus response. And secondly, just going back to the terminology and the use of “Wuhan virus” and “China virus,” are you concerned at all that this could be perceived as a dogwhistle, or any response to criticism that this could incite particular attitudes towards people of Asian descent? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, let me answer your second question first, and hopefully this will be the end of that. We didn’t start using that, and this is a common term; this was the original term. Xi Jinping used that term over and over and over again early in January. If you read Chinese, like some of us do, and you look at what’s coming out on Weibo and others, they still call it the Wuhan bingdu or Wuhan (inaudible). They – that’s what they call it. They don’t call it COVID. So I think we should stop wrapping ourselves around the axle on the exact terminology. The goal is to understand where it came from and how to beat it. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Can you repeat your first question?
QUESTION: Are there any points of cooperation between the U.S. and China right now on the coronavirus response?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, and we remain open to working together to get this done. As you would imagine, though, our primary concern is domestic right now, because we try to keep this thing from doing what it did in Wuhan and elsewhere.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think – and I do think that that question, Jennifer, is a good one but it’s much broader than State. So I would encourage you to reach out to HHS and CDC where they can give you a technical answer on the cooperation.
Okay. I think we have – I think we have time for one more, [Moderator].
MODERATOR: I think Katrina Manson from (inaudible).
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much. Katrina from the FT. I’d be very grateful if you can go into a bit more detail about access to the Wuhan market and trying to establish the origin of the disease. Is there anything that you can say about how (inaudible) it is to get WHO experts to —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hey, Katrina, I’m just going to go ahead and stop you and see if you want to ask something else. That’s way beyond [Senior State Department Official One]’s mandate. That should be directed to HHS probably or OVP, CDC (inaudible).
QUESTION: Okay. (Inaudible.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Is there something else that you’d like to ask?
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. I wonder if you can say anything about what the U.S. response has been to China so far following the directive that they released yesterday. I know you’re not going to preview next steps by the U.S., but can you say anything about what has been conveyed to China by the —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes. So we asked – that was just asked a while back, and so again (inaudible) going to do. There are a lot of things we could do.
QUESTION: This is Carol. I have a question to ask.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Carol, he’s in the middle of speaking. Could you wait?
QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. Forgive me.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, but again, I would ask my journalist friends who understand what the difference between propaganda and free media is to make that clear in your comments, especially those of you who have operated in China, to contrast the difference.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay, we’ll give the last question to Carol. Go ahead, Carol.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I want to follow up a little bit on what (inaudible) asked, the Committee to Protect Journalists, that the U.S. move to restrict Chinese media operations in the U.S. gave China the, quote, “perfect cover” to suppress reporting. So I was wondering if there’s any chance the U.S. might walk it back, or if there’s any chance that the Chinese might walk their edicts back. And have you delivered a demarche to them or called in the ambassador a second time? Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Again, thank you for that. And I understand the concerns where there are those who think that what we’re doing here is somehow related to free speech, but this is – again, number of hands – please show me the number of hands who have operated in the PRC. Thank you. Please say something on this. This is an absolute false equivalency that’s being pushed out by the Chinese propaganda machine.
So compare the two. As the Secretary said yesterday at the podium, look around you and tell me where you see free speech being impeded right now. You can go out and talk to any (inaudible). There’s none of that. If you look at the definition of a journalist and you look at the people that they’re sending, the people that are here, I think we would all agree that they qualify more as foreign missions. And I’ll go back to my original statement – again, from one of you. We are – a journalist is constrained by the facts; propaganda organs are constrained by their government. Look at the people who were designated, look at who they report to and what their mandate is, and look at their reporting. Read the bylines on this, if you can find one. Their job isn’t to report facts back to the Chinese people; their job is to tell us, the American people, what (inaudible).
Please take a look at that. I think you’ll agree when you ask around.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks, everybody, for dialing in. I know that this is – we’ll work on – we’ll work on the line and figuring out the most effective way to do it. I think we’ll try a few different options, especially since we’re going to keep these remote for now.
[Senior State Department Official One], did you have any final comments that you wanted to make before we hang up or are you good?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I just want to say I appreciate the ability to tell our side of the story, and I appreciate all that you guys do on this. Look, I started off as a journalist way back when, like several of us in this room. I absolutely value the importance of getting the word out to you all, and then you can use your own judgment, experience to translate (inaudible) into words that the American people can understand. So thank you for that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Great. Thanks, guys, for (inaudible). Thank you, [Moderator].