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Online media, other foreign companies forced to play by China's rules

China's ruling Communist Party boasts an increasingly intrepid army and navy, an expanding web of international energy pipelines and other trade links, and a suite of generously funded media companies with bureaus around the world. But unlike past empires, Beijing's true strength does not derive from its ability to project force and soft-power influence overseas. Instead, particularly when dealing with developed nations and their citizens, the party has imposed its will by squatting at the gates of the massive Chinese economy and issuing demands as the price of admission.

After a Central Committee meeting last week, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promised a series of economic reforms, including a greater emphasis on market forces and improved land and internal-migration rights for Chinese citizens. But few of these proposals touch on China's relations with foreign companies, governments, or individuals, and there is some doubt as to whether the stated plans will be consistently implemented. Even after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, Chinese officials have felt free to flout their government's commitments when doing so serves their political or personal interests.

The CCP's trollish behavior is perhaps most obvious in the field of online media. The party presides over an elaborate internet filtration system, arbitrarily blocking any foreign service or website that fails to comply with its censorship directives. Twitter and Facebook have been blocked for years, and the websites of the New York Times and Bloomberg News have been unavailable in China since 2012, when they published revealing articles on the family wealth of top Chinese leaders.

Despite such abuse, media companies cannot afford to turn their backs on the country. Bloomberg editors were recently accused of suppressing new articles to avoid total expulsion from China, and possibly a loss of business for the firm's flagship financial data service. A reporter who apparently leaked the incident has been suspended. The New York Times was among several major outlets that dutifully attended a Chinese-organized "World Media Summit" last month, and even promised to host the next year's event. The effects of this dynamic are felt far beyond China itself. A recent study commissioned by the Center for International Media Assistance describes the subtle ways in which the CCP's gatekeeping and other tactics influence the international media landscape.

Even companies that attempt to play by the CCP's rules and avoid involvement with politically sensitive media content can draw the party's ire, apparently by simply being too successful in the Chinese market. Once an enterprise is prospering inside the wall, the gatekeeper needs to remind it who's boss. Recent examples include state media campaigns against Starbucks and Samsung, and an earlier attack on Apple that forced it to issue a humble apology.

Players in a variety of other fields have also made concessions. Hollywood studios have bent over backwards to keep China's film censors happy, foreign authors have bowed to Chinese publishers' redactions, and foreign banks have allegedly enriched CCP insiders in exchange for lucrative contracts. China scholars and specialists around the world are forced to consider the possibility of visa denials and other obstruction if they engage in research or make statements that might displease Beijing.

Ironically, to a certain extent at least, the CCP's threats of banishment are a bluff. The huge and growing economy that attracts foreign businesses has also relied on those businesses for infusions of capital, technology, innovation, and expertise, among other boons - not all of which can be stolen through hacking. Chinese companies have prospered through partnerships in which foreign firms are obliged to give up all manner of advantages in the hope of gaining a foothold in the Chinese market. In many cases, foreign governments, companies, and individuals are making real sacrifices for the mere possibility of future benefits, which can be revoked at any time. China's party-controlled courts certainly cannot be counted on to protect foreign assets or agreements, and the latest promises of economic reform include no hint that this will change. If international actors were to show any unified resistance to the capricious demands of Chinese authorities, they might improve their lot. (This has succeeded in the past, as when concerted domestic and international pressure scuttled an order to install surveillance software on all computers sold in China in 2009.) But for the most part, businesses and their home governments jockey to succeed where peers have failed.

The fact that the CCP's global leverage depends so heavily on its control over access to the Chinese market raises serious questions about the applicability of the vaunted "China model" to other countries. Freedom House's most recent Freedom in the World report gave China a status of Not Free and a "freedom rating" of 6.5, with 7.0 as the worst possible rating. A number of smaller countries - including Laos, Belarus, and Cuba - receive similar rankings for similarly repressive political systems, but none could expect to engage in CCP-like gatekeeping and obtain similar results. Even Russia has had limited success in pulling its neighbors away from the European Union through the threat of arbitrary trade restrictions.

While the whole world pays a price for the CCP's demands, the Chinese people themselves arguably suffer the most. The party cuts them off from important news and information, seizes the lion's share of wealth and opportunity, and blocks foreign scrutiny or assistance that might curtail its domestic repression. Above all, the Communist leadership monopolizes decision making to an awesome extent, robbing Chinese citizens of the right to make up their own minds about what to read, what to buy, and how they should be governed.

The recently announced reform plans, which include calls for the abolition of "reeducation through labor" camps and a softening of the loathsome one-child policy, indicate that even the Chinese government recognizes the limited shelf life of the current system. But there is no reason why the international community should prolong the wait for fundamental change by fattening the troll.

Democratic governments could do far more to stand behind their citizens and companies, and in solidarity with one another. They can step up enforcement of domestic laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, giving companies legal cover to fend off Chinese extortion. They can aggressively pursue cases at the WTO when a company is arbitrarily excluded, particularly for political reasons. And they can further encourage or even require their nationals to report cases of arm-twisting, with guarantees of anonymity if necessary, so that the full range of CCP abuses can be exposed and condemned in the light of day.

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