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Last week, while guests of Fortune magazine's 1999 Global Forum were Busy partying in Shanghai, the forum was turning into a minor scandal at home. The charge is that organizer Time Warner omitted human rights from the agenda in order to placate its hosts; the irony is that the Chinese found something else to get offended by a special issue of Time that was prepared for the occasion and subsequently banned.
The forum, "China: The Next 50 Years," took place from September 27 to 29. Participants included Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine, Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, Henry Kissinger, and two former U.S. trade representatives. Also in the mix were representatives of about 300 multinationals, including CEOs and top execs from Sony, General Electric, Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Viacom, AOL, and Yahoo!, and a handpicked group of Chinese pols and businessmen. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, the Fortune 500 execs jetted in to discuss strategies for encouraging foreign investment. They were greeted at the airport by girls in long red dresses and whisked off in limousines.
But meanwhile, as preparation for the 50th anniversary festivities, the authorities were perpetrating abuses behind the scenes: half of Beijing was under martial law, thousands of migrant workers had been hustled off to arbitrary detention camps, local editors had been told to print good news, and 34 prisoners were summarily executed. Amnesty International declared that in the past year, the Chinese government had "turned the clock backward."
The spin control became apparent when Kissinger showed up on CNNfn, insisting that China has made "considerable progress" on human rights, and warning that any confrontation on the issue might jeopardize "the American national interest." Then, at the opening banquet, Chinese president Jiang Zemin defended his record on human rights and issued a dark warning: "We oppose any efforts by any country to impose its own social system and ideology on any other country."
In no time, media moguls were rolling over. Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin called Jiang "my good friend" and praised his ability to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory, while Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone opined that media companies must respect the "politics and attitudes of the governments where we operate" by combining "journalistic integrity" with an effort not to be "unnecessarily offensive." That kind of willingness to compromise suggests that Redstone, who is seeking better distribution of MTV in China and will soon control CBS, might take a cue from Rupert Murdoch. In 1994, Murdoch pulled BBC off his Star TV satellite feed in order to gain access to China. By contrast, Ted Turner refuses to censor CNN news coverage to please the Chinese.
Such journalistic distinctions were lost on New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, for whom the very thought of U.S. capitalists partying in China precipitated a bout of "disgust" and "shame." The Fortune forum was slammed in a New Republic cover story and chosen as an "Outrage of the Week" by CNN's Capital Gang ("Anything for a buck," sneered Mark Shields, who apparently felt no fear of censorship from on high).
Meanwhile, Time Warner had poured its journalistic integrity into a special issue of Time called "China's Amazing Half-Century." Adi Ignatius, who is deputy editor of Time Asia and who edited the special issue, says the plan was to distribute it at the forum. "It was our intention that Time Warner's overall take on China at the time of the PRC's 50th anniversary would include Time Asia's frank assessment of the past five decades," he told Press Clips. But on the eve of the forum, Chinese authorities banned the sale of the issue across the mainland, apparently because it included essays by the Dalai Lama and by Chinese dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan.
Even so, Time Warner could have taken a stronger position at its forum, according to Human Rights in China (HRIC), based in New York. In early September, HRIC publicly called on forum participants to put human rights on the agenda, providing them with the case histories of dozens of dissidents recently imprisoned, some for infractions as basic to democracy as publishing the names of political activists.
On September 16, HRIC executive director Xiao Qiang and board member Robert Bernstein met with Norman Pearlstine. According to Qiang, Pearlstine said he understood the human rights issue after all, he had worked in Asia in the 1970s but for business reasons, the decision had already been made to exclude it from the agenda.
Qiang told Press Clips he is not against foreign investment in China and has no animus toward Pearlstine, who will chair this year's annual dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists and who "obviously" values freedom of speech. But Qiang feels that there can be no economic development without political reform. He notes that the forum was not exclusively about business, but also included such topics as the environment and labor "everything but human rights." Qiang says Pearlstine "ignored the moral reasons" to include human rights, as well as the consequences of his decision.
A Time Inc. spokesman said the human rights issue was not addressed because "it was a business meeting, which is not to say that people were not mindful of the situation." He added that the decision had no effect on the company's news coverage, which is "independent and objective."