What happens when China’s enforcers come after Winnie-the-Pooh?

Will we reluctantly hand over Pooh Bear? Really sorry about this, Winnie, but China’s an important market!

Winnie-the-Pooh has been banned in China online and at movie theaters because snarky commentators have suggested that he resembles the portly President Xi Jinping. But these days Xi doesn’t want to censor information just in his own country; he also wants to censor our own discussions in the West.

That’s the backdrop to China’s hysterical reaction to a tweet by Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, sympathizing with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations.

When the NBA moved into China in the early 2000s, it made a plausible argument that engagement would help extend our values to China. Instead, the Communist Party is exploiting NBA greed to extend its values to the United States.

China is also forcing American Airlines to treat Taiwan as part of China, and it bullied Mercedes-Benz into apologizing for quoting the Dalai Lama. It made Marriott fire an employee for “wrongfully liking” a tweet by an organization that favors Tibetan independence.

There’s not much we can do about a dictator like Xi bullying his own citizens, but we should not let him stifle debate in our country.

Let me interrupt this diatribe, however, for important context. Those of us who criticize Xi must also have the humility to acknowledge that child mortality is now lower in Beijing than in Washington, D.C., that China has established new universities at a rate of one a week and that Shanghai’s public schools put our own school systems to shame.

So, yes, let’s stand up to Chinese bullying — and speak up when China detains at least 1 million Muslims, in what may be the biggest internment of people based on religion since the Holocaust. But let’s also note that China has helped lift more people out of poverty more quickly than any nation in history. With China, it’s always helpful to hold at least two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time.

Xi’s anxiety about the internet, religion, Hong Kong protesters, even Winnie-the-Pooh underscores his own insecurities. Xi seems terrified that real information will infiltrate the Chinese echo chamber, undermining his propaganda department’s personality cult around a benign “Uncle Xi.”

We can exploit Xi’s fear to gain leverage — and maybe to chip away at Chinese nationalism just a little bit — with three steps.

First, raise China’s blocking of outside news sites and social media platforms as a trade issue before the World Trade Organization. In a new book, “Schism,” about China and global trade, Paul Blustein explains how the U.S. could join with other countries to make such a trade case based on the WTO agreement. Trade experts aren’t sure the case would succeed, but it’s worth trying.

A second step the United States should take is to invest more in internet circumvention technologies to help ordinary Chinese vault the Great Chinese Firewall and read uncensored news. The U.S. spends more than $700 million a year on broadcast programs to sometimes-obscure parts of the world but only tiny sums to help citizens of closed countries access the free internet.

Richard Stengel, a former undersecretary of state who was involved in these programs, told me that he generally agreed that the U.S. should invest more in circumvention technologies. “It aligns with American values,” he said. “I’d be in favor.”

Some American officials I’ve spoken with worry that this would enrage Xi. Yes, it might. Frankly, it’s also not clear that many Chinese want to access the outside internet, for they don’t much use tools like Ultrasurf and Psiphon that already enable them to do so (with a bit of difficulty).

Those are fair concerns, but I worry even more about the rise of nationalism in China inculcated in part by the Communist Party’s education system and propaganda machine. I’ve seen over the decades how a freer flow of information eventually can liberate minds and peoples, and the world would be better off if that process unfolded in China.

Then there’s a third step, still more delicate and dangerous: The U.S. intelligence community should gather information on the corruption in the Xi family that has allowed it to amass a huge fortune — with a hint that if China undertakes a brutal crackdown of Hong Kong or an assault on Taiwan, this information will slip out. This is what Xi fears most, and we shouldn’t pass up that leverage.

I love China and believe in engaging it. We should try to work out a trade deal and cooperate on issues from climate change to drug trafficking. But let’s push back when Xi tries to stifle free discussion not only in China but also in America.

Otherwise, if American business continues to kowtow, some day there may be a knock on the door, and there’ll be “Uncle Xi” sternly asking us to hand over Pooh Bear.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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