The Old Grey Lady in Red China

Will the just-launched New York Times Chinese-edition get censored by Beijing's media watchers?

The New York Times this week launched, its first foreign-language website, joining several Western newspapers and media outlets like the BBC, Forbes, Newsweek, and Time that have published Chinese-language editions, with varying degrees of editorial and business success. The site, with staff in Beijing and Hong Kong and a server located outside of mainland China, will feature approximately 20 stories a day from the roughly 200 produced by the New York Times and also include roughly 10 pieces of original Chinese content daily. Philip Pan, a former Washington Post Beijing chief, and Cao Haili, a former Caixin reporter and Harvard University Niemann fellow, will run the site. The New York Times brings its sterling reputation to a place where its competitors have had to make difficult choices between self-censorship and unwanted government interference. "There are a lot of editing choices, but not censorship choices," says Joseph Kahn, the Times' foreign editor and former Beijing bureau chief who will oversee the site from New York. "We're not going to withhold stories."

The first day of the Chinese edition of the New York Times hews closely to the mixture of stories that appear on its English language site. It features op-eds from Paul Krugman and Jimmy Carter, stories about China that appeared earlier in the New York Times -- such as a well-regarded January piece about the human cost of Apple's iPad production in China and a June blog post (the original title in English was changed from "Putting China's Economic Power in Perspective" to, in the Chinese version, "Survey: Who's the Number One Superpower?"). The beta site also includes some original articles, like a column about Kafka-esque experiences of Chinese private enterprises, and a column from influential Chinese media personality Hung Huang on fashion photographers.

The Chinese edition of the New York Times will compete with Chinese editions of the Financial Times, (launched in 2005) and the Wall Street Journal (launched in 2002), both of which are headquartered in mainland China, cater to a Chinese audience, and publish only online versions. The original Chinese-language content commissioned for both sites is mostly in the form of columns and editorials, a model that the New York Times Chinese edition will also follow, says Kahn.  "It's been a lot of hard work," said Angela Mackay, who supervises, adding that it's been a positive experience and that the website "turns a generous profit." WSJ Chinese receives almost two million monthly unique visitors, according to a Wall Street Journal spokesman; he wouldn't comment on the profit margin but called it a "success."  

Western-style journalism in the world's second largest economy is a tricky business; China ranks 174 out of 179 countries in the 2011/2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Although dissenting views do appear in Chinese state media, direct criticism of high leaders and unwelcome reporting on sensitive subjects like Tibet and human rights can lead to the firing of a journalist or the closure of a media outlet. "If you don't care about being blocked, you can go as far as you can go," says Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University.  "But if you want the access, then you need some measure of self-censorship."

Though freer than Chinese newspapers, the content of WSJ Chinese is censored. In late April, when Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, his release six days later and his subsequent pleas to go abroad became a major international news story. But WSJ Chinese appears to barely have covered the story at all: a recent search on the Wall Street Journal's main English-language website finds 126 mentions of Chen in the last 90 days. In the Chinese version, there are just two search results for the activist Chen Guangcheng over the past five months, one in a translated posting about the film The Hunger Games and one that mentions the actor Christian Bale visiting Chen, according to a Google search conducted in the United States.

Some Wall Street Journal articles are translated into Chinese and then censored. For example, part of a WSJ English article about Chinese former vice-mayor Wang Lijun fleeing into the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, an event that sparked the downfall of high-ranking official Bo Xilai, reads: "U.S. officials have risked confrontation with Beijing before over how to handle Chinese citizens. During the 1989 Tiananmen political uprising, Chinese dissident and democracy advocate Fang Lizhi was granted sanctuary in the American embassy in Beijing; he remained for more than a year." The Chinese version, published with the same byline, dateline, and title, translates the article almost verbatim -- but doesn't include that paragraph. Later in the article, where the English version mentions "some foreign nationals, such as Mr. Fang," the Chinese version writes "some foreign nationals," deleting the mention of Fang, who's still a sensitive subject in China. A Wall Street Journal spokesman declined to comment on censorship or any aspect of the WSJ Chinese editorial policies, or to make available anyone working on the editorial team at the time of publication.

The New York Times Chinese-language addition intends to hew closer to the Financial Times model. Sensitive stories in the English version and the Chinese version of the Financial Times appeared to be identical. FT Chinese even translated a 2010 article about the controversial subject of princelings -- the sons and daughters of high-level leaders -- working in private equity. Xu Zhiyuan, a Beijing-based author and columnist for FT Chinese, said in a phone interview that he's free to choose the subject matter for his column; "I can write about Chen fleeing, but it would be blocked [domestically by state censors]," he said; the difference would be that the article would appear on the site, but it would not be available in mainland China. "FT tries very hard," said a Chinese media expert who asked for anonymity. "Sometimes they translate political news, at the expense of advertisement income. They want to keep the balance between income and good reputation." Xu credits the FT's success in part to its editor Zhang Lifen, a well-known reporter and 10-year BBC veteran. "He has a good understanding of sensitivity; what kind of debate will raise people's interest but not the interests of local authorities," he said. Zhang, through an FT spokesperson, declined an interview request.

BBC Chinese, a wholly owned Chinese-language news outlet launched in 1999, does not tweak the sensitivity of its content for the domestic market and has been, with few exceptions, completely blocked in China since its inception, says its editor Raymond Li. "WSJ Chinese and FT Chinese are offering good quality content," said Li, but inside China "you have to work in the political environment you're in. I'm not criticizing WSJ. It's just a matter of fact that they have to face with."

A Wall Street Journal spokesman said that WSJ Chinese gets blocked "from time to time"; the FT's Mackay said that "before (censors) were clumsy and would block" the entire FT Chinese website, but "now if there are things that they don't like sometimes they block that article." The BBC "made a choice," says Hong Kong University's Chan, and thus it now reaches fewer Chinese language readers. "Maybe WSJ Chinese in the way it's doing it is more influential, because it's made a compromise and is reaching more people."

The Chinese edition of the New York Times has made clear that it doesn't intend to self-censor, but it's a delicate balance between editorial independence and being rendered irrelevant by having one's website blocked. Beijing is sensitive about its image abroad -- as the difficulty foreign journalists have reporting in China attests -- but the government is even more sensitive about how it's perceived by its 1.3 billion people at home. Kahn says that in meeting with Chinese officials, "they don't try to micro-manage, they don't signal how they're going to react, but the broad feeling we have is that China is a big, growing globalized economy, and they're not surprised that a major media company like the New York Times is interested in being in China in English as well as Chinese." And the Times, as the paper of record, will likely face difficulties on a different level from that that others face.

"I think WSJ positioned themselves as being much more of a financial site in Chinese, with breaking financial news, and we're not positioning ourselves to being a breaking financial news site, we're a general news site," says Kahn. "We don't really have plans if we do get blocked" but added that "I don't think the choice is between never being available to Chinese users, or always being freely available, there is a kind of middle ground."



Prescription for Decline

The Supreme Court's ruling was a step in the right direction. But spiraling health-care costs could still doom America's recovery.

Lost in all the uproar over the U.S. Supreme Court's June 28 "Obamacare" ruling was the crucial link between health-care reform and the issue voters care most about: the economy. America's current health-care "system" isn't just an ungainly, costly, and unjust mess. It also undercuts the United States' ability to compete and win in world markets.

Amid the debate over "American decline," this connection deserves a lot more attention than it's getting. To revive U.S. international competitiveness, the country clearly needs to rein in runaway health-care costs. But it has to be done in the right way -- not just by clamping down on spending, but also by boosting medical innovation and productivity.

Now that the court has upheld the individual mandate requiring most citizens to obtain health insurance, U.S. policymakers would ideally turn to the challenge of medical cost containment. This is unlikely to happen, however, because Republicans have vowed to make the repeal of the Affordable Care Act a centerpiece of their 2012 campaign message. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dutifully promised Thursday to kill the "bad law," even though it's conceptually identical to the Massachusetts health plan he backed while governor of the state.

Conservative ideologues want to make the mandate and the substantial costs of expanding coverage to 33 million Americans a parable about the dangers of an overreaching and intrusive federal government. The administration ought to counter with a positive narrative about how bending down the health cost curve can help reverse America's competitive slide and spark an economic comeback.

Not only does the United States have the world's most expensive health-care system, but medical inflation routinely outpaces economic growth. Because most workers get their health-insurance coverage from their employers, this saddles firms with rising labor costs even as the United States seeks to slow and reverse the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs overseas. Fear of losing coverage inhibits worker mobility and makes the labor market less flexible. Meanwhile, employment in the health-care sector keeps growing without producing commensurate improvements in health outcomes -- a classic definition of low productivity.

Federal and state government budgets, meanwhile, are groaning under the growing burden of paying for health care. Many states have seen Medicaid spending for the poor displace education as their top spending item. And no one doubts that the mushrooming growth of federal health spending is the country's top fiscal challenge.

The numbers are astonishing: Federal health spending in 2012 will consume 4.9 percent of GDP, or about a fifth of the federal budget ($750 billion). The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates conservatively that spending, driven by a combination of medical inflation and the baby boomers' retirement, will grow to 6.7 percent of GDP ($1.6 trillion) by 2022 and will hit 11 percent by 2050. Reducing that rate of growth is the key to stabilizing the national debt.

Less visible but no less pernicious is what economists call the "crowding out" effect of health-spending growth. Back in the 1970s, according to former CBO chief Alice Rivlin, such "mandatory" spending claimed only about one-tenth of the federal budget; now it adds up to 55 percent. This relentless squeeze on discretionary spending means that Washington has less money to invest in the foundations of future economic growth and competitiveness. That means less money for infrastructure, basic science, the development of breakthrough technologies, and better schools and occupational training -- not to mention social support for poor families and children. If the United States can't offer world-class infrastructure and highly skilled and motivated workers, businesses will invest their money elsewhere.

Amid growing concerns about social immobility and inequality, Americans should also take a closer look at the distributional effects of health costs. In short, soaring costs have slowed wage growth and thrown low-wage workers out of work.

As Steven Nyce and Sylvester Schieber documented in a recent Progressive Policy Institute report, medical cost inflation over the last three decades has been a triple whammy for Americans: It has depressed wage growth, increased unemployment among low-wage workers, and aggravated economic inequality. Wages have gone down because employers have shifted compensation toward health-care premiums and rising health costs have priced low-wage workers out of labor markets. "If employers are forced to absorb health cost increases that exceed the added productivity that workers bring to the table, they will stop hiring," write Nyce and Schieber.

For all these reasons, the president should work to beef up the Affordable Care Act's exceedingly modest cost-containment features. U.S. companies and workers shouldn't have to wait a decade for experiments with new payment systems to give them relief from high health costs. And the administration should rethink one key provision of the law: a board that would limit Medicare payments to providers if Medicare costs rose faster than expected. If those payments are simply cut off, many providers will find it easier to forego productivity-enhancing investments than shed workers. Providing higher-value medical care more cost-effectively will take more innovation and more investment in technology, not less.

The countries the United States will compete with in the next century understand the intricate interactions between their health-care systems and their ability to perform in global markets. It's time U.S. leaders did too.

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