- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit totheUnited States presents a perfect opportunity to raise an issue that has a potentially dangerous long-term effect on U.S.-China relations: Beijing’s lack of freedom of information.

At his meeting with Mr. Wen this week, President Bush should take the opportunity to discuss the Chinese government’s untiring efforts to control the objective news and information its citizens hear about the United States and the world.

Specifically, the Chinese jam the shortwave radio broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) and block their Internet sites. Both broadcasters are supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. nonmilitary international broadcasting.

As a result, the Chinese people — the world’s largest population — have a distorted and unrealistic view of the United States, learned from Chinese government-controlled outlets, American movies, television shows and music videos. Those sources are hardly a reflection of the United States. Nowhere can the Chinese listen to discussions about our cultural and religious diversity or learn about First Amendment rights, U.S. democracy or developments in medicine and science.

In fact, the information that 1.3 billion Chinese receive is often false, erroneous and damaging to the United States. In May, for instance, a Hong Kong newspaper,Wenweipo, speculated that SARS, the often-fatal respiratory disease, had originated in the United States.

Rumor and conspiracy theories flourish in the news vacuum. One “outlandish rumor” cited by The San Francisco Chronicle posited that SARS could have been a biological weapon developed by the United States or Taiwan. Others even claimed SARS was a U.S. ploy to distract China from the war in Iraq, according to the paper.

Despite differences over trade and Taiwan, U.S.-China relations are better than they’ve been in years, as the two countries cooperate on terrorism and North Korea, among other issues. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently referred to the “thriving relationship with many areas of cooperation.”

To date, however, the free flow of information has not been an area of cooperation. There’s no reciprocity between the countries on media issues, with the United States — and the Chinese people — getting the short end of the stick.

As relations have thawed in recent months — and the Chinese media have moved more assertively into the open U.S. marketplace — the Chinese government has stepped up radio jamming efforts. To overcome jamming with additional transmissions, the U.S. government spends about $30 million a year.

But China’s Central Television (CCTV) is available via satellite to anyone in the United States, and CCTV broadcasts on 27 channels. China Radio International’s shortwave and terrestrial broadcasts to the United States are accessible to all.

Moreover, U.S.-based Chinese-language Web sitesareconsistently blocked by the Chinese government, so that Web-loving Chinese, the world’s second-largest online community, are forced to go to proxy sites to get information. Chinese Web sites suffer no such restrictions in the United States.

Finally, the official Chinese news agency Xinhuaand other government news organizations have as many as 40 bilingual correspondents in the United States, with an open request for six more. VOA currently has only two English-speaking journalists in Beijing. China is refusing to accredit two additional journalists on the grounds that they speak Mandarin.

Mr.Wen recently told The Washington Post that friendship and cooperation between the United States and China “will not only bring benefits to our two people but will also be conducive to peace and stability in Asia and the world at large.”

He’s right, of course, but that friendship won’t truly blossom without openness, truth and the free flow of information. And as a saying from the Tang Dynasty goes: “Listen to both sides and you will be enlightened; listen to only one side and you will be benighted.”

Edward E. Kaufman, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is a senior lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law.


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