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Dori Jones Yang

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Why China Is Restraining Journalists

Posted: 03/07/11 01:46 PM ET

My blood ran cold when I read about how China is tracking and detaining foreign journalists. (The New York Times, "China Tracks Foreign Journalists," March 6).

Back in May and June of 1989, I was in Beijing as an American correspondent for BusinessWeek, and I can clearly recall the emotions. I felt exhilaration when Chinese people opened up and spoke their minds freely, even to strangers in the street--and then I felt fear after the army killed hundreds and left the streets pockmarked with bullet holes and twisted metal.

But today, no longer a journalist, I can see the situation in China with a wider lens. Journalists in the thick of reporting don't see the role that their reporting plays--or they see it and glorify it. By definition, news thrives on what is new and different; so news reporters have a bias toward action and change, particularly action that looks dramatic on video. From a journalist's perspective, a revolution with street protests is always better than quiet change behind the scenes.

What is better from a journalist's perspective is not necessarily better for the majority of people of the country involved.

Now with a historian's viewpoint, I can see that China's leaders look at the Middle East and see fighting and chaos, not democracy. They remember the fighting and chaos that ripped China apart again and again during the 20th century. They look back at the Tiananmen Square events of 1989 and remember the role that foreign reporters, especially TV reporters, played in egging on the protesters until the protests got so big that the only way to control them was to call in the army. They want to avoid a repeat of that. That's why they're sending out the thugs.

In any country, when there is no organized political opposition party, the sudden overthrow of the government leads to a period of chaos and instability -- as in Tunisia and Egypt today. The reporters declare victory and move on to the next revolution. The people of that country have to stay and pick up the pieces, trying to figure out how to get back to stability and economic growth. Many countries have revolution after revolution, but never get to the place where China is today, with growth and jobs and opportunities for their people.

From the 1920s through 1970s, decades of protests and civil war and destructive political campaigns, China paid a heavy price to get to where it is today. By contrast, in the last 20 years, since the Tiananmen crisis, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, with an eightfold increase in per capita income, to about $4,000 today. China's leaders don't want a few protesters, egged on by eager reporters, to break what's working and take them back to the bad old days.

Personally, I wish China's leaders would begin a gradual process of political reform, so that citizens feel they have a way of being heard within the system. I don't see any signs of that. I give China tremendous credit for figuring out how to transfer power to a younger generation of leaders in a way that is stable and peaceful. But I believe that China has to make a transition to a more open, inclusive government -- not necessarily a US-style democracy but something that works for them.

China's leaders cannot control this process completely, but they do have a choice. They can begin political reforms on their own terms and try to guide the country into a more open system of government, or they can keep the lid on and risk an outbreak of protests, as in the Middle East, which would lead to chaos. The longer they delay political reforms, the greater that risk.