Press Freedom for Freedom's Adversaries?
American media outlets are offering a bullhorn to regimes that repress democracy and press freedom at home.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan predictably touched off a torrent of denunciation and rebuke from the Chinese Communist Party. Along with the strident polemics from official sources, China also deployed a battery of critics from its diplomatic corps, think tanks, and media to promote Beijing’s perspective on the Taiwan controversy—and all too frequently, through the willing organ of the Western media.
Among the more prominent (and obnoxious) was Lu Shaye, the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to France. Lu wrote of the “arrogance and hypocrisy” of the West in an article that appeared in Global Times, an organ often used to convey China’s displeasure with America and Europe. In a transparent attempt to sharpen differences between Europe and the United States, Lu wrote that America “manipulates Europe through Russia due to the Ukraine crisis” and asserted that Europe “is being strategically hijacked by U.S. hegemony.”
While Lu’s commentary was notable for clichéd formulations and hackneyed language, he reinforced his argument with menacing threats. On French television and again in the Global Times, Lu asserted that the Taiwanese had been “brainwashed“ by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the country’s ruling party and the party that has most actively promoted the idea of Taiwanese nationhood. After reunification, Lu noted that Beijing would institute a “reeducation” program to instill patriotic feelings among the Taiwanese people, with a focus on DPP loyalists. Lu’s casual introduction of the word, reeducation, inevitably brought to mind the nightmare conditions endured by China’s Uighur Muslims, an estimated one million-plus of whom were packed off to prison-like reeducation camps and forced labor projects to fulfill the regime’s goal of “deradicalization” and “integration.”___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Around the same time, the New York Times published an op-ed by Wang Wen, a university dean and former opinion editor for the Global Times, with the unsubtle headline, “Why China’s People No Longer Look Up to America.” The title tells us all we need to know about the author’s reasoning. Wang’s catalog of deficits is long and, to any reasonable American mind, all too familiar: hyper-partisanship, “reckless” economic policies, and rampant crime that culminated in the January 6 upheaval. But Wang neglected to mention that his exercise in opinion journalism was made possible by America’s commitment to freedom of speech and the press, a value that has been extended to the sworn enemies, and not just the critics, of our democratic system.
Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, penned an op-ed in which he described Pelosi’s actions as “extremely irresponsible, provocative, and dangerous.” Like other Chinese commentators, Qin made no mention of the PRC’s commitment to the “one country; two systems” promise that has been a foundation of Chinese Taiwan diplomacy for decades.
Last November, Qin and Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, jointly authored an essay in National Interest entitled “Respecting People’s Democratic Rights,” a few weeks before President Biden’s democracy summit. The two diplomats labored to demonstrate that their countries enjoyed equal bona fides as democracies as did America. They described China as a “whole-process socialist democracy” whose people “have the right to elections.” Russia, they said, “is a democratic federation law-governed state with a republican form of government.” Just three months before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two diplomats asserted that a “truly democratic government…will not foster hegemony abroad.”
These various arguments are not likely to have influenced American opinion with their didactic, smug, scolding tone and assembly-line versions of the “One China” position. Americans are no more likely to buy the proposition that the Taiwanese should be compelled to live under a semi-totalitarian dictatorship because they share the same language than they are inclined to accept Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukrainians are destined by history to reject democracy and a European identity in favor of life under Russian despotism.
At the same time, Americans would be justified in wondering why their media, already highly critical of Pelosi’s Taiwan mission, had opened its pages to voices who speak for regimes that reject America’s political system and who provide diplomatic, economic, and propaganda support to anti-American autocrats across the world.
There is a tradition in the West, and especially in the United States, of allowing foreign adversaries to make their case in our media from time to time. During the Cold War, this would often consist of a representative of a country like Cuba laying out the regime’s achievements, bragging about building a different form of democracy “according to local needs and cultural traditions,” and condemning the United States for sanctions and other punitive policies. Occasionally, these essays signaled a movement towards a liberal future, as during the period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership. Much more often, pledges of democratizing reform proved meaningless. Few, if any, American minds were changed by arguments advanced by foreign adversaries and printed in our own free press.
After the Soviet collapse, the mainstream media welcomed a post-totalitarian era marked by global engagement and a willingness to listen to the other side. And the initial signs gave cause for hope: Especially noteworthy was a diversification in the commentators from Russia, China, and other current or former rivals. Government officials, independent journalists, and scholars with ties to Western universities wrote in the vernacular of democratic journalism, preferred reason to bombast, and acknowledged that if their societies had yet to join the ranks of liberal democracies, democratic change—or at minimum, a more open political environment—was their goal.
With hindsight, it’s clear that while these systems and their dominant parties and movements became somewhat more open, they never enabled pluralism in media, politics, or civil society to sink roots. By 2010 the growing ranks of autocratically-minded leaders were dispensing with promises of honest elections, press freedom, and civil liberties. Vladimir Putin was obsessed with the threat posed by color revolutions—“people power” movements such as Ukraine’s 2004-05 Orange Revolution. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won a sweeping election victory; soon afterwards, Orbán delivered his “illiberal democracy” speech in which he predicted (and by insinuation, welcomed) the emergence of successful autocracies in Russia, China, Turkey, and elsewhere.
Such changes in global politics were reflected in the op-eds and essays that autocratic leaders provided for American audiences. In 2013, the Times published a Putin op-ed explaining Russia’s thinking behind its military involvement in Syria. Prominently featured was Putin’s breathtaking pronouncement that “we are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”
In early 2020, when talks between the Taliban and the United States over American withdrawal from Afghanistan were getting underway, the Times published an op-ed by leading Taliban official Sirajuddin Haqqani that stressed his movement’s commitment to regional peace and opposition to extremism. Among other things, Haqqani solemnly promised “an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam from the right to education to the right to work are protected….”
Throughout most of this century, Russia and China have been engaging in a competition with the United States utilizing asymmetric tactics. Increasingly, this asymmetric approach has focused on exploiting the weaknesses of America’s democratic institutions—using democracy to undermine democracy. In a 2017 National Endowment for Democracy report, Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig introduced the concept of “sharp power” into the debate over the aggressive international actions of Russia and especially China. “Sharp power” was meant to differentiate the traditional concept of soft power from the belligerent tactics employed by the world’s two autocratic giants. With soft power, governments seek to enhance their international reputation through exchanges, person-to-person diplomacy, educational and cultural exchanges, and also by publicizing national achievements, like China trumpeting its anti-poverty record.
For China and Russia, soft power competition proved inherently futile. Under leaders like Putin and Xi, both countries have grown insular, repressive, hostile to domestic dissent, and warlike. Where at the turn of the century, China, with its new status of economic superpower and seeming openness to Western influence, was considered potentially an appealing alternative model to liberal democracy, it is now identified with reeducation campaigns for minorities, the obliteration of Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the establishment of a techno-police apparatus unique in human history. Ergo, the need to replace the soft power approach with a snarling form of political warfare, one that identifies the principal target as democracy itself, not simply the leading democratic powers.
Russia’s message is even more sullen and antagonistic. The Kremlin spends little time promoting its achievements—even its accomplishments in international sports have been tarnished by numerous doping scandals. Its political warfare strategy is fixated on the failings of the world’s democracies, a trend it encourages through assistance to pro-Russian political figures in Europe and election meddling in both America and Europe. Russia has prioritized weakening the stability of nearby countries that were Soviet republics or satellites. As relations between Moscow and Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Poland began to deteriorate, Putin’s propaganda machine went into overdrive. Russian media beamed into the Baltics hour after hour of material meant to stir up discontent among Russian speakers over language and cultural issues. The Russian message to Poland centered on historical grievances against Ukrainians, and a recurrent theme that Poland and other former Soviet vassals were culturally different from Europe and should not be subjected to European Union rules, especially rules which, according to the Kremlin, were set by Germany.
Additionally, Russia and China have both built an unbreachable wall of protection to prevent the collapse of beleaguered autocracies, no matter how hated the leader or ruined the economy. Venezuela, Iran, Belarus, China, and Russia may share little in the way of language, culture, or social development. But when one member of this loose autocrats’alliance faces a regime crisis, the rest can be counted on to pitch in to prevent its replacement by more rational, humane, and democratic forces. In a modern-day version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which asserted that once a country joined the socialist camp it would forever remain in the socialist camp, today’s autocrats’ international goes into high gear to ensure that no dictator be overthrown or purged, and no dictatorship slip from the autocracy camp to the democracy camp. Without the active support—diplomatic, economic, and military—of Russia, China, and Iran, the regimes of Syria, Belarus, and Venezuela would likely have collapsed.
Given its central role in the dictators’ alliance, it is not surprising that while the PRC has occasionally claimed the status of neutral mediator in the Russian war against Ukraine, its media functions as an amplifier of Russian war propaganda, and it has provided economic and diplomatic assistance to help Moscow overcome its global isolation. China outlets have repeated bogus Kremlin claims that the bodies discovered at mass grave sites in Bucha were a hoax perpetrated by Ukrainian authorities. Chinese media refer to Ukrainians as Nazis and republish doctored photos showing Ukrainian soldiers holding the Nazi swastika aloft. Beijing disseminates this anti-Ukrainian message to both the audience inside China and to the large Chinese diasspora in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States.
In the struggle over the world’s political future, the Western press ranks among the most powerful weapons in democracy’s arsenal. It is because of our journalists’ dedication to their professional mission and their courage under duress that dictators are unable to suppress the news about the Uighur tragedy or war crimes in Ukraine. Recently, the Times published a series of articles that informed the world of the spread of Beijing’s highly refined surveillance technology and the scary implications for personal freedom—an ominous new frontier in the struggle of freedom against its enemies.
It may have made sense for newspapers like the Times and Washington Post to invite Chinese diplomats and publicists to present their perspective on world affairs under conditions where Americans were given entrée to Chinese media. But as any American journalist knows, when it comes to communications between America and China, the playing fields are entirely uneven. Chinese intellectuals and diplomats have access to our newspapers, journals of opinion, news networks, and twitter followers; their American counterparts are flat-out barred from China’s information space. The Chinese state controls every institution central to the circulation of ideas, both directly and indirectly. The regime decides who can work as a journalist; who can be quoted in the press; who can appear on television interviews; what ideas can be taught in classrooms; what ideas cannot be mentioned. On the important questions of the day, the degree of information control is not all that different from Soviet times. And as the PRC’s regime ambitions grow, there is an inevitable need to turn the screws ever tighter.
Nor are Chinese, Russian, or, for that matter, Taliban op-ed authors subject to the necessary controls exercised by American editors. Rather, they enjoy a special status. By normal journalistic standards, an editor should have requested, in fact demanded, that Wang Wen address China’s pervasive censorship or the fate of the Uighurs in the midst of his recitation of American calamities. Likewise, editors should have asked Sirajuddin Haqqani to elaborate on his pledge of gender equality under Taliban rule. An editor might even have asked for an explanation of what precise role Islam should play in the granting of the right to education and work to girls and women.
The great Albert Camus once remarked that “without freedom, the press can never be anything but bad.” The system from which Lu Shaye, Wang Wen, and Qui Gang emerged ranks among the least free and most subject to state direction in modern history. That system regards journalism as an appendage of the party-state, and increasingly, as an instrument of political war.
Over time, the autocratic model of information manipulation will corrode and compromise the basic principles of press freedom. Democratic societies, including the United States, have been far too nonchalant in the face of adversarial competitors who are aggressive and determined to win. It is past time to recalibrate.
If the Times and other leading representatives of our democratic press believe it is part of their mission to extend to democracy’s adversaries a propaganda platform, it seems reasonable to ask that this be done on the basis of equality and with newsroom standards intact. Under this arrangement, our media would welcome commentaries from political leaders or their representatives as long as American officials and experts were given similar access to the leading media of Russia, China, and other autocracies. Likewise, those who published in our opinion pages would be subject to the same conditions as American commentators, including the scrutiny of editors. A change along these lines is vital for the integrity of democratic journalism in its relations with those who believe that the future belongs to tyrants and despots.
The current situation may be called many things, but a fair exchange of ideas is not one of them.
Arch Puddington is emeritus scholar at Freedom House.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe