Media censorship a trade violation

By Frank Ching

The United States and China are negotiating a bilateral investment treaty. Economic issues come up regularly in the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue. However, while car tires and chicken meat get the attention of American trade officials, certain Chinese actions with dire consequences for a particular sector in the United States somehow don’t seem to get discussed as economic issues. On June 29 last year, Bloomberg News reported that relatives of Xi Jinping, now China’s president, controlled assets valued at more than US$500 million. The Bloomberg article made it clear that no assets were traced to Xi himself, his wife or their daughter and said there was “no indication Xi intervened to advance his relatives’ business transactions, or of any wrongdoing by Xi or his extended family.” That same day, Bloomberg’s websites in China were blocked, denying access to Web content and also to advertising revenue.

A few months later, on Oct. 25, The New York Times published an article about then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, whose relatives “controlled assets worth at least US$2.7 billion.” English and Chinese-language websites of the paper were immediately blocked. The Bloomberg and Times websites remain blocked today. This, of course, is an example of China’s lack of press freedom. But it is also a direct economic blow to the ability of these media companies to derive income from their business. Chinese financial institutions have reportedly been told by officials not to buy Bloomberg’s terminals. As for The Times, its Chinese-language website, launched in June 2012 to target “educated, affluent global citizens” in China, was strangled in the cradle. Moreover, neither news organization has received residency visas from China for new journalists. The Times reported last week that Bloomberg News was curbing “articles that might anger China” and that “Bloomberg’s operations in China have suffered” since its article about the Xi family and “sales of its financial terminals to state enterprises have slowed.” The article acknowledged that other news organizations, including The Times, “have come under similar pressure.”