The media are full of news these days about China embracing reform and emerging as a world player. But don't think for an instant that Beijing has stopped practicing what Thomas Jefferson called "tyranny over the minds of men."
To the contrary, Chinese authorities are tightening control over the news and information available to the 1.2 billion people they govern. They're working harder to block the Internet and to jam incoming broadcasts by Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Voice of America (VOA). Chinese citizens now enjoy more freedom to make money, but they still risk detention for voicing dissent -- or seeking information that doesn't toe the official line.
It's an antiquated policy that harms China, damages its relations with the United States and undermines our fight against terrorism. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who meets today in Texas with President Bush, should let ideas flow freely and halt China's jamming of U.S. international broadcasts. Moreover, American broadcasters should be allowed to cover China just as their Chinese counterparts cover the United States.
Here are the facts: Chinese authorities are not only blocking Internet search engines and Web sites that might turn up information critical of the government. They're also redoubling efforts to jam international radio, a powerful medium in countries such as China, where only about 4 percent of the people have Internet access.
Engineers who monitor these transmissions say Chinese jamming has grown more sophisticated and more frequent. The International Broadcasting Bureau spends millions of dollars annually to transmit RFA and VOA programming to China. Several simultaneous transmissions on different frequencies are required for each program to overcome jamming.
Throughout China, listeners have to work hard to hear RFA and VOA signals, and sometimes they can't hear us at all. Fortunately, there are ways around jamming, and in China -- as in Eastern Europe during the Cold War -- determined listeners often find them.
In another maneuver aimed at thwarting free news dissemination, China has also barred RFA from stationing reporters on its territory and rebuffed the VOA's bid to increase the size of its tiny China-based staff.
In contrast, China's state-run media are permitted to broadcast freely in the United States, with at least 40 journalists employed by the Chinese government working here. Recent research also documents the Chinese government's growing influence over Chinese-language media in this country.
It's a fundamentally lopsided arrangement that denies the Chinese people access to news and views from the outside world -- which they want and which Americans need them to hear. We can't allow the world's most populous nation to be kept in the dark about who we are, what we stand for, and why they should be on our side in the fight against terror. It matters what 1.2 billion people think.
Chinese listeners tell us every day that they know that their own media are withholding news and that U.S. international broadcasting fills a major part of that void. When a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided off China's coast last year, RFA was flooded with phone calls from China asking for details and thanking us for presenting both sides of the story. Some callers, it's true, criticized the United States, and we let them speak. But most knew that they weren't getting the whole story from their domestic media -- and that they were entitled to more. And they were impressed that congressionally funded RFA would broadcast criticism of the U.S. government.
In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, RFA reporters interviewed scores of Asian nationals whose lives were touched by the terror attacks. From Brooklyn to Beijing, Tokyo to Tashkent, bereaved families mourned irreparable losses. Our reporters told their stories -- showing China, and the world, that those diabolical attacks took aim not just at the United States but at all humanity. "The whole world should condemn the attacks, not just NATO members," said one RFA listener from northern China. "The whole world should pitch in and try to apprehend the culprits. Unless we unite on this, any country might someday face the same fate."
The Chinese people are entitled to more news, more information and a more open view of the world than their own media allow them. President Jiang should make sure they get it.
The writer is president of Radio Free Asia.