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The U.S. Tells Chinese Media to Register as Foreign Agents Under a Law Designed to Catch Nazis

As the U.S. and China continue to go tit-for-tat on trade tariffs, the Justice Department has ordered two state-run Chinese media groups to register under the obscure Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), ratcheting up the anti-China rhetoric.

The Wall Street Journal reports the order was issued to two of China’s leading news corporations, Xinhua and China Global Television Network (CGTN, formerly known as CCTV). If they comply and register as foreign agents, the two news agencies will be stripped of their congressional press credentials.

FARA was created in 1938 as a means to smoke out lobbyists working for the Nazi regime. Under the act, any foreign agent is expected to provide the DOJ with regular updates on their activities, but lax enforcement left the law toothless.

In its 80 years of operation, few people have been prosecuted under FARA and many lobbyists neglect to register. But, over the past year, FARA has been gaining strength.

One of FARA’s most recent take-downs was former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was charged and pled guilty to a number of FARA-related violations, including his failure to register as a foreign agent for his work on behalf of the Ukrainian government.

Russia’s RT news organization was also compelled to register under FARA last year, which helped turn attention to Xinhua and CGTN. In January a bipartisan group of senators, including Marco Rubio and Patrick Leahy, issued a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions lobbying for the two Chinese news organizations to be included under the act.

In the letter, the senators wrote that Russia and China exploit a “glaring asymmetry” between the political systems of their home countries and that of the U.S., erecting “barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously taking advantage of the openness of democratic systems abroad.”

But a June article in the Columbia Journalism Review warned that applying FARA rules to media outlets could undermine the United States’ attempts to promote press freedom abroad.