What happens in China will increasingly stay in China if media censorship persists



Emily Judem

DENPASAR, INDONESIA – As China’s National People's Congress met in Beijing from March 5-13, the prevailing news story was one of a commitment to critical reforms, including reinvigorated efforts to fight the corruption and pollution that have accompanied China's remarkable economic rise.

At least that, and a government commitment to an approximately 7.5% economic growth rate, was the story that China's leaders wanted reported out of Beijing, as an estimated 3,000 delegates gathered to approve—cynics might say "rubber stamp"—legislation and key government personnel changes.

But not all went as hoped.

A monstrous knife attack by alleged separatists from China's restive western Xinjiang province at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming, killing at least 29 people, intruded on the storyline of a government in complete control. So too did the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Air flight MH370 with some two-thirds of the 239 people on board Chinese.

International media, especially those based outside of China, have raised questions about a risky "shadow banking" system and high debt levels in some of China's state-owned enterprises and local governments.

Reports on China’s growing crackdown on journalists and social media were also plentiful—especially following the September passing of a new law that calls for up to three years imprisonment for anyone starting “online rumors.”

Still, one can understand China's efforts to manage the headlines, as its government is not alone in wanting to get mainstream and social media to toe the line when it comes to reporting.

Even the United States—long viewed in Asia as an example of free speech and economic growth going hand-in-hand—has taken a step backwards when it comes to government treatment of journalists.

A revitalized United States, it was hoped, could be a counterbalance to China and its own development model of economy first, democracy later. Those days, though, are sadly and slowly fading away according a recent assessment of press freedom worldwide.

The report from Reporters Without Borders warns that US press freedom has eroded tremendously under the Obama Administration's focused clampdown on whistleblowers. One result is that the United States is today in a weakened position when attempting to encourage China and other nations to loosen their own media restrictions.

But still there remains another potential opportunity for China, as one more major international event comes to Beijing this year: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum—an annual meeting of leaders from 21 Pacific Rim economies stretching from Chile, Peru and the United States, China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia, among others.

Best known perhaps for its annual leaders meeting, APEC rotates host countries, and will this year be held in China.

The hope is that US President Obama will finally make an appearance, having skipped the last two summits: in Indonesia in 2013 and Russia in 2012.

China, as host of the forum, will also have the opportunity to show Obama, the region, and the world, how much it has changed, on much more than economic fronts, since APEC last came to China in October of 2001. The 2001 meeting was described as “the biggest international gathering on Chinese soil in modern history.”

As China’s economy matures and slows, it is time for China to move toward stronger checks and balances that help make a stable, resilient economic system.

Though certainly not a focus of the National People's Congress deliberations, this would include moves toward an independent judiciary and a freer, if not yet free, media. In bringing greater accountability and transparency, such moves would be to the long-term benefit of business, Chinese and otherwise, and to the Chinese people.

Here, the National Center for APEC in Seattle, as well as the APEC Secretariat in Singapore and diplomats and business leaders from the member economies that comprise APEC, can play an encouraging role.

With international bodies, from the Asian Development Bank to the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, often hard-pressed to show results to their members and financial supporters, here is one area where short-term impact can be clearly defined.

This would also be in line with the broader APEC goal of facilitating economic growth, cooperation, trade and investment among the Pacific Rim nations.

An initial step would include urging host China to welcome robust coverage of all senior officials meetings and related meetings of APEC, such as those recently held in Ningbo, China.
In fact, just days before the APEC forum opened in Shanghai in 2001, China lifted Internet blocks on a range of foreign news organizations, including Reuters, CNN and the BBC.

Without any public announcement, Internet sites of news organizations that had been permanently blocked were suddenly accessible, according to Reuters, as some 3,000 foreign media were due at the meeting and China sought to convey a message of openness to the world.

Such a change may well come again this November, as APEC comes to Beijing. But well before then, China can show the world a more confident, more open side.

At an Asia Society panel that I moderated recently on APEC 2014, an audience member posed a question about media access, including social media coverage of the proceedings in China.

The US senior official for APEC on the panel made clear that China, as host, makes all final decisions regarding media access. Indeed, that is understandable.

But what happens in China, it seems, will increasingly stay in China, if some authorities have their way with media controls and censorship worsens. That is neither the sign of a modern economy nor of a confident stakeholder in and contributor to a more peaceful and prosperous region.

China has much to showcase, and much of which to be proud. The nation has led the world in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, as freer, if not yet free, enterprise has replaced quotas and state mandates since the early reforms of the 1980s. Such progress is typically highlighted at the annual session of the National People's Congress, as are some of China's challenges—to a degree.

Clearly much work still needs to be done in improving the bureaucracy, enforcing fair regulatory regimes, reducing government intervention and ending corruption in China—what I refer to as the challenge of the "little bric." A freer media can help ensure that this happens.

Keeping journalists locked out or locked in should no longer be business as usual anywhere in Asia, or the United States for that matter.

Let’s hope APEC can help make that happen in China, and that the United States and other nations remain vigilant about protecting free speech and press freedoms in their own backyards.

Curtis S. Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin


This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.