WASHINGTON – From the moment we land in China, Americans must adjust to an aggressively censored version of the Internet, sanitized of the United States’ most iconic brands. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are blocked. Google is partially blocked and sometimes runs through a ringer of digital interference that makes it painfully slow. The New York Times and Bloomberg News are off-limits, while The Wall Street Journal and other U.S. news sites endure targeted blockages of stories deemed sensitive.
This censorship is not just an inconvenience but also a reminder that many leading U.S. media and technology companies are excluded, or largely excluded, from one of the world’s largest markets and this country’s largest trading partner.
The U.S. should act forcefully to make this media freedom issue also about trade.
The international community missed an opportunity when China was allowed to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 while refusing to sign the media portion of the membership agreement.
But China’s website-blocking appears inconsistent with its broader free-trade commitments under the WTO and related agreements, including the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). As the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs has noted, GATT Article III stipulates that countries should apply “no less favorable” treatment to goods or services imported from other member countries. China’s arbitrary blockage of U.S. websites would seem to violate this: The New York Times and Bloomberg are blocked while other U.S. and international news sites are not. Similarly, Facebook and Twitter are shut down, while Chinese social media sites, such as Renren, are allowed to operate with censoring.
China’s blockages are either punitive or a matter of policy, or both. YouTube has been blocked since 2009 after a video was posted showing Chinese security forces beating Tibetans; Twitter and Facebook since the Chinese government nervously witnessed the role of social media in the Arab Spring; Google since 2010, after the company stopped censoring searches on its own. Bloomberg and the Times were restricted after publishing stories documenting the immense wealth of the relatives of China’s senior leaders.
China’s methods are sometimes more disturbing. American journalists covering sensitive topics have received messages containing threats to their safety. China has delayed or refused visas to many U.S. journalists, feeding suspicions that the approval process has become a form of blackmail. Meanwhile, the U.S. has granted and continues to grant visas to nearly 700 Chinese journalists to report in the U.S., most of whom work for Chinese state media.
U.S. officials have repeatedly raised these issues with their Chinese counterparts, so far with few results. The time has come to exact a price for unfair behavior.
First, Washington should raise this as a violation of China’s trade commitments. Beijing has denied The New York Times and Bloomberg millions of dollars in revenue. Meanwhile, Chinese media — including the state-run China Daily, which is available on street corners across Washington — face no trade barriers in the United States. The effect on U.S. technology companies is even broader. By interfering with Google, for example, the government has helped funnel most of China’s 600 million Internet users to a homegrown search engine, Baidu.
Second, the U.S. can execute a more reciprocal visa policy. Denying visas to Chinese journalists would undermine the U.S. commitment to a free press. The State Department could, however, make it more difficult for executives of Chinese state media to obtain visas for travel not related to news-gathering.
Finally, the U.S. should name and shame the government ministries responsible, much as it has done with Chinese cyberattacks. U.S. media outlets have been reluctant to discuss China’s abusive tactics for fear of tempting a more aggressive crackdown. Washington can and should assume the burden.
As many diplomats have concluded, the U.S. must deal with the China that is, not the China it wants. And today China has no free press or Internet. Yet while American journalists are subject to Chinese laws, they have broken none in reporting the stories cited above. They are simply doing their jobs. Their employers are implicitly being asked to soften their China coverage or pay a price. To their credit, they have refused to be cowed.
A Google executive explained to me once that China is building its own massive intranet rather than open itself to the challenges of a vast and free Internet. Other countries similarly committed to stifling public discussion, including Russia, are following China’s lead.
The health and wealth of leading U.S. media companies in one of the world’s largest markets are a matter of national interest, not simply of China’s “internal affairs.”
Americans should ask: Where will our premier media companies be in two, five or 10 years if they are shut out of China? And how will this affect our commitment to the free flow of ideas globally? U.S. core interests are at stake. We have every right to defend them, even in China.
Jim Sciutto was chief of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 2011 to 2013. Before that, he was senior foreign correspondent for ABC News.