The Magazine

The Media Kowtow

Why is the coverage of China’s government so obsequious?

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Of course, there’s a cottage industry of commentators dedicated to complaining about Friedman. And it’s tempting to dismiss him as a lone bloviator, but he’s not exactly a voice in the wilderness. Last year the Times published a baffling op-ed from a self-described “overeducated” Ivy Leaguer who left a dead-end job to move to Beijing and teach English and, bizarrely, used the experience to appeal to the supporters of the then-popular Occupy Wall Street movement:

To the Occupiers and their sympathizers, I say vote—not with the ballot, but with your feet. Now that your encampment has disbanded, don’t just leave Zuccotti Park: leave America. For China. .  .  . China wants you. Job prospects [for English speakers] are abundant. The effects of the Great Recession of 2008 may be felt in the United States for years, but they barely scratched China.

Maybe this was a humor column. It’s certainly grimly amusing to picture Occupy Wall Street sympathizers packing up en masse and heading to China. There they could express disgust with income inequality in America by watching Chinese peasants do things such as collect and save their own excrement to use as fertilizer in their gardens, lest they go hungry.

Of course, one of the reasons for the kid-gloves treatment of China by the American punditry is that Western visitors are largely confined to the modern cities, and never see how the vast majority of the Chinese population scrapes by. That’s not really a worry, though, because if you want to know how the other 99 percent live—or at least the 95 percent or so that do not belong to the Communist party—the Chinese government is eager to tell our Times-approved tour guide from Bejing what to think:

There are problems here, of course. China is a nation that unapologetically rejects Western democracy—and yet I am surprised to find that Chinese citizens and the news media have as much freedom as they do. For my money, CCTV News English, a channel offered by China’s major state television broadcaster, is more fair and balanced than Fox News.

Saying “There are problems here, of course” in describing a country that has a brisk market in organs harvested from executed political prisoners might be understating things a bit.

Perhaps the overeducated columnist was unaware that, outside of whatever’s being pumped into televisions in Bejing’s English classrooms, the Chinese journalistic establishment has a unique feature known as “internal reference publications.” In China, the state media pump out so much propaganda that the country’s rulers found it impossible to govern effectively without accurate information. So the party set up its own shadow news media that are held to much more rigorous standards, and the reports they produce are not available to the general public. Perhaps a similar arrangement would benefit the readers of the New York Times opinion pages.

Credit where credit is due: Times readers do have an internal reference publication—it’s called the news section. On Christmas Day 2011, a few weeks before the Times op-ed columnist suggested that economically frustrated Americans should regard China as a giant temp agency with exotic food, the following story appeared in the news pages:

China’s state-run media have had a field day this autumn with Occupy Wall Street, spinning an almost daily morality play about capitalism gone amok and an American government unable or unwilling to aid the victims of a rapacious elite. Occupy Wukan is another matter entirely. The state press has been all but mute on why 13,000 Chinese citizens, furious over repeated rip-offs by their village elite, sent their leaders fleeing to safety and repulsed efforts by the police to retake Wukan. But the village takeover can be ignored only at Beijing’s peril: There are at least 625,000 potential Wukans across China, all small, locally run villages that frequently suffer the sorts of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.

Indeed, once you venture away from the opinion pages, the Times’s reporting on China is pretty good. This is not just the situation at the Times, either. It’s generally true that while oppression and human rights abuses remain undercovered by pundits and talking heads, the correspondents concerned with who, what, where, and when are giving a far more reliable and accurate assessment of China.

This disconnect reflects the fact that the pundits at the top of the media food chain regurgitate a consensus among political elites who are either in denial or actively covering up the human rights horrors of modern-day China.

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