China’s leaders can amass significant personal fortunes, using family members to conceal the wealth. They want to hide it because in public they must preserve the image of humble, sacrificing members of the Chinese Communist Party, even if they are really profiting nicely from capitalism. Thus, the secret wealth of these pooh-bahs is one of the most sensitive and taboo topics in China today.
Chun Han Wong, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing since 2014, apparently touched this third rail when he co-authored a report in the newspaper revealing a far-reaching Australian law enforcement and intelligence probe into Ming Chai, a cousin of President Xi Jinping and an Australian citizen. “The report, citing Australian officials and casino documents, detailed Chai’s lavish spending in resorts owned by gambling mogul James Packer, and Chai’s links to what Australian officials deemed to be a money-laundering front in Melbourne,” according to a Post report. Not exactly the behavior of a humble communist.
China retaliated Aug. 30 by informing the Journal that Wong’s press credentials would not be renewed, effectively barring him from the country. Such a punishment is China’s way of dealing with coverage it does not like. China’s Foreign Ministry candidly responded to queries with a statement that said, “We are resolutely opposed to an individual foreign journalist maliciously smearing and attacking China. As for such journalists, we do not welcome them.” In recent years, China has blocked websites and yanked visas for journalists of the New York Times and Bloomberg News who also probed the fortunes of high-level leaders and their families
There is a basic asymmetry at work. China, a closed society under the authoritarian rule of a party-state, wants journalists to serve up propaganda, not exposés. The United States and others in the West are open societies that see journalism as a legitimate, probing function key to democracy. China is free to send journalists to the United States — and it has sent many — while regularly restricting those from the United States working in China.
The imbalance also exists in academia: China’s professors can visit the United States, but U.S. scholars face sharp limits on access to China. A recent report from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University on Chinese influence and U.S. interests made this point: “The idea that a Western TV news network could lease a Chinese station and broadcast news to China around the clock — as their Chinese counterparts do here in the United States — is not even thinkable.”
For many years, U.S. policy was guided by the logic that it is best to remain open, to showcase a commitment to values and principle. But what if China doesn’t care and doesn’t change its approach?
The Hoover report suggested the United States should demand reciprocity; when U.S. journalists are denied visas, “the U.S. State Department should respond in kind by restricting visas and access for Chinese journalists in the United States.” In other words, an open door must swing both ways.
This editorial first appeared in The Washington Post.