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APEC: Does what happens in China remain in China?

by Curtis S. Chin

Well, at least China — to our knowledge — does not kill its journalists, or at least its foreign media. Imprisonment or expulsion: that’s another issue.

From the forced departure of U.S. journalist Austin Ramzy from China in January, ostensibly for visa reasons — but perhaps more as a pointed signal to others who report too freely on issues such as corruption — to the continued Chinese imprisonment, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, of more than 30 local reporters, editors and bloggers, the year is shaping up already as a year of living dangerously for media in Asia.

In early February, local journalist Suon Chan was killed in Cambodia after having reported on illegal fishing activities near his village. Another longtime foreign journalist has gone missing. And in the Philippines, justice has yet to be fully served in the more than 70 cases of murdered journalists since 1992, including that of my friend, radio commentator Jerry Ortega.

China, however, as host of the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum this year, has the opportunity to show the region, and the world, how much it has changed, on much more than economic fronts, since APEC last came to China. That APEC meeting, in Shanghai in October 2001, in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, was described as “the biggest international gathering on Chinese soil in modern history.”

As China’s economy matures and slows, it is time for China to move toward stronger checks and balances that help make a stable, resilient economic system. This would include moves toward an independent judiciary and a freer, if not yet free, media. In bringing greater accountability and transparency, such moves would be to the long-term benefit of business, Chinese and otherwise, and to the Chinese people.

Here, the APEC Secretariat in Singapore, and diplomats and business leaders from the 21-member economies that comprise APEC, can play an encouraging role.

With international bodies, from the Asian Development Bank to the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, often hard-pressed to show results to their members and financial supporters, here is one area where short-term impact can be clearly defined.

This also would be in line with the broader APEC goal of facilitating economic growth, cooperation, trade and investment among the Pacific Rim nations. An initial step would include urging host China to welcome robust coverage of all senior officials meeting and related meetings of APEC. The first are taking place from Feb. 15 to 28 in Ningbo, China.

Just days before the APEC summit — or, more formally, the economic leaders meeting — opened in Shanghai in 2001, China lifted Internet blocks on a range of foreign news organizations, including Reuters, CNN and the BBC.

Without any public announcement, Internet sites of news organizations that had been permanently blocked were suddenly accessible, according to Reuters, as some 3,000 foreign media were due at the meeting and China sought to convey a message of openness to the world.

Such a change may well come again this November, as APEC comes to Beijing. But well before then, China could show the world a more confident, more open side. At an Asia Society panel that I moderated recently on APEC 2014, an audience member posed a question about media access, including social media coverage of the proceedings in China.

The U.S. senior official for APEC on the panel made clear that China, as host, makes all final decisions regarding media access.

Indeed, that is understandable. But what happens in China, it seems, will increasingly stay in China, if some authorities have there way with media controls and censorship worsens. That is neither the sign of a modern economy nor of a confident stakeholder in and contributor to a more peaceful and prosperous region.

White House spokesperson Jay Carney has said the U.S. is “very disappointed” over the departure of American journalist Ramzy from China and remains concerned that several other members of the U.S. media have waited months for official decisions on press credentials and visas. It is unclear though if China is listening.

The reality is that even in the United States, press freedom has eroded tremendously as the Obama administration has increased focus on cracking down on whistleblowers, according to a new report from Reporters Without Borders.

China has much to showcase and much of which to be proud. The nation has led the world in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, as freer, if not yet free, enterprise has replaced quotas and state mandates since the early reforms of the 1980s.

Clearly much work still needs to be done in improving the bureaucracy, enforcing fair regulatory regimes, reducing government intervention and ending corruption.

A freer media can help ensure this happens. Keeping journalists locked out or locked in should no longer be business as usual anywhere in Asia, or the United States for that matter. Let’s hope APEC can help make that happen in China.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is currently the managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin