This Latest Chinese Censorship News Is Important, and Bad

By James Fallows

I've written many times over the years, and still believe, that the news out of China is more good than bad. (For details: here, here, and here by me, plus this nice photo feature yesterday from Matt Schiavenza.) But the bad news is real, and needs to be reported -- and shakiness on this point is what has gotten the Bloomberg organization into what appears to be big trouble. 

If the front page story today in the NYT is right, Bloomberg has made a craven decision that calls its larger credibility into question. According to the Times article, Bloomberg managers in New York decided to squash stories by their (aggressive) China-based reporters for fear of angering the Chinese government. The less-damaging rationale for this decision is Bloomberg's concern that its reporters might be kicked out of China. The more-damaging suspicion is that the company was worried that it would lose subscribers in China for its cash-cow Bloomberg financial terminals. You can see the whole thing dramatized by our friends from NMA in Taiwan, above.

The Democracy Report

Maybe this NYT story is off -- though in the 24 hours since it's appeared there has been no substantive response from Bloomberg (other than "it's not so"), and the NYT account from Beijing is by the reputable Edward Wong (whom I know and trust). But at face value this is a really depressing illustration of a "news" organization knuckling under in the face of economic pressure. That's how Bloomberg's China reporters must feel as well: otherwise how would this case ever have gotten out? A nice way for Bloomberg to counter these suspicions would be to run the controversial stories in question -- as it has done in the past with strong China stories.

Meanwhile, let's not lose sight of the larger point: Bloomberg is (apparently) wrong for acquiescing, but the real problem is obviously with the parts of the Chinese government that are afraid of what domestic and international reporters would say. Which brings us to the day's second bit of downbeat news: the Chinese government's refusal to renew a visa for Paul Mooney,  a well-respected reporter who has spent his career covering Asia. Apparently the government didn't like his tone about Tibet. This is part of a much more widespread pattern of making it hard for international journalists to get into China.

This is not the way a confident, big-time government behaves. *

The irony -- and foolishness -- of this policy is that the best possible PR campaign Chinese officials could undertake would be to let reporters roam freely in their country, and report the more-good-than-bad general outlook. It is a much more appealing place, on balance, than you would assume based on its defensive governmental-agitprop crouch.

The main ongoing discussion about China, on which I made my best case in China Airborne, concerns when and whether the system as a whole will catch up with the amazing industrial / infrastructure / anti-poverty achievements of the past 30 years. Catching up would involve a more open and less corrupt higher education system; a more transparent and accountable government at all levels; a freer press; a less-censored Internet; much more protection for the environment and public health; and the related civil-society attributes that today's rich societies, despite their differences, share. 

The discussion will continue, with steps forward and back. The hope for the Xi Jinping era, now nearing the end of its first year, has been that he and his colleagues understood the need for big, clear steps in the liberalizing direction. I still hope that can be so, but the latest news is discouraging.

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* Before you ask: the surveillance-state excesses of modern America are also not the way a confident or big-time government behaves.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/this-latest-chinese-censorship-news-is-important-and-bad/281319/