As China and the United States engage in high-level negotiations over a possible trade deal, it’s puzzling to see what’s been left off the table: the Chinese internet market. China blocks or hinders nearly every important foreign competitor online, including Google, Facebook, Wikipedia in Chinese, Pinterest, Line (the major Japanese messaging company), Reddit and The New York Times. Even Peppa Pig, a British cartoon character and internet video sensation, has been censored on and off; an editorial in the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper once warned that she could “destroy children’s youth.”
China has long defended its censorship as a political matter, a legitimate attempt to protect citizens from what the government regards as “harmful information,” including material that “spreads unhealthy lifestyles and pop culture.” But you don’t need to be a trade theorist to realize that the censorship is also an extremely effective barrier to international trade. The global internet economy is worth at least $8 trillion and growing, yet the Trump administration has focused chiefly on manufacturing, technology transfers and agriculture, and does not seem to have pressed for concessions on this issue.