Doing business with China in the 21st century requires the courage of a Marco Polo. That's because Beijing's political whims can rule as often as the official rules and laws.
The latest case in point: China's leaders want their government's English-language television channel (CCTV-9) to be broadcast in the United States in return for allowing AOL-Time-Warner Inc. and News Corp. to broadcast directly into a few million homes in southern China. The deal is in final negotiations.
It's doubtful American viewers really want to watch the speeches of Communist Party leaders and other official programs of China state television. Most viewers will likely pass, with a click. But AOL and News Corp. will need to defy such market reality in order to win approval for a toehold in China's vast media market.
Beijing has no qualms about using its market power to enlist foreign companies in spreading its propaganda and enforcing its diplomacy. On the issue of Taiwan, it often makes companies choose between recognizing the mainland's claim on the island and not doing business with China.
Should US journalistic organizations play along with Beijing's commercial coercion? No US media company would accept a dictate from Washington to distribute 24 hours of government broadcasts in return for a commercial license. Why do it with China?
Beijing's leaders do want their decisions better understood by Americans. That's a worthy effort. On many fronts, China is making progress, and the government often fumbles at getting good news out. Just the fact that China has decided to let foreign TV companies broadcast directly is a step forward (although the broadcasts may face restrictions). But why use what amounts to extortion to reach Americans?
In further adopting a free market, China also needs to adopt the principle of free speech. And that means no government control of the media.