Accuracy in Media

China is a place of deep contradictions?more vibrant than some Western democracies in certain economic matters, but among the world’s most repressive and reactionary states in terms of political and civic freedoms. How long and how steadily these contradictions continue in China will determine much of the United States’ future international trade, finance, and foreign relations. Ambassador James R. Lilley recently wrote that, “China obviously matters to the United States because of its size, its spectacular patterns of growth, its profound problems linked to rapid growth, and its military intentions.” Like it or not, Americans and their government will deal with China increasingly more. The Chinese dance between liberalism and repression thus necessitates American decisions with regard to our own readiness to support, condemn, or shape such policies.

China’s 1.29 billion people are governed by a politically repressive corps of political elites, the Chinese Communist Party, which took power under Mao Zedong in 1949. In 2002, the 16th Communist Party Congress elected Hu Jintao, who in 1992 was designated by Deng Xiaoping as the General Secretary and the “core” of the fourth generation leaders. Lately, CCP leaders seem to have reached some consensus on the need for economic reform in order to enhance living standards and reduce calls for political reform?and so far, they have been rather successful in these objectives. The CCP has moved steadily away from state control of the market, in favor of allowing more individual citizens and other non-state organizations to run businesses. According to the U.S. State Department, “China is firmly committed to economic reform and opening to the outside world.

The Chinese leadership has identified reform of state industries and the establishment of a social safety network as government priorities. Government strategies for achieving these goals include large-scale privatization of unprofitable state-owned enterprises and development of a pension system for workers. The leadership has also downsized the government bureaucracy.” Indeed, CCP leaders have achieved an impressive but delicate economic equilibrium, with what is estimated to be a 9.1% real growth rate.

The success of the CCP leaders twin goals?economic growth and diversification while maintaining political authority at all costs?is evident in the dismal status of the Chinese media. The Committee to Protect Journalists writes that, “Although Hu initially called for the press to take on a more active watchdog role in society when he took power in March, by year’s end, he had confirmed that stringent government control over the media would remain the status quo.” Freedom House reports that, “China is one of the most authoritarian states in the world. Opposition parties are illegal, the CCP controls the judiciary, and ordinary Chinese enjoy few basic rights.” Freedom House reports that, “Corruption consumes 13 to 17 percent of economic output annually, according to official figures. Chinese authorities have responded recently by executing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people for corruption.”

China currently has 42 journalists in prison?more than any other country. Within a period of less than two months, CPJ has documented the shuttering of prominent diplomacy magazine Zhanlue Yu Guanli (Strategy and Management), the arrest of journalist Zhao Yan, and the closing of the widely used Web forum Yitahutu. In September, Kong Youping, an Internet essayist who has been in detention since December 2003, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to the human rights organization Human Rights in China (HRIC). And CPJ is investigating the harsh sentencing in September of another writer, Huang Jinqiu, on charges of subversion.

But what about the Internet? Surely Chinese with an eye to reform must have taken advantage of the blogosphere and the rise of electronic communication to advance their cause, right? Not quite. The CIA World Factbook estimates that, of China’s 1.29 billion people, only about 79.5 million of them are internet users. Reporters Without Borders notes that China utilizes “one of the most effective online monitoring systems in the world, using spyware technology supplied by U.S. firms such as Cisco.” The Chinese government uses “Golden Shield,” a national firewall that blocks Internet access to thousands of “subversive” websites. And for those who are technologically savvy enough to evade the Golden Shield control mechanism, there are 30,000 cyberpolice operating throughout the country. Sixty-two Chinese cyber-dissidents are currently in jail for “inciting subversion.” Government charges of incitements are, of course, easily provoked, considering that banned topics include democracy, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, pornography, AIDS in the Hunan province, the independence of Taiwan, Tibetan and Uighur separatism, and most anything else deemed to be potentially destabilizing for the CCP.

China’s treatment of journalists is just one piece of its miserable human rights record?one step in the CCP’s convoluted dance of continuing political repression accompanied by enough economic liberalization and prosperity to perhaps tease the population into cooperation with Communist authority. Lately, the CCP has accomplished its objectives. But many economists doubt China’s ability not simply to continue such spectacular economic growth, but also to effectively slow down the economy without triggering a meltdown that would inevitably have global repercussions. And beside its strong growth rates, the Chinese must contend with what The Economist calls a “terrifying level of bad debt.” (At 30.1% of the GDP, this is a reasonable caution).

So how should the U.S. deal with this complicated and potentially dangerous nation?  In attempting to discern this, let us not forget Taiwan. The United States is in the interesting position of maintaining diplomatic ties with communist China, but not with democratic Taiwan. Yet it has committed to defend Taiwan and calls for peaceful unification, something that everyone realizes is not likely to happen anytime soon. During a recent visit to Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell affirmed the U.S. government stance that, “Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy.”

An August, 2004 Pew Research Center survey concluded that:
“A small minority (14%) of Americans still see China as an adversary; four-in-ten consider China to be a serious problem but not an adversary; and 36% think China is not much of a problem.” Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll recently reported that:

Americans rate China’s respect for human rights quite low, but when asked what America’s role should be relating to human rights, our latest poll last year actually showed Americans saying that the U.S. should focus on maintaining good relations with China, rather than taking strong stands on human rights in that country. (But, as is always the case, that is to some degree dependent on how the question is phrased.)

The U.S. maintains its arms embargo against China, and has loudly protested recent European Union moves to reconsider their own embargo on China. Chinese military intentions, economic policies, and political rights rest in a weird equilibrium that seems to be holding, at least for now. It is impossible to predict how long this will continue, or whether the CCP will be forced to embrace political moderation to match their economic liberalism, rather than continue the retreat farther from decent government.

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