WASHINGTON, DC – China’s government is cracking down hard on Western journalists, threatening not to renew visas for reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg in retaliation for their reporting on the corruption of senior Chinese officials. Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently penned an open letter to the Chinese government telling them that, because the top “cause of death of Chinese regimes in history is greed and corruption,” a free press is more likely to help than hurt.
Anyone who holds freedom of the press and freedom of expression to be universal human rights will agree with Friedman’s position. But, in China, politics – including the politics of rights – is always intertwined with economics.
Last month, President Xi Jinping announced a set of sweeping economic reforms at the Central Committee’s Third Plenum, setting forth his vision of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” His 60-point plan included reforms of fiscal policy and the financial sector that would set market interest rates on loans and deposits, permit some private-investor participation in state-owned enterprises, increase the role of small and medium-size enterprises, loosen labor restrictions, and introduce property taxes to boost revenue for local authorities.
This renewed embrace of the market, reminiscent of Deng Xiaoping’s original turn to capitalism in 1979, will be hard medicine for China’s entrenched business and government elites to swallow. If Xi’s administration is successful – a big if – its reforms may enable China to negotiate the necessary transition from an economy driven by exports and government investment to a more sustainable growth model based on domestic consumption.