China and The New York Times
Jude Wanniski
August 21, 2001


Memo To: Lu Shumin, PRC Foreign Ministry, Beijing
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Advice to President Jiang Zemin

The one thing that surprised me the most in the NYTimes story on their interview with President Jiang Zemin is that your government is blocking the NYT website on the Internet. It also seemed to have surprised President Jiang, who was quoted as saying he thought the Times is a very good newspaper. It may or may not occur to you, but I think your government should lift the block as soon as possible, preferably before President George W. Bush visits Beijing this fall. Of course, I can see how some of your bureaucrats, who would like to control the information flow to the 1.2 billion citizens of China, get the idea of blocking the Times. But it is the most important newspaper in the most important country of the world, and it is a distinct disadvantage to your business and political leaders if they can’t access the Times. Yes, they can buy the paper in the hotels and airports, but there is so much news about China itself in the Times that should be available to the broad population that it is like cutting off your nose to spite your face, to quote an old American saying.

This morning, for example, I read on the front page of the Times that there is a terrible problem in your country with the spread of disease through medical syringes that have not been properly sterilized. Your officials might be embarrassed to have this story read on the front page of the Times, because it suggests “backwardness.” But if there is no domestic press that has the freedom to spread reports of such poor medical practice, the problem will persist much longer than is necessary. We had this conversation before, Shumin, when you were attached to your embassy in Washington, remember? I explained that one of the most important reasons the United States is the only remaining Superpower on earth is the First Amendment of our Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press. It is like a family, where there is a great deal of communication between husband and wife and parents and children. They solve problems more quickly and are more unified when facing common difficulties, even though they might get noisy at times.

In his Times interview, your president explained that a democratic political system of the kind we have, or a parliamentary system of the kind that prevails elsewhere, is unsuitable to China. Now I can understand how disruptive it would be to throw out your mandarinate system for direct elections of the top leadership, when there has been no tradition or culture to support that kind of system. But there is no reason why you should not be able to experiment around the edges with greater information freedoms. The fact that your top leaders are opening themselves to more free-wheeling press conferences and submitting to questions posed by the Times, whether verbal or written, is the best way to get political differences with our government out into the open where they can be discussed and resolved. It would be very hard for Americans to read the Jiang interview and not come away thinking positive thoughts about him, even though our right-wing press insists on calling him “the Butcher of Beijing.” Yes, there are still Americans who do not really want to have better relations with Beijing, or at least who see no point at all in engaging you unless you follow their dictates to the letter.

You will also remember that I was an associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, whose Internet site I assume also is blocked in Beijing. I’d lift that block too, given the fact that it is the most important financial newspaper in the world. But if there is to be only one newspaper website that is open to your broad population from the United States, I still would recommend the Times. By its nature, it puts political and social news ahead of economics and finance, which is why I read in the Times about the problem of communicable disease in China via dirty needles, not in the Journal. As the director of Pacific/North American Relations in your Foreign Ministry, you are in a good position to know how this initiative might benefit both your country and its relationship with ours. Please pass this memo on to your president.