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Thomas L. Friedman: I was wrong about Chinese censorship

FRIEDMAN COLUMN

I was wrong about Chinese censorship, Thomas Friedman writes.

Among the most important questions that I’ve wrestled with since becoming a columnist in 1995 are if, when and how fast China will open up its information ecosystem to allow a much freer flow of uncensored news — from both Chinese and foreign sources. I confess that I’ve been too optimistic. I plead guilty.

But I’m still not sure if I’m guilty of (1) just premature optimism about something that is necessary and inevitable — if China is intent on growing a high-tech economy; guilty of (2) utter naiveté about something that is highly improbable, given China’s authoritarian political structure; or guilty of (3) wishing for something for China that is necessary but impossible.

I still hope it’s 1. I fear it’s 2. And I despair if it’s 3.

To sort all this out, let’s go to the videotape.

In my travels to China back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was struck by how much freer the business press there seemed to be than the political press — an impression I drew from translated articles I read and interviews I gave to Chinese business media outlets. This was not my imagination: Back then, some of the most interesting and accurate hints about politics in China often appeared first in the Chinese business press or newspapers from regions most open for business with the world.

For instance, one of the most daring newspapers in the early 2000s was the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly, which, as Foreign Policy magazine noted, “often channeled the frequently overlooked perspectives of disadvantaged groups, such as migrants, protesters and government petitioners,” and “drew a wide readership that included government authorities and the general public.”

My hope was that as China integrated still more into the global economy, the business press would be the thin wedge that cracked open the media in general, because investors and innovators needed accurate news, not propaganda, to grow and compete globally — and because the next generation of Chinese innovators and engineers would never reach their full potential without being able to have access to a relatively free flow of information.

So I brazenly wrote in my 1999 book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” that “China’s going to have a free press. … Oh, China’s leaders don’t know it yet, but they are being pushed straight in that direction.”

The best I can say today about that observation is that I hope it was just premature!

I also wrote in my New York Times column on Nov. 21, 2009, “Advice From Grandma,” that if Beijing refused to permit a decent level of free-flowing information on the internet and in public speech — if for no other reason than to drive entrepreneurship and innovation — China would never be able to overtake the U.S. economy in dynamism in the 21st century.

As I put it, “Remember what Grandma used to say: Never cede a century to a country that censors Google.”

I also wrote about that theme in my Times column on Dec. 13, 2006, in which I argued, “Sorry, but I am not ready to cede the 21st century to China yet.” Sure, China “has been able to command an impressive effort to end illiteracy, greatly increasing its number of high school grads and new universities. But I still believe it is very hard to produce a culture of innovation in a country that censors Google — which for me is a proxy for curtailing people’s ability to imagine and try anything they want.”

China for many years seemed to be inching in the direction of my prediction. It is hard to believe now, but back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was able to lecture freely at Chinese universities, do bookstore talks in Beijing and Shanghai and even travel around Jilin province in a minibus reporting on village elections — with scant government supervision, let alone censorship.

Actually, China’s whole information sector 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 it was 10 years ago.

There has been a pronounced reversal in trajectory ever since Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 and then president in 2013. Just look at Southern Weekly. Its crusading voice was crushed by government censors and propaganda guardians in 2013, a few months after Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party.

I believe China will pay an increasing price for the loss of that kind of honest journalism — both in terms of being able to surface hidden problems and in terms of the freedom to innovate and challenge incumbents in the market with new ideas. In a world where the pace of change is accelerating, the ability to see where the world is going and quickly adapt and course-correct is vital. Xi thinks otherwise. He has not only tightened the screws on all Chinese media, but at the same time, he has also cracked down on technology innovators and even business analysts.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba, has barely been heard from 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’s like the Steve Jobs of China — practically disappear has cast a pall over the whole tech sector.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

No leader is infallible, and the fact that the Chinese press has had to treat Xi that way meant that it was impossible domestically to call for a more nuanced Chinese response to the COVID pandemic — rather than Xi’s strategy of relying solely on China’s own inferior vaccines and mass lockdowns and quarantines, which worked until they didn’t.

If China had a freer news ecosystem — in the media and on social networks — where health experts could have conducted a lively public debate about alternative strategies or residents who have been locked down for weeks could have let off steam, China might not be in the predicament it is now, with tens of millions of citizens being forced to quarantine on and off and losing trust in their government’s feel-good official propaganda.

The head of research at China’s Bank of Communications International, Hong Hao, who had 3 million followers on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, had his account suspended for making “bearish economic comments about the effects of the ongoing Shanghai lockdown, including commenting on Twitter, ‘Shanghai: zero movement, zero GDP,’” The Washington Post reported from Shenzhen.

Xi and the Chinese Communist Party are reaffirming their belief that a free press in the Western sense is not a prerequisite for effectively integrating with the global economy or dominating the most advanced industries in the 21st century.

When you look at how China has grown in just four decades from a poor country to a middle-income country with amazing infrastructure, you’d have to say that Xi is not crazy to believe that. (And when you look at how social media has divided Western societies and amplified lies and liars, you’d also have to ask whether China has not both lost something and gained something from its tighter controls.)

But when you think about how much technology China not only invented but also had to steal from the West because it could not invent it — and continues to try to steal — you’d be crazy to say that Xi’s is a sure bet.

And when you think about how the most advanced 21st-century technologies — like vaccines, software, microchips, robots, computers and biomedical breakthroughs, to name only a few — are often the product of global collaborations because no one country has all the talent and everyone needs trusted partners, you’d be crazy not to worry that Xi is making a huge mistake.

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)

Just one tiny example: The most advanced microchip foundry in the world, TSMC, is Chinese, but not Communist Chinese. It’s Taiwanese Chinese. Tiny Taiwan still can make better microchips than the giant mainland — by far. How could that be? It’s because all the biggest technology companies in the world, from Apple to Qualcomm, trust TSMC to make their chips and not steal their technology.

Trust is a byproduct of truth, and truth is a product of a free and independent press — not everywhere and always, but more often than not.

So, for all these reasons, while I plead guilty to premature optimism when it comes to China developing a more open information ecosystem, I’m going to ask the court for a suspended sentence. Let’s all wait and see how this plays out over the next decade.

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

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