On Thursday, the New York Times published an investigative article chronicling the dramatic increase of wealth Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s relatives have experienced during Jiabao’s tenure. Journalist David Barboza’s wrote:
Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives — some of whom, including his wife, have a knack for aggressive deal making — have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials did not welcome the news. Within hours, the Chinese government blocked access to the Times. According to the Times:
By 7 a.m. Friday in China, access to both the English- and Chinese-language Websites of The Times was blocked from all 31 cities in mainland China tested. The Times had posted the article in English at 4:34 p.m. on Thursday in New York (4:34 a.m. Friday in Beijing), and finished posting the article in Chinese three hours later after the translation of final edits to the English-language version.
This is not the first time the Chinese government has tangled with the Times, and in recent months, Chinese regulators have also targeted companies including Google and Bloomberg. China’s censorship and government control have prompted many Western companies, including Google, to move their business assets (i.e. web servers) outside of mainland China. Perhaps even scarier for most Americans, Human Rights Watch notes that Chinese government still ensures that their nation remains Facebook and Twitter-less.
Obviously, maintaining these Human Rights and Free Expression restrictions does not bode well for the nation’s long-term success. (In fairness, China has made some progress by recently passing their first mental health law.)
However, this issue also directly affects international business relations. In addition to trade regulations, investment policies, etc., the Chinese government’s restrictive policies on expression pose challenges for foreign companies and investors. As Western businesses, such as the New York Times, continue to explore the Chinese market, they risk damaging the integrity of their brand in exchange for access to a very large/emerging population.
For the most part, western media outlets have not succumbed to Chinese pressure and have, in my opinion, adopted a long-term strategy that hinges, at least in part, on expanding Chinese freedoms.
This struggle has not only been seen with the Times, Google, and Bloomberg, but also with corporations such as Apple, Microsoft, Time Warner, and the Walt Disney Company. For instance, media companies such as Disney finds themselves working to end piracy while attempting to introduce their characters/products to the Chinese market.
I believe, or at least hope, that Western business advancements in China will ultimately help provide Chinese citizens with greater freedoms and more transparency. As always, the greatest champion of expanding free expression and personal liberty is access to information.