What China really fears: a free press

By Christopher B. Daly 

[Update: TNR weighs in with a piece stressing the perils of self-censorship.]

Through their statements and actions, the leaders of China are showing their true colors. For all their talk about moving toward a more modern, open, accountable society, China’s leaders refuse to budge on one issue. Their policies indicate that what they fear above all — even more than U.S. fighter jets cruising through contested air space — is a free press. Specifically, they fear a U.S.-style press that insists on afflicting the powerful by investigating them.

The evidence is in the Chinese handling of recent revelations by reporters for the New York Times and Bloomberg. American journalists who cover China have made dramatic disclosures about how the families who hold power in China manage to use that power to enrich themselves personally. The bar for this kind of reporting was set by David Barboza of the Times (and a Boston University alumnus, BTW), whose series “The Princelings” won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.

The Chinese reaction was characteristically blunt: the government in Beijing pulled the plug on the NYTimes in China, banning the print and electronic editions. Now the government is dragging its heels on renewing the visas that journalists like Barboza need to stay in the country and continue their work.

Here is a quote from a Chinese Foreign Ministry official that captures the issue perfectly:

“As for foreign correspondents’ living and working environments in China, I think as long as you hold an objective and impartial attitude, you will arrive at the right conclusion.”

What this reveals is an outlook that holds that there is a “right conclusion” — which is determined by the Communist Party — and that the task of journalists is to discern the party’s views and stick to them. In other words, don’t rock the boat.

The issue is such an irritant between the U.S. and China that vice president Joe Biden put it on the agenda during his visit to China this week. From today’s NYT version:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. raised the issue here in meetings with President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese leaders, and then publicly chastised the Chinese on Thursday for refusing to say if they will renew the visas of correspondents and for blocking the websites of American-based news media.Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

“Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences,” Mr. Biden said in a speech to an American business group.

At a meeting on Thursday with Beijing-based reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg, Mr. Biden said that he warned Chinese leaders, in a formal session and over dinner, that there would be consequences for China, especially in the Congress, if it forced out the journalists. But he said Mr. Xi appeared unmoved, insisting that the authorities treated reporters according to Chinese law.

If only the U.S. had some good options for pressuring the Chinese. We could exclude Chinese journalists from working in the United States, but that’s a terrible idea. We do not want to sink to the level of unprincipled tactics used by the Chinese, and we want to encourage more coverage of America in China, not less.

I don’t have a great answer here, except for patience. It is an article of faith with me that the truth will out and that in the long run, the power of the press will win out. Besides, I have one other reason for optimism: I teach a lot of young Chinese students about American journalism — its history, its principles, its techniques. Most of them go back to China, and when they return they bring some lessons they are unlikely to unlearn.

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Filed under business, Journalism, media, New York Times

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