Murdoch China Dealings Spell Trouble

If Rupert Murdoch runs the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Fox Network with the same excessive solicitude for the Chinese leadership that he displays in his book-publishing ventures, here is what we can expect this season:

The shortstop job would go to one of Chinese President Jiang Zemin's sons. The Dodgers would release Ramon Martinez, Wilton Guerrero and Raul Mondesi because they come from a country (the Dominican Republic) that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan instead of China.

And Fox's "Melrose Place" would be scrapped, too, because its values, presumably at least, are not those of China's rulers.

Absurd? Of course. Yet this is how Murdoch seems to run the book publisher HarperCollins--and, for that matter, some of the other media ventures of his company, News Corp.

Last week, it was disclosed that HarperCollins was dropping plans to publish a book by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, on grounds that Patten is too critical of China.

As governor in the five years before Britain returned Hong Kong to China last July, Patten pressed hard for democratic reforms. In the process, he infuriated Beijing leaders, who claimed that Britain was belatedly seeking political changes it had not bothered to introduce during the century and a half in which it ran the colony.

"Rupert Murdoch did not agree with many of Patten's positions in Hong Kong," News Corp. explained in a statement.

The HarperCollins editor assigned to Patten's book quit in protest, and said he had been asked to lie about the reasons for the cancellation. Patten's manuscript will be published instead by Times Books.

This is not the first time Murdoch has run his publishing and broadcasting ventures in ways designed to please Beijing. Four years ago, News Corp. dropped the BBC news service from Star TV, the Hong Kong satellite service, after Chinese complaints about programming. Moreover, while Deng Xiaoping was in his final years as China's top leader, HarperCollins published a glowing biography of him written by his daughter, Deng Rong.

Murdoch's international operations are so large that what he does is, by itself, worthy of scrutiny. But the issues raised by the treatment of Patten also extend well beyond Murdoch or HarperCollins. They are, in fact, of extraordinary importance to Los Angeles as the center of the world's entertainment industry.

Over the last couple of years, there have been warnings from Beijing that the release of movies critical of the Chinese regime could damage the efforts of companies like the Walt Disney Corp. to expand into China. If Hollywood were to follow Murdoch's example, some kinds of movies simply wouldn't be made.

The underlying question here is to what extent business decisions should be linked to political or ideological issues in the transactions between China and the rest of the world. At the moment, China seems to be trying to have it both ways--and Western business executives, remarkably, seem to be going along.

Whenever there is a debate about China's access to the American market, such as the annual controversy over China's trade privileges in this country, Beijing and its supporters in the U.S. business community argue that trade ought to be kept entirely separate from political issues or conditions. Don't link commerce with issues like human rights or democracy, they say.

At the same time, however, China tries to impose political conditions on access to its own market. It warns that those who publish books or make movies critical of the Chinese regime will hurt their chances of doing business in China.

"The Chinese, when it is to their advantage to do so, tell people not to mingle business and politics," observes Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council.

And yet, Kapp notes, Chinese officials also use business contracts for political aims--such as, for example, the occasion when Premier Li Peng made it clear that China was buying European Airbuses instead of Boeings because of its unhappiness with the Clinton administration's sponsorship of a United Nations resolution condemning China's human rights policies.

The great irony of the Patten-Murdoch affair is that it is so unnecessary. Patten was last seen in public during his tearful farewell at the Hong Kong boat pier July 1.

Visit Hong Kong today, and you will find that the days when Britain ruled the place seem almost as remote and forgotten as the Middle Ages. The British presence is hard to find. Patten, who retired to France to write his book, is hardly in a position to threaten the existing order in Hong Kong.

Still, Murdoch apparently concluded it would be prudent for the future of his business ventures in China to refuse to publish Patten's book.

What can be done to stop this sort of political pressure? One approach would be for American film and publishing executives to agree among themselves that, unlike Murdoch, they will not adjust their books and movies to please political leaders, in China or in any other country.

Kapp says there is no evidence American companies "just roll over on the ground and put their feet up in the air" when subjected to political pressure from China. Perhaps not. But the handling of Patten's book is, to say the least, a troubling precedent.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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