Chinese censorship back in the WTO spotlight

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As the financial crisis is progressing, relations between China and the United States are becoming increasingly strained. As the US struggles to get its economy back on the rails, voices arguing that Chinese monetary and economic policies engender unfair consequences for US enterprises are growing in strength. On 20 October, the USTR filed a WTO case against China concerning anti-dumping measures on broiler products, as well as a GATS Article III:4 request for information concerning China’s Internet censorship policies.


This is not the first time that the US addresses Chinese censorship in the WTO. Most notably, it won the DS363 China – Audiovisual case, in which it was found that a number of Chinese media control measures violated WTO rules. However, this request for information is different. Rather than attacking substantive aspects of Chinese censorship policy, it asks China to provide more clarity about censorship procedure. More specifically, as the Great Firewall allegedly sometimes blocks the websites of US services suppliers, the US requests information about the criteria for blockage, the relevant ministries and decisionmakers, potential routes for appeal or redress, and the way domestic and foreign services suppliers are treated.


This action may have significant consequences. China’s censorship system is vague, opaque and complex, party because of domestic overlapping administrations, but also in order to ensure that websites aren’t tempted to explore the boundaries of what is permissible and to maximize discretion to intervene. However, if China does not satisfactorily answer the US questions, it may find itself confronted with a new WTO case. It can reasonably be expected that China will invoke national security as a justification for its censorship regime, which means that it may be necessary to come up with a WTO definition for this term.


In any case, this is a very clever move by the United States. By concentrating on procedural aspects, it avoids opening up the Pandora’s box that are substantive censorship rules. But more importantly, by concentrating on the commitments that China voluntarily made when joining on the WTO, China may be forced to show its hand on committing to the rules-based international trading system.



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