China’s desperate desire to keep its people in the dark

The Washington Post, 22 August 2017

Editorial Board – The Cambridge University Press has rightly abandoned its plan to censor the prestigious China Quarterly journal at the behest of the Chinese authorities. It was indefensible for the journal to remove some 300 sensitive articles and book reviews from its website for a Chinese audience, and it realized the error quickly. But the Chinese request will probably not be the last.

The state-run Global Times newspaper asserted that “Western institutions have the freedom to choose” whether they want to do business in China. “If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us. If they think China’s Internet market is so important that they can’t miss out, they need to respect Chinese law and adapt to the Chinese way.” This will sound familiar to U.S. companies that have been instructed that they must obey Chinese cybersecurity laws that could be used for repression, under threat of criminal penalty, and have complied. Cambridge also acted with an eye on the market; the press has enjoyed double-digit year-on-year growth in China for the past five years, and its most popular title, an English-language course book, sold more than 3 million copies over the past eight years, according to the Financial Times.

For years, an argument has been made that engagement with China would change China, that contact with the West would influence China toward openness, rule of law and democracy. We have often agreed with this notion, and we still think engagement beats isolation. But the presidency of Xi Jinping is making it harder to defend this proposition. China is actively resisting Western influences and pushing back on digital battlefields. The “China way” means that a paternalistic state, run by a party with a monopoly on power, will decide what people can know and what they can say. Mr. Xi has been making this plain for some years now, as was the case with the detained Hong Kong booksellers, or the crackdown on professors who don’t toe the line, or the roundup over the past two years of human rights lawyers, or the visit Mr. Xi made to leading Chinese news outlets in 2016 to insist that they must serve the Communist Party with absolute loyalty and must “have the party as their family name.”