As we work to surmount this challenge, we need to remind ourselves that our own American route to a vibrant free press was not a straight line; our approach was neither consistent nor wholly admirable. We too sent people to jail merely for giving speeches or publishing commentary that the government claimed would undermine public order. We too tried to enjoin the press from publishing official secrets. We too denied the press access to newsworthy events and information.

What we ended up discarding is currently accepted in some parts of the world. China, in particular, appears to be struggling with a commitment to a more or less open economic system and a relatively closed communications system. Two contrasting interpretations of contemporary China have been emerging. One view surmises that the sophisticated leadership of China understands and accepts that the changes in Chinese citizens produced by the adoption of capitalism will inevitably result in greater demands for intellectual openness. It’s just a matter of time, according to this view. But another view from serious China observers is that the leadership believes quite the opposite—that they can have both sustained economic growth and a closely controlled society. They see these societal characteristics not as inconsistent or in tension but as complementary. Many are watching to see how this great debate between two competing visions of contemporary China will be resolved and which will ultimately prevail.

Persuading the Chinese that it is a mistake to choose a closed society may not be easy. Up to this point in our history, the dialogue about such matters has generally been about human rights. Clearly, the concept of human rights has been one of the great advances in human civilization. But one of the key aspects of globalization is that, because all of us are directly and adversely affected by the suppression of information in any one nation, we have additional reasons for objecting to censorship, beyond our noble concern for human rights.

Are we ready and able to make the case to the Chinese that they will be better off if they choose a path of openness and an independent press? Arguments about truth, democratic self-governance, and tolerance will be difficult to develop persuasively for China. But China believes in the national benefits of a free-market economic system. A more effective argument, then, may be that openness over time may be linked to sustained economic growth. The argument might go like this: Right now you are able to grow economically, at a rate never before witnessed in human history, because you have a natural base in manufacturing and exporting goods, which does not require a high level of societal creativity and innovation. At some point, however, you are going to lose that advantage, and your success will then depend upon a culture and social character that thrives on independent thinking and creativity. There is, moreover, a direct link between the commitment to a vigorous free press (as well as free speech) and that kind of character. You would be wise to begin to cultivate that shift.

I have to admit that we have precious little study, analysis, and data to support such an argument, even though I believe it. It is a different tack from the one we have successfully employed in this country to develop our own commitment to a free press. We would be wise to expand our understanding of freedom of the press and its relation to all the things we value—including a vibrant economy—to make a stronger case for openness in the global debate.

Beyond control and censorship is another question: What do we need to do to make sure we’re getting the information and ideas—the quality as well as the amount—we need for dealing with this new global society? How do we build up our capacity to produce the journalism we need?

Before we get to that, some quick observations:

Lee C. Bollinger is the president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide Open: A Free Press for a New Century (Oxford, 2010). This article is adapted from a September 2010 lecture delivered by Bollinger at the University of Illinois College of Law. A previous version was published in the University of Illinois Law Review.