News flows like water – even in China

Beijing leaders are looking more like King Canute, the English monarch who ordered the tide to retreat. Their attempts to ban certain types of news seem downright silly to those Chinese who now thrive on global flows of information in a buzzing economy.

The latest official move would further restrict the sale of foreign news within China. It would force financial news agencies to sell their products through the state-run New China News Agency, or Xinhua, allowing the propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party to filter what is now a $100 million financial information market in China.

In addition, any news that would endanger China's "security, reputation, and interests" would be banned. With vague terms like those, journalists in China may feel a new chill in their work.

On one level, this latest move could simply be an attempt by Xinhua to gain a big slice of the financial news market. If so, China faces a serious legal challenge as a member of the World Trade Organization for restricting trade in financial information. A similar attempt in 1996 was rebuffed with strong protests by the West.

But the action comes during an increasing crackdown on media over the past couple years, whether it is children's cartoons, news from court trials, ever-more sophisticated restrictions on the use of the Internet, or, as in recent weeks, jail sentences given to two prominent reporters working for foreign newspapers on what appeared to be trumped-up charges.

Party leaders face rising public dissent over their policies and an internal party struggle in the run-up to a party congress next fall. Any news that exposes official mistakes or one faction's weakness can only help to further undermine the party's weakening control over the country.

As a former editorial writer for the party's People's Daily, Wu Guoguang, told the Los Angeles Times, "They continue to use brutality, fear, and intimidation.... They try and show a big smile and invite people to come to China and make money. But in the area of the media, they remain intent on not relaxing their control."

Each new media control is a futile, rearguard reaction by the party to the threat of globalization and the creative inroads of new information technologies. Last year, for instance, the China Youth Daily had to quickly withdraw a reward program for reporters who praised government officials after reports of the bonuses spread on the Internet.

Not only has a rapidly growing market economy created more disgruntled groups, it's created the means for them to organize and express their grievances, either to journalists or through open protest. The Leninists in the party must still believe that century-old tactics of suppression can be beefed up to curb these modern threats to their top-down rule and information monopoly. Perhaps they can for a while, but the tide of history and the inexorable flow of news is against them. Unpleasant facts about official abuse or man-made environmental disasters cannot be hidden for long these days.

As China further opens itself to the world, such as hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, the party will find it can't turn back the tide of history that will lead to more freedom of information, not less.

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