Chinese print media and bloggers have endured increased restrictions over the past year, including the harassment and imprisonment of journalists, bloggers and social activists who report on corruption, the wealth of officials or other social issues. The result is a deterioration of the free flow of information within and about China at a time when the world’s interests and those of China intersect more widely.
During his recent visit to China
, Vice President Biden correctly said that “
Innovation thrives where people breathe freely
, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences.
” Unfortunately, the Chinese appear inured to Washington’s complaints about human rights.
Journalists are not the only ones facing restrictions. Scholars are similarly challenged. Like reporters, they are committed to providing objective and accurate information and analyses. U.S. universities recognize that engagement with the world is essential if they are to teach a new generation to remedy problems such as climate change, terrorism, infectious disease and poverty. For schools with a presence in China and other nations intolerant of a free press, this means regularly confronting threats to academic freedom.
These threats are troubling on many levels. The reporters at risk have done remarkable work exposing corruption at the highest levels in China. To Beijing, the reports are profoundly embarrassing rather than a road map to reform. And while Beijing says it favors deeper understanding between China and the United States, supporting wider cultural and economic ties, it appears to set severe limits on the depth of that understanding.
That last point offers an important alternative framework for approaching dialogue between China and the West — and for the treatment of journalists, academics, civil society activists and anyone else whose work involves the free exchange of ideas. These professionals’ freedom to write and speak is vital to an innovation-driven global economic system dependent on the free flow of information.
Countries that restrict U.S. news organizations’ access to collect or sell information or the ability of American academics to research or publish are imposing non-tariff barriers on institutions central to an open economy.
In this era of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, our government has made things difficult for journalists covering sensitive national security matters and for whistleblowers reporting on such matters. That, in turn, affects the credibility of efforts by U.S. officials and nongovernmental organizations to respond to China’s heavy-handed approach, a cost of these controversial U.S. policies that must be addressed.
How should the United States proceed? In a typical trade dispute, countries often impose tit-for-tat sanctions in response to a trading partner’s behavior. In this case, Washington could rescind the visas of Chinese journalists working at state-run CCTV or the state news agency, Xinhua; or block Chinese academics from coming here.
But we would oppose this. If one believes in the importance of the free exchange of ideas, information and understanding, then we must recognize that any steps that diminish that exchange harm us and our case that the right to report freely serves the interests we all share in having greater knowledge about the issues before our societies.
Besides, as written, international trade law obliges countries to treat foreign businesses as they would treat their own. Beijing can easily persuade the world that its news organizations wouldn’t be allowed to conduct journalism the way the Americans do, or that its academics aren’t free to publish everything. In addition, a broad exception to fair-trade rules allows a nation to skew trade in defense of its national security. And there are no codified rules protecting ideas and information.
A better approach would be for Washington to embrace the economic importance of ideas and information and to develop a new international trading regime that would protect journalism, academia and digital information.
Why go the trade route? To start, the practical demands of the commercial marketplace and economic integration mean that China, the United States and other nations have a shared interest in universal and open access to commercial and financial information.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has shown signs of moving in this direction. These measures could be strengthened if the U.S. government and commercial interests jointly call for such progress. On behalf of leading U.S. digital technology companies, the U.S. trade representative filed a formal inquiry two years ago with the WTO to address China’s Internet censorship. Congress has mandated an annual compliance report on China and the WTO. A meaningful next step would be for Washington to insist that regional and bilateral trade agreements commit all parties to the free flow of information and ideas integral to trade and investment.
This isn’t just about China, though the size and significance of China’s economy make the issue especially significant. The Obama administration should be outspoken that the U.S. government believes that journalism, academia and the technology industry are central pillars of both our society and our emerging global economy. The U.S. government should defend them with confidence born of experience that freedom isn’t only the right thing to champion, it’s also the economically essential thing to protect.