What Bush Should Ask for in Beijing

By Sasha Gong, a scholar, writer and journalist (THE WASHINGTON POST, 04/08/08):

I was one of five “Chinese freedom activists” — as the White House press release called us — who met with President Bush last week as he prepared to depart for the Olympics in Beijing. I did not tell him not to go. I did not tell him to poke the Chinese government in the eye by meeting with dissidents. What I did tell him was that he ought to use this opportunity to push for an agreement with the Chinese on the free exchange of information.

I was a political dissident in China for many years and suffered the consequences, including a year in jail. But after living in America for more than two decades, I have made it my mission to educate the Chinese public about my adopted country, its people, its values, and its political and social institutions. I do this through my writing, some of which is published in China. I also do it through my Chinese-language blog, which has had 1.3 million hits since I started it last year.

In that spirit, I gave the president a suggestion: How about proposing a free information exchange agreement with China? The Chinese government is already educating the American public about China, without much reciprocity. Why shouldn’t our own government-sponsored programs be able to tell the Chinese audience about the United States without censorship? Fair is fair.

In fact, the Chinese have been operating freely in the United States for some time. Want to watch China’s Central TV station in Chinese or English? Just subscribe to cable TV. Not enough for you? Dozens of Chinese channels are available by satellite. Want to read a Chinese newspaper? Buy a subscription. Chinese Web sites are free and are always available. China has developed plenty of ways, backed by massive government funding, to explain itself to U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, there is no reciprocity. Broadcasting into China by the Voice of America is often jammed, and its Web site is frequently blocked. And the impact of other U.S. government-sponsored programs is negligible.

The lack of good information has created an image problem for the United States with the Chinese people. State-sanctioned media provide them with a steady stream of negative information. A decline in belief in socialism and a rise in materialism have led to a crisis of values in China, and the government’s solution has been to stoke the coals of ultranationalism and xenophobia. Those too young to have experienced the horror of the Mao years are especially susceptible. Earlier this year, the world had a glimpse of the depth of their resentment when young people across China launched large demonstrations against the West because of its sympathy for Tibetan monks and Chinese dissidents.

If extreme xenophobic sentiments from a group of Chinese youths don’t look like a clear and present danger to America, think of what similar sentiments motivated a group of young Arab men to do on Sept. 11, 2001.

After World War II, the United States developed a forward-looking plan to promote understanding of its values around the world and to protect its national security. Programs of the U.S. Information Agency influenced millions of minds. In 1971, when I was 15, I first heard the Voice of America on a crystal radio set made by my brother. At that time, listening to “enemy radio” was an offense punishable by imprisonment, but I did it anyway. If anyone wonders why people in nations once behind the Iron Curtain remain largely pro-American, I can testify that VOA was a major factor.

Today’s “crystal sets” — Internet, cable, cellphones — are far more powerful and create the illusion of a free flow of information. Chinese citizens surf millions of Web sites, and millions of Chinese “netizens” write blogs every day. Yet, the mechanisms of government censorship have advanced with equal sophistication. I learned this firsthand when an article I posted on my blog about stem-cell research was blocked in China. The problem, I learned, was a comment made by someone I interviewed about the Republicans in this country acting like a “one-party dictatorship” — words that ran afoul of China’s automatic censors. Apparently, you don’t even have to criticize the Chinese government to be blocked; criticizing the GOP will do just as well if you use certain words to do it.

When I told the president that my writings about America have attracted millions of Chinese readers, he responded, “If you have millions of readers, what are you complaining for?”

“I am complaining that I am a one-man band,” I replied.

The Chinese government is not about to throw open its media market, even though it agreed to do so as a condition of membership in the World Trade Organization. But incremental progress can be made. President Bush can use the opportunity presented by the Olympics to push for a foothold for our programs in China. And I told him so.