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Mr. Zhu, How Free Is the Press at Home?

China: The premier's charm with journalists on his U.S. visit masks continued repression of the media in his own nation.

April 09, 1999|KAVITA MENON | Kavita Menon is the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji is smiling. He has been making jokes with business and political leaders across the United States in a nine-day, six-city tour designed to cultivate support for China's bid for membership in the World Trade Organization. Upon landing in Los Angeles, he apparently shook off one of his guards and jumped a security line in order to shake hands with journalists.

Though he's not always so congenial, Zhu's friendly gestures toward the press began at home. About six months ago, he made a radical break with Communist Party protocol when he exhorted the Chinese media to act as the "vanguard of reform; a mouthpiece of the masses; a mirror and watchdog of the government, and supervisor of government through public opinion." Famously intolerant of corruption, the prime minister enlisted the press to help expose wrongdoing.

Despite Zhu's rhetoric, however, the administration over which he presides has ratcheted up its repression of journalists and pro-democracy activists. In this year crowded with sensitive political anniversaries--including the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the People's Republic--skittish Beijing officials have moved to control public expressions of dissent, closing down newspapers and magazines perceived as being overly critical of the regime.

Writers and editors must interpret these contradictory signals with extreme caution, as at least 10 of their colleagues are currently imprisoned for journalism-related offenses.

While China's recent leaders have repeatedly emphasized their view that Beijing's social policies are irrelevant to matters of international trade and relations, Zhu must see that his country's refusal to honor the right to free expression, one of the most basic human rights, seriously undermines his heroic efforts to cure the country's economic ills. Members of the WTO--the club that China is so anxious to join--agree that transparency in financial dealings is absolutely essential to sustaining free and robust markets. And yet China still has laws criminalizing the reporting of financial data.

The need for countries to lift restrictions on the flow of information was dramatically underscored by the Asian financial crisis. In the stunned aftermath of the economic collapse, there has been a growing consensus that catastrophe could have been averted if people had had access to information about the numerous inefficiencies, bad decisions and corrupt dealings that belied the "Asian miracle." As U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers put it, "Information is at the center of what makes financial markets work."

Zhu demonstrated his recognition of the value of independent journalism when he suggested the press could serve the Chinese public by reporting on corrupt business and political dealings. But as long as China's journalists remain vulnerable to charges that their work threatens the country's stability, and their government equates frank criticism with endangering national security, there is no room for them to fulfill the role the prime minister has rightly urged them to play.

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