China's latest crackdown

Gagging press: Beijing intends the worst, but it just won't work if country opens up.

January 16, 2000

IF ONLY to rub it in, China announced it is punishing 27 newspapers for violating press regulations last year.

The alleged misdeeds ranged from invented stories to sensationalism to unauthorized supplements to -- so-called -- political errors. The punishments ranged up to permanent closure.

That was not unexpected. The government said in November it would close some smaller papers, perhaps 200.

China is a Communist dictatorship that has always managed the press.

It had done so with a lighter hand lately, as personal tastes and freedoms have come into fashion. It now regrets that lenience.

In fact, smaller local newspapers featuring crime and entertainment -- some quite unreliable -- have taken circulation away from the officially sanctioned giants. That is what this is about.

The crackdown is saddening but unsurprising. It comes when China has been curtailing religion, especially such imports as Christianity and Islam. It follows the paranoid suppression of a seemingly harmless exercise and meditation movement called Falun Gong.

It's as if Beijing were trying to justify the effort of the Clinton administration, begun this week, to have China censured by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Beijing-Washington relations, after a thaw, might seem to be freezing again. But hold on. The Clinton administration's zeal on human rights comes one day after President Clinton announced a full-court press to persuade Congress to approve China's accession to the World Trade Organization and permanent normal trading relations.

The Clinton administration is decoupling trade issues from human rights, not ignoring human rights. That makes sense. Trade, in the long run, is subversive.

Isolating China would help its suppression of the press, religion and dissent. Opening up China can only be liberating.

The old men who rule China hope otherwise. They are trying to control thought while loosening consumer choice. Only they believe the two can coincide.

The suppressions are wrongfully placed shackles on the human spirit. They are also doomed to fail.

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