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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003


Book fight turns up a Beijing weak spot

LOS ANGELES -- Love her or loathe her, Hillary Clinton is something else. In 1995, for instance, the then-first lady stood on a Beijing dais and delivered a tough speech that denounced violations of women's rights worldwide. With steely passion she said: "Human rights are women's rights."

The occasion was the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, an event that attracted delegates the world over. It was a poignant and moving address, and neither First World nor Third World countries were exempt from her critical cascade. She knocked Saudi Arabia for its medieval attitude toward women; she kick-boxed Africa for unspeakable antiwoman practices, and she chastised her own country for its tortured legal contortions on the issue of a woman's right to control her own body.

In her unsparing indictment, the first lady pulled no punches about her host either, denouncing China's policy of one family, one (preferably male) child. It was a gutsy performance in a Beijing assembly hall surrounded by grim-faced security personnel.

For its part, the Chinese government should have taken credit for providing such a prominent venue for an uncompromising statement on the ethical treatment of women. Instead, it turns out, the authorities were not only embarrassed -- they remain chagrined today.

We learn this from the recent flap over the publication on the Chinese mainland of the New York senator's autobiography, "Living History," just out in Chinese translation. The book had been selling very well in the United States -- and so too in China. But it is not exactly the same book. The version published by Yilin Publishing has been laundered as well as translated.

While the U.S. edition recounts Hillary's recollection of the 1995 incident and other observations about China, including negative ones, the Chinese edition offers nothing of the sort.

Even so, Hillary's tome looks to be one of the biggest sellers on the mainland since Mao's Little Red Book. The controversy has stimulated sales. This in itself tells a tale: For as China spawns an increasingly assertive and moneyed middle class -- approaching something like 200 million people -- the old repressive ways are decreasingly utilitarian.

The U.S. publisher Simon & Schuster, posted the banned passages on its Web site, presumably accessible by many in China. Thus, mainlanders who can't afford to fork out their hard-earned yuan for the tome can now find Hillary's forbidden fruit at www.simonsays.com.

The net effect has been to circulate her criticisms of China even more widely than had sections in the book not been so foolishly censored.

Not many years ago, a Chinese delegation quietly visited Singapore, then grappling with the task of figuring out the difficult-to-control Internet technology. And what they were told was: It's a complex media environment, and if you're buying into globalization, with all its flow of information across borders, you may have to accept that control is impossible.

Beijing has to come to grips with this. In this Internet age, the Stalinist boot-on-brain technique of control just doesn't cut it, particularly in the vital realm of ideas and political opinions. Besides, Clinton is hardly a Trotskyite threat to the Chinese state. Why pick a fight with her?

Like her husband, she has been a strong supporter of increased trade and diplomatic relations with China, despite all its human-rights problems.

What this absurd chapter in China's tortured relations with the West does is blur the country's substantial progress in opening up to the outside world. In truth, the media in China are rapidly changing -- not because of ideology as much as technology and demographics.

As one top Singapore official put it recently: "They have more hand phones in China than any country. You go to their shops and you see the new gadgets in connection with hand phones, PDAs and so on. The leaders can't stop this communication revolution. In fact they are encouraging it! They've overtaken Japan as the world's second-biggest market for PCs, and within a few years there will be more Internet users in China than anywhere else on Earth, including the United States. That is the new reality they are facing -- and the Communist Party will have adjust."

What's more, as China becomes more capitalistic and entrepreneurial, ever-more media entrepreneurs will look for new readers and advertisers. It's true that today the vast majority of the media requires party approval, explicit or otherwise. But boring, politically correct media won't sell. Spicy stuff like Hillary's book does.

Unless Beijing wants to sustain its media as one huge costly state-owned enterprise, it needs to wake up and smell the global reality. The People's Republic of China has shot itself in the foot -- yet again.

Tom Plate is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network. His column is distributed by Tribune Media Services International. Copyright 2003 Tom Plate

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