Today in Beijing Vice President Biden issued a strong and candid defense of a free press. In his speech to US business executives he said, "innovation will thrive where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences." He went on, saying that "We have many disagreements, some profound disagreements on some of those issues right now - the treatment of U.S. journalists."
Of course, he is referring to the difficulty of reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg getting accredited, as well as the daily hassles foreign reporters face in China. Their treatment truly is unreasonable and self-defeating, as reports on these problems generate further negative stories on China. More importantly, if journalists had greater access to all of China, official and unofficial, there would be more positive stories out of China. If China thinks it can force foreign media to simply report on China through their officially approved framework, then it is mistaken, and every day it is losing the battle for the minds and hearts of Western audiences. (I think their efforts at ideological control also have a corrosive effect on Chinese people's view of their own government as well.)
Seen in that light, I applaud the Vice President for sticking up for foreign correspondents, which was the centerpiece of an excellent post today by Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations.
At the same time, Biden's comments lose some of their power as a result of his own government's efforts to constrain the media. The White House itself has gone to great lengths to shape coverage of the President, including limiting press conferences and increasing the use of the White House's own staff photographer and keeping out press photographers from certain occasions. Even more important are the revelations from Edward Snowden that are emerging through the New York Times and Washington Post. The USG has put a great deal of pressure on these organizations and their reporters and has taken the position that everything being released and reported should not be. The British government has taken an even more hostile tact in dealing with the Guardian. Just as important, the activities of the NSA and the complicity, in part intentional, of Amerian hi-tech companies, is giving greater impetus to the end of the borderless Internet. Countries and companies are doing more to take as much control as possible of their telecommunications networks, and this inevitably will reduce the free flow of information.
In short, the US government itself has taken steps, particulalry in the wake of 9/11, to exert control over the media and communications networks that has the effect of chilling investigative coverage and open discussion of issues that may expose the US government to embarrassment and uncover wrong-doing. (For a deeper discussion of the weaknesses of the American media, see the superb exchange from late October in the New York Times between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald.)
None of this is meant to reflect an equivalence of China's hard-fisted and explicit media crackdown and the more nuanced and less overt efforts at manipulation and ubiquitous surveillance by the US government. The Western press is still far freer than the Chinese media, even liberal elements such as Caixin Media and Sina Weibo. However, it wouldn't surprise me if in light of what the US does, Chinese would see Vice President Biden's comments as hypocritical and self-serving. They may conclude that the US likes a free press when it hightlights the deficiences of other governments, but as soon as it turns its gaze on "core US national interests," that commitment may be less firm. The Vice President would be on firmer ground vis-a-vis the Chinese if the First Amendment was better protected at home. And Americans would be better off as well.
Biden's approach reflects a broader "bipolar disorder" in how Americans typically engage China. (I'm, of course, only using this term metaphorically.) When we are discussing and debating issues domestically amongst each other, we recognize that there are lots of problems with existing policies and laws. This not only applies to the media, but, speaking from my admittedly liberal perspective, to the decline of privacy in general, our expensive health care system that leaves many without access, the growing gap between rich and poor, extensive corruption in Washington and state capitals, our decrepid physical infrastructure, the prevlance of guns that annually results in thousands of deaths and injuries, a weakly regulated financial system that favors big banks over small investors and consumers, a patent and copyright system that also favors large companies over consumers, continued racism, gridlock in Washington, and an education system that is generating declining abilities in math, science and other subjects. But when the Vice President and other officials go to China -- or meet them anywhere -- we tend to suppress and ignore these problems (or say they're irrelevant to the issue at hand), and tell the Chinese that the US stands for important principles such as the free market, a level playing field, human rights, and not using coercive force against peaceful countries, and therefore, China should yield on specific demands the US makes.
Not only should we expect that China give more access to foreign correspondents, not to mention their own journalists, the US needs to be less "bipolar" and not pretend that the problems we have do not exist when we are talking and negotiating with others. Some may worry that doing so would feed the Chinese propaganda machine that the US is a terrible place and declining country. But I think doing so would have a more positive effect on America's image in China and make American negotiators more effective, not less. We would also gain greater control over contextualizing these problems and take that power away from China's propagandists. We should feel comfortable being open about our problems because the US has so many amazing strengths that we and the Chinese can admire, and we have a system that can be quite good at addressing these weaknesses.
So I encourage Biden and other US officials to not only tell it like it is -- and should be -- in China, but to not ignore how it is in the US as well. We'll be a better country and have a more effective foreign policy by doing so.