- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

In recent years, China’s struggle to keep its authoritarian control of information has met a formidable challenger in an increasingly bold online culture that Beijing has found difficult to restrain. China has responded forcefully, censoring Internet content and requiring U.S. companies, including Google and Microsoft, to assist as a precondition to access to China’s vast internet market. During this time, the traditional media have become more daring as well. To counteract this trend, the Chinese Communist Party is turning to its propaganda arm cum news agency, Xinhua.

Beijing recently extended the suppression of information to once-unrestricted financial news by requiring foreign newswires to send reports through the government press agency. The practice isn’t new: The state-run Xinhua news agency distributes reports from foreign newswires to all news outlets in the country, giving the Chinese agency control over what stories were and were not allowed to be distributed. Officials in China have tried to cast this censorship in terms of organization. By also subjecting the financial news to the Xinhua filter, China looks to prevail on two fronts: greater state control of information and a larger piece of the foreign news agencies’ $100 million in revenue.

This is not the only example of backsliding in Chinese transparency. At the end of August, a Chinese court dropped the charge of disclosing state secrets in the trial of New York Times researcher and journalist Zhao Yan. But after the furtive trial — itself almost a parody of justice — the court found Mr. Zhao guilty of fraud and sentenced him to three years imprisonment — that is, three additional years; Mr. Zhao spent two years in jail awaiting trial. The Chinese court system is opaque by design; verdicts, along with many specifics of the trial, are secret. But in many cases, including Mr. Zhao’s, reporters have been able to penetrate the court’s secrecy. If Communist Party officials had their way, this would no longer be possible. The Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest judicial body, announced this week new constraints, which mostly reiterate prior restrictions, to limit media coverage of trials to official information distributed through a court spokesman.

China may see profit in its control of financial news, but it also taking a twofold gamble. First, there is the risk that foreign investors will become more hesitant in their business in China when financial information from Bloomberg, Dow Jones and Reuters is replaced by censored reports from Xinhua. The Chinese Communist Party has developed a reliance on solid economic growth, accompanied by an improved standard of living and minor economic liberalization, to deflect challenges to its authoritarian control. The Communist leadership frequently shifted to a less authoritarian standard to entice foreign investment, but not in this case.

Second, U.S. officials have suggested that this restriction may violate the commitments that China made when it joined the World Trade Organization five years ago. The United States Trade Representative’s office should look seriously at bringing a WTO case against China if indeed it is in violation of its commitments. China’s suppression of information should be thoroughly exposed to the eye of international scrutiny.

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