Michael Forsythe - Correspondent, New York Times
The U.S. Constitution enshrined press freedoms in the First Amendment, ratified by the states in 1791. In the subsequent 223 years, the world’s leading economies, whether Britain or the U.S., generally held to be self-evident that a free press was necessary and good for the proper functioning of society and to provide a check on government’s power.
Now China is poised to take the pole position as the world’s biggest economy, and its leaders have clearly shown their disdain for press freedoms, with new restrictions on one of the world’s most controlled media environments being introduced just this year. Will China’s new economic influence pose a danger for press freedom and other civil liberties in the rest of the world?
Should China’s foreign policy goals remain confined to so-called “core interests” such as Tibet, Taiwan and internal stability, China’s rise to economic prominence will likely pose little existential danger to press freedoms around the world. But should China, like the U.S. seven decades ago in the aftermath of World War II, begin more broadly defining national interests as its economic reach expands, then global progress on press freedoms and civil liberties in general may be gravely threatened.
The reason is China’s rise coincides with a time of economic insecurity in industrialized nations, still recovering from the global financial crisis. Moreover, it is a new gilded age, with economic inequality at levels not seen since the 1920s, and the power of billionaires to shape policy has never been greater. That means that increasingly, preserving the integrity of a free press takes a back seat to economic expediency.
We already have seen examples of this in Hong Kong, where Chinese sovereignty has eroded the independence of the media. In the past year two British banks have been accused of pulling advertisements from one of the most widely read newspapers in the territory after being pressured from Beijing. Those charges were not refuted by the banks.
We should celebrate the words of Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence when he spoke of the truths we hold self-evident: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it is also up to us, as citizens, to guard those liberties jealously, never taking them for granted. A free press must loudly announce to the world when they are under threat. That’s because in our world we can’t afford to make another Jeffersonian statement into a truism, that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Michael Forsythe is a reporter for the New York Times based in Hong Kong. Before coming to the Times, he was a reporter and editor for Bloomberg News for 13 years, working in Beijing, Washington and Hong Kong. His focus at the Times is China, and especially the confluence of Chinese finance and politics. Mike is a graduate of Georgetown University (with a BA in international economics) and Harvard University (with an MA in East Asian regional studies). From 1990 to 1997 he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, making two shipboard deployments to the Persian Gulf. Mike is co-author of the 2012 book ”China’s Superbank” which examines the central role of China Development Bank in the country’s economy. He is married and has two children.