Zhu Rongji Urges Watchdog Role for China’s Press Recent Crackdown on Journalists Sends More Ominous Message

“When Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited the United States in April on a nine-day, six-city tour designed to cultivate support for China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), he was so media-friendly that he deflected serious attention from his country’s abysmal press freedom record.

He started his public relations campaign almost as soon as he hit the tarmac in Los Angeles, jumping a security line to shake hands with journalists. Though the prime minister’s accessibility may have disarmed reporters covering his visit, a careful comparison of Zhu’s pronouncements on the press and Beijing’s practices highlight the contradictions in the Chinese government’s approach to reform.

Zhu’s friendly gestures toward the press began at home. About six months before his U.S. visit, he made a radical break with Communist Party protocol when he exhorted the Chinese media to act as the “vanguard of reform; a mouthpiece of the masses; a mirror and watchdog of the government, and supervisor of government through public opinion.” Famously intolerant of corruption, the prime minister enlisted the ranks of the press to help expose wrongdoing. Despite Zhu’s rhetoric, the administration over which he presides has recently ratcheted up its repression of journalists and pro-democracy activists. In this year crowded with sensitive political anniversaries-including the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the People’s Republic-skittish Beijing officials have moved to control public expressions of dissent, closing down newspapers and magazines perceived as being overly critical of the regime.

Chinese writers and editors must interpret these contradictory signals with extreme caution: As of April, at least 10 of their colleagues were in prison for journalism-related offenses.

Zhu’s exhortations to his country’s journalists to play a role in the economic reform he seeks to effect are at odds with the Chinese Communist Party leaders’ view that Beijing’s domestic policies are irrelevant to matters of international trade and relations. China enforces its laws criminalizing the reporting of financial data, despite the fact that members of the WTO-the club that Zhu is so anxious to join-regard transparency in financial dealings as absolutely essential to sustaining free and robust markets.

The economic consequences of restricting the flow of information were dramatically underscored by the Asian financial freefall. In the stunned aftermath of the economic collapse, there has been a growing consensus that catastrophe could have been averted if people had had access to information about the numerous inefficiencies, bad decisions, and corrupt dealings that belied the “Asian miracle.” In September 1997, as many of Asia’s economies were beginning their downward spiral, the Committee to Protect Journalists held a conference in Hong Kong titled “Freedom of Information and Global Financial Markets,” in conjunction with World Bank-International Monetary Fund meetings. What emerged from that discussion, as U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said in his remarks to the gathering, was the understanding that “Information is at the center of what makes financial markets work.”

Zhu demonstrated his recognition of the value of independent journalism when he suggested the press could serve the Chinese public. But as long as China’s journalists remain vulnerable to charges that their work threatens the country’s stability, and their government equates frank criticism with endangering national security, there is no room for them to fulfill the role the prime minister has rightly urged them to play.