Reviews | Thomas Friedman: I was wrong about Chinese censorship
One of the most important questions I have asked myself since becoming a columnist in 1995 is whether, when, and how quickly China will open up its news ecosystem to allow a much freer flow of information not censored – from Chinese and foreign sources. I confess that I was too optimistic. I plead guilty.
But I still don’t know if I’m guilty of (1) premature optimism about something that is necessary and inevitable – whether China intends to develop a high-tech economy; guilty of (2) utter naivety about something that is highly unlikely given China’s authoritarian political structure; or guilty of (3) wishing something for China that is necessary but impossible.
I still hope it’s 1. I’m afraid it’s 2. And I despair if it’s 3.
To sort it all out, let’s go to the video tape.
On my travels to China in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was struck by how freer the business press there seemed to be than the political press – an impression I picked up from the translated articles that I have read and interviews I have given to Chinese business media. . It was not my imagination: at the time, some of the most interesting and accurate clues about politics in China often appeared first in the Chinese business press or in the newspapers of the regions most open to business with the world.
For example, one of the boldest newspapers of the early 2000s was the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly, which, as Foreign Policy magazine noted, “often channeled often overlooked perspectives from disadvantaged groups, such as migrants, protesters and government petitioners” and “attracted a broad readership that included government officials and the general public.”
I was hoping that as China became more integrated into the global economy, the business press would be the thin corner that opened up the mainstream media, because investors and innovators needed accurate information , not propaganda, to grow and compete globally – and because the next generation of Chinese innovators and engineers would never reach their full potential without access to a relatively free.
So I brazenly wrote in my 1999 book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” that “China is going to have a free press. … Oh, the Chinese leadership doesn’t know it yet, but they’re being pushed straight in that direction.
The best I can say today about this sighting is that I hope it was just premature!
I also wrote in my Times column of November 21, 2009, “Grandma’s Advice,” that if Beijing refused to allow a decent level of information to flow freely on the Internet and in public discourse – even than to drive entrepreneurship and innovation – China could never surpass the US economy in terms of dynamism in the 21st century.
As I said, “Remember what Grandma used to say: Never give up a century to a country that censors Google.”
I continued to double down on this theme in my December 13, 2006 Times column, in which I said, “Sorry, but I’m not ready to hand over the 21st century to China just yet. Of course, China “has been able to command an impressive effort to end illiteracy, greatly increasing its number of high school graduates and new universities. But I still believe that it is very difficult to produce a culture of innovation in a country that censors Google – which to me is an indicator of people’s diminished ability to imagine and try anything they want.
For many years, China seemed to be moving in the direction of my prediction. It’s hard to believe now, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was able to freely lecture at Chinese universities, lecture at bookstores in Beijing and Shanghai, and even travel around the province from Jilin in a minibus to report on village elections – with little government. surveillance, not to mention censorship.
In fact, the whole news industry in China is much more open today than it was 32 years ago when I started visiting. The problem is that it’s also now so much more closed than 10 years ago.
There has been a pronounced reversal of course since Xi Jinping became leader of the Communist Party of China in 2012 and then president in 2013. Just look at Southern Weekly. His crusading voice was crushed by government censors and propaganda gatekeepers in 2013, months after Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party.
I think China will pay an increasing price for the loss of this kind of honest journalism – both in terms of the ability to reveal hidden issues and in terms of the freedom to innovate and challenge incumbents in the market with news. ideas. In a world where the pace of change is accelerating, the ability to see where the world is going and to quickly adapt and correct its course is vital. Xi thinks otherwise. He not only tightened the screws on all Chinese media, but, at the same time, he also cracked down on tech innovators and even business analysts.
Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba, has barely heard since criticizing government financial regulators in October 2020. While those regulators may have had legitimate concerns about Alibaba’s shadow banking system , making Ma – who is like China’s Steve Jobs – all but disappear has cast a veil over the entire tech industry.
No leader is infallible, and the fact that the Chinese press had to treat Xi this way meant that it was impossible at the national level to call for a more nuanced Chinese response to the Covid pandemic – rather than the strategy of Xi of relying only on China’s own inferior vaccines and mass lockdowns and quarantines, which worked until they no longer worked.
If China had a freer information ecosystem – in the media and on social media – where health experts could have led a lively public debate on alternative strategies or residents locked up for weeks could have let off steam, China might not be in on it. the current situation is difficult, with tens of millions of citizens forced to self-quarantine from time to time and losing faith in their government’s official welfare propaganda.
Head of research at China’s Bank of Communications International, Hong Hao, who had three million followers on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, had his account suspended for making “bearish economic comments on the effects of the ongoing lockdown in Shanghai, including Twitter comments, ‘Shanghai: Zero Movement, Zero GDP’,” the Washington Post reported from Shenzhen.
Xi and the Chinese Communist Party reaffirm their belief that a free press in the Western sense is not a prerequisite for integrating effectively into the global economy or dominating the most advanced industries in the 21st century.
When we look at how China has gone in just four decades from a poor country to a middle-income country with incredible infrastructure, it must be said that Xi is not crazy to believe this. (And when you look at how social media has divided Western societies and amplified lies and liars, you should also wonder if China hasn’t both lost something and gained something from its tighter controls. )
But when you think about the amount of technology that China not only invented, but also had to steal from the West because they couldn’t invent it – and keep trying to steal – you’d be crazy to say that Xi is making a safe bet.
And when you think about how the most advanced technologies of the 21st century, such as vaccines, software, microchips, robots, computers and biomedical breakthroughs, to name a few, are often the product of global collaborations, because no country has all the talent and everyone needs trusted partners, you’d be crazy not to worry that Xi was making a huge mistake.
Just a small example: the world’s most advanced microchip foundry, TSMC, is Chinese, but not Communist Chinese. It’s Taiwanese Chinese. Little Taiwan can still make better microchips than the giant mainland – by far. How could that be? That’s because all of the world’s biggest tech companies, from Apple to Qualcomm, trust TSMC to make their chips, not steal their tech.
Trust is a byproduct of truth, and truth is the product of a free and independent press – not everywhere and always, but most often.
So for all of these reasons, as I plead guilty to premature optimism about China’s development of a more open news ecosystem, I’m going to ask the court to a suspended sentence. Let’s all wait to see how it plays out over the next decade.
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