With Hu Jintao on a state visit to Washington this week, there has been much public comment on the need for U.S. President Barack Obama to stress to his Chinese counterpart how important it is for China to improve its record on human rights and commitment to greater political freedom. In their joint press conference on Jan. 19, Obama took pains to show his concern, telling reporters, "I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues." For his part, Hu accepted the need for progress and dialogue but insisted that China would follow its own development path.
But their statements -- and the media's reporting of the visit -- fall short by treating "human rights" as an isolated issue. Human rights are important, to be sure, but the present conversation is too vague and, for many Americans, not immediately relevant to our own lives. The very practical point it misses is that the outside world's access to information about China, and therefore global economic interests, are compromised by denials of free speech and free press in foreign lands.
It is understandable that those of us who have grown up with an unmatched level of freedom may believe that censorship in other countries is morally wrong, but does not directly affect us as citizens in a democracy. But the fact is that globalization and new technology -- two of the defining developments of this era -- have fundamentally blurred the distinction between us and the rest of the world when it comes to free speech and free press.
Globalization is, of course, many things, but it is principally an economic phenomenon -- enabled by the opening of markets in countries across the world, driven by the quest for profits in business and finance, and facilitated by the lowering of barriers to trade and investment. Consistent with the nature of entrepreneurial activities, it is all moving with enormous and unprecedented speed. Suddenly, approximately half the revenues of the S&P 500 companies come from outside the United States, half of the debt of the U.S. government is held in foreign hands, and everyone seems to be betting on the Chinese consumer (along with those in India, Brazil, and elsewhere) for economic growth over the next decade.
These forces and events are transforming, or at least significantly affecting, the lives of just about everyone everywhere. Although there are many benefits to humanity from this course of modern civilization, there are clearly issues to be addressed, choices to be made. We will undoubtedly continue to debate the details of various policy responses, but no one can plausibly question that massive problems like global recession or climate change require collective public action, just as similar problems did on a national scale in the 20th century.
Above all else we need accurate information, smart ideas, and a means of discussion to accompany these forces of globalization. To that purpose we need to build up the very successful institutions we have developed over time to perform those specific functions. One thinks, first and foremost, of the press and universities, both of which are (at their best) dedicated to making a professional judgment about what is important for us to know and then providing us with that knowledge. We are, indeed, fortunate to have new technologies of communication ready to serve these needs. But we are confronted with the question of whether the new digital marketplace of ideas is capable of supporting the quality of information and civic discourse that is required to address the challenges we face.
It would be a serious mistake to think that the so-called "citizen journalists" -- important as they are to public debate -- can entirely replace large, professional institutions organized to report the news, any more than the rise of "citizen scholars" could duplicate the work of our best research universities. The benefits of scale, professionalism, and institutional support are significant when it comes to covering actions of governments or multinational corporations. As WikiLeaks has vividly illustrated, there is a very big difference between posting unedited diplomatic communications on a website and taking the time and judgment to provide context, insight, and, perhaps most compellingly, a sense of responsibility to both soldiers and sources around the world -- as trusted news organizations do every day.