During the Cold War years, there were those who argued that the best way to undermine Communist regimes was to soften them up by encouraging the free flow of trade, which usually meant increasing imports from them more from them, but in some cases, such as Cuba, removing bans on U.S. exports. Arrayed against them were those who believed that such measures would only strengthen the grip of the Communists. They favored promoting the free flow of information and pressuring the Communists to relax their restrictions on emigration and travel by their subjects. The collapse of communism in the U.S.S.R. and most of its European satellites ended the debate as far as those countries were concerned.
The Communist Party remains in power in China, but with the economy freed from its totalitarian straightjacket, economic growth has been strong and foreign trade has flourished. Under Clinton, the U.S. broke the linking of human rights and trade, and President Bush does not seem inclined to reinstate it. In 1985, our exports to China and China’s exports to the U.S. both totaled $3.9 billion. In 2001, our trade deficit with China totaled $83 billion. Our imports from China had soared to $102 billion, more than four times China’s imports from us. Cheap consumer goods account for much of those imports, but 13 percent of them consisted of advanced technology products.
This is acceptable to those who believe that the growth in commerce helps spread freedom and encourages the development of democracy in China. Upon closer examination, however, this is far from guaranteed. The gerontocracy that rules the Chinese Communist Party is doggedly determined not to follow their old Soviet mentors onto the ash heap of history. They are doing so by trying to retain tight control over the flow of information to the Chinese people. They have made it a capital crime to transmit what they call secret or reactionary materials via the Internet. A Chinese activist was sent to prison for downloading and printing material off the Internet, according to the co-chairmen of the Freedom of the Press Committee. Foreign journalists who poke into sensitive topics are deported, or worse.
Ironically, the Chinese government has learned to apply the tools of the information revolution to choke off the free flow of information into China. They are moving all foreign television channels to a single encrypted broadcast satellite, according to the Jamestown Institute. This simplifies their ability to censor foreign broadcasts. They knocked BBC’s world service off the air for broadcasting information on Falun Gong that did not comply with the Communist Party line. They use firewall tools and local Internet police to suppress information that might “jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability.” The Internet cops monitor chat rooms and email accounts. Now China has blocked access to the hugely popular Google Internet search engine, because Google doesn’t weed out Asubversive material.” Internet surfers in China can still use Sina.com, a more politically correct search engine that Chinese censors approved. But Sina.com isn’t as powerful and doesn’t lead web surfers to Falun Gong sites that accuse President Jiang Zemin of murdering its followers.
Many Western Internet providers have taken a self-censorship pledge to maintain their access to Chinese markets. The China Reform Monitor reports that Yahoo and about 120 other information providers took the pledge and agreed to remove any links that “contain harmful information.”
It is ironic that tools like the Internet that promote freedom and democracy become instruments of repression in the hands of the Communist Party in China. During their October summit in Washington, perhaps President Bush will remind Jiang Zemin how much Americans value freedom of the press and how essential that freedom is to maintaining “mutual trust and confidence” between our two countries. One other point: if China’s rulers can pervert supposed tools of freedom to their own ends, what are they doing with the high-technology goods such as the high-speed computers that we are selling them?