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US hopes China will ease restrictions on diplomats

Washington angered Beijing last week after it announced that Chinese diplomats will now have to notify the State Department before meeting with American officials.

FILE: US Ambassador Terry Edward Branstad (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 30 September 2017. Picture: AFP

BEIJING - The United States hopes Beijing will ease restrictions on meetings between US diplomats and local officials after Washington imposed reciprocal measures against China, the US ambassador said on Monday.

Washington angered Beijing last week after it announced that Chinese diplomats will now have to notify the State Department before meeting with American officials.

In China, US diplomats have to get permission from several levels of the Chinese government to meet local officials or academics, only to see such requests often denied.

"Even if we get permission sometimes it can get cancelled at the last minute. That's been frustration over a long period of time," US ambassador Terry Branstad said at a press briefing with a group of foreign journalists.

"We hope that the outcome (of the reciprocal measures) will be to get better access for US diplomats here in China," he said.

The US counter-measure comes as diplomatic tensions between China and the United States have risen over a host of issues, including a protracted trade war.

The US measure is a "very modest" step, Branstad said, noting that Washington is only asking Chinese diplomats to notify the US government about their meetings while their US counterparts in China must secure official permission.

Branstad was himself denied access to Tibet twice before finally getting permission to go in May.

But when he went to a coffee shop in Qinghai province on his way to Tibet, officials told people inside not to talk to the diplomats, Branstad said, recalling an example of the impediments US diplomats can face.

Branstad also cited the case of US consulate officials trying to meet Chinese students in the southern city of Guangzhou.

The foreign ministry initially said no student applied for the meeting and then said that none were available. The ministry later said students were "too shy" to meet with US officials, Branstad said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying countered that the ministry "has always had an enthusiastic attitude" towards the US side seeking cooperation with Chinese localities and has provided assistance.

"We hope that, in this matter, the US side will face the facts, and facilitate the normal interaction of personnel from the two sides, rather than set up obstacles, much less make false accusations," Hua said at a regular press briefing on Monday.

Asked whether the US was also mulling restrictions on Chinese journalists in response to the difficulties foreign media face in China, Branstad said: "I think there has been some discussion about Chinese that are working for (Communist) Party-controlled entities and whether they should be treated as foreign agents."

Visa delays, detentions and suspected phone-bugging are among the challenges faced by foreign journalists in China.

US law requires people who do publicity for foreign governments or parties to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department and make periodic public disclosures about their activities.

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