As Apec host, China can show the world a more open side

Curtis Chin says with growing concern about press freedom in much of Asia, Beijing has a chance, as host of this year's Apec forum, to reveal to the world a more transparent side. It can start by improving how it deals with the media

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 4:21am

When the Hong Kong government tersely announced this week that the central government had decided to change the location and timing of a key meeting of Apec finance ministers from Hong Kong to Beijing this September, the rumours began to fly.

Beijing, some speculated, might have been worried about the potential for protests during the high-profile meeting. Others saw it as a sign of the ongoing gradual erosion of Hong Kong's special status and role as China's premier international financial hub. After all, Beijing's change of mind comes just five months after it had agreed to let Hong Kong, still touted as Asia's "world city", run the event. That, though, was before debate had intensified in the special administrative region over necessary electoral reforms to bring about universal suffrage in 2017.

Whatever the full reason, though, the revoking of Hong Kong's chance to host the ministerial-level meeting does not bode well for the call for greater transparency and openness in the overall Apec process under China's reins, including full and robust coverage of all decisions related to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum.

Recent protests in Hong Kong had already drawn attention to eroding press freedoms. Still, the city is not alone in what is shaping up to be a year of living dangerously for the media in Asia, particularly in China.

In one example, a New York Times journalist, Austin Ramzy, was forced to leave China in January, ostensibly for visa reasons - but perhaps more as a pointed signal to others who report too freely on issues such as corruption - and China continues to imprison more than 30 local reporters, editors and bloggers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Elsewhere in Asia, this month, local journalist Suon Chan was killed in Cambodia after having reported on illegal fishing activities near his village. Another veteran journalist and filmmaker working on a film on the Khmer Rouge has gone missing. In the Philippines, justice has yet to be fully served in the more than 70 cases of murdered journalists since 1992.

How ironic it is, then, that China might still have the opportunity to show improvements in how it handles journalists, even as it proves less than forthcoming on the shifting of the Apec Finance Ministers' meeting.

As host of the annual Apec forum this year, China has a chance to show the region, and the world, how much it has changed, on much more than economic fronts, since Apec last came to China. That meeting, in Shanghai in October 2001, in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, was described as "the biggest international gathering on Chinese soil in modern history".

As China's economy matures and slows, it is time for Beijing to move towards stronger checks and balances that help make a stable, resilient economic system. This would include moves toward an independent judiciary and a freer, if not yet free, media.

Greater accountability and transparency would in the long term benefit both business - Chinese and otherwise - and the people.

Here, the Apec Secretariat in Singapore and diplomats and business leaders from the 21 member economies that comprise the grouping can play an encouraging role. With international bodies, from the Asian Development Bank to the UN and the World Trade Organisation, often hard-pressed to show results to their members and financial supporters, here is one area where a short-term impact can be clearly defined.

This would also be in line with the broader Apec goal of facilitating economic growth, co-operation, trade and investment among the Pacific Rim nations. An initial step would have included urging host China to welcome robust coverage of all meetings of senior officials and related meetings of Apec. The first has been taking place this month in Ningbo .

Just days before the Apec summit opened in Shanghai in 2001, China lifted internet blocks on a range of foreign news organisations, without any public announcement, as some 3,000 foreign media representatives descended on the meeting and China sought to convey a message of openness to the world.

Such a change may well come again in November, as the Apec summit comes to Beijing - or perhaps for the finance ministers' meeting in September. But, well before then, China can show the world a more confident, more open side.

Of course, as host, China makes all final decisions regarding media access. But what happens in China, it seems, will increasingly stay in China, if some in authority have their way and the censorship worsens. That, though, is neither the sign of a modern economy nor of a confident stakeholder in a more peaceful and prosperous region.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has said the US is "very disappointed" over the departure of Ramzy from China. Yet, the reality is that even in the US, press freedom has been eroded enormously as the Obama administration focuses on cracking down on whistle-blowers, according Reporters Without Borders.

China has much to showcase and much of which to be proud. But much work needs to be done to improve the bureaucracy, enforce fair regulatory regimes, reduce government intervention and end corruption. A freer media can help ensure this happens. Keeping journalists locked out or locked in should no longer be business as usual anywhere in Asia, or the US, for that matter.

Let's hope Apec can help make that happen in China, even as Hong Kong struggles with its own balancing act under the central government's watchful eyes, and the realisation that a free media and a free economy are increasingly linked.

Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin