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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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The problem of China and Western intellectuals is hardly new. “Four hundred years ago, when Italian and French Jesuits went to China, they saw all that was trivial and missed all that was essential,” writes French author Guy Sorman in Empire of Lies: The Truth About China in the Twenty-First Century. “In Les Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, a 1702 bestseller written by French Jesuits, the Chinese people were portrayed as an amorphous superstitious mass, whereas the Confucian mandarins were deemed by our great travelers to be delightful men of letters. So deep was the imprint they left on the Enlightenment philosophers, Leibniz and Voltaire in particular, that Voltaire lived in the hope of Europe being ruled by an enlightened despot and enjoying a godless morality.” 

If the mystique that China is culturally ill-suited for democracy can rook the guy who helped invent differential calculus, Tom Friedman has to be a comparatively easy mark. But unlike today’s amateur Sinologists, Leibniz and Voltaire weren’t around to watch a group of supposedly enlightened mandarins turn their country into a giant graveyard, as Mao and his acolytes did.

For much of that time, the Cold War provided at least a fig leaf of justification for ignoring horrific events such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Engagement with China by the West was seen almost exclusively through the lens of containing the Soviets. The human costs of looking the other way regarding China’s misdeeds could be balanced against the potential costs of failing to counterbalance the Soviets in Asia.

But 40 years later in a different geopolitical context, the image of Nixon and Kissinger going to China and winning over the inscrutable Maoists has been fetishized as the platonic ideal of foreign policy genius. Thus the odd legacy of undue reverence surrounding U.S.-China relations. One telling example of this is that the China specialists in our foreign policy-industrial complex are known as “China hands.” If you opened a newspaper and read of official concern that “Norwegian hands will be displeased with the Export-Import Bank’s decision,” you’d laugh yourself silly at the notion of a body of experts on Norway whose opinion must be heeded. But with the China hands, we’re expected to acknowledge that the country’s complexities are beyond the understanding of all but a select few and to follow their lead in obfuscating the Chinese government’s oppression and cruelty.

James Mann, the Los Angeles Times’s former Beijing bureau chief, was so bothered by this state of affairs that a few years ago he wrote The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression. The book is a taxonomy of all the transparently misleading buzz words, tropes, and justifications that brought us to the point where we “assume repression as a baseline,” says Mann. The argument is skillfully presented and damning, which perhaps explains its lack of impact. The book has, however, made navigating the sidewalks of Washington, D.C., a little easier for Mann. “There are now people that cross the street when they see me,” he says.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the pervasively optimistic view of modern-day China is that most of us can remember the brief-but-revelatory moment when there was widespread clarity about the essential nature of the regime. Tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The world watched as the People’s Liberation Army fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed protesters. Rickshaws carried away body after body, but still thousands refused to leave. The government eventually succeeded in clearing and blockading the square, in part by entering the crowd with tanks and crushing people under the treads. When protesters tried to reenter the area on June 5, many were shot in the back as they were driven away. Later that same day, one brave man stood alone in the middle of Beijing’s Chang’an Boulevard, bringing a line of tanks to a complete stop, and the image almost instantly became part of the iconography of freedom.

Throughout most of the 1980s, economic liberalization in China had been encouraged. But with Tiananmen Square, the fiction that China was on its way to transforming into something other than a party-run state evaporated. Network news devoted 25 percent of its airtime for 20 days to the situation in China. American political leaders were unanimous in their disapproval, filling the Congressional Record with 3,000 pages of condemnation.

Then in a rather tragic bit of irony, the protesters in Tiananmen Square found interest in their cause overtaken by the failure of communism elsewhere. In August, Poland acquired the first noncommunist government in the East Bloc. In September, massive protests broke out in East Germany, the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union and its empire. The courageous Chinese democracy activists probably even played a role in bringing down the Iron Curtain, though they rarely get credit for it. When the kommissars in East Germany began debating whether to violently put down the gathering crowds at the Berlin Wall, no doubt the swift and universal condemnation of the Tiananmen Square crackdown a few months earlier weighed on their minds. The Berlin Wall came down on November 9.

The Bush administration was soon preoccupied with the unwinding of the Soviet empire, and China took a backseat. In his book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights, James Peck lays out a disturbing narrative showing how quickly concerns about China dissipated following Tiananmen Square. He quotes Douglas Paal, a China specialist on the Bush administration’s National Security Council staff: “We were not interested in adding China to the list of basket cases. We had no interest in pushing them over the edge.” Still, Tiananmen Square was not completely forgotten by Congress. The Bush administration had extended Most Favored Nation status to China, and Democrats twice proposed legislation that would tie China’s trade benefits to improvements in human rights. Both bills attracted significant support from Republicans, and both were vetoed by Bush.

But to the extent there was bipartisan agreement about China’s human rights abuses, that comity was definitively wrecked by Bill Clinton. As a candidate, Clinton had attacked Bush for not supporting the human rights legislation and decried the “bloody butchers of Beijing.” In his 1992 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Clinton promised “an America that will not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing.”

Once president, though, he found that China’s cheap labor force and huge consumer market were of increasing importance to American business. Clinton initially convinced Democratic leaders to shelve their China legislation by promising an executive order to link trade and human rights. The order was revoked within a year as business interests grew skittish over the looming deadline. In the early 1990s, the U.S. government had regularly issued statements in defense of Chinese dissidents. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, the practice had been curbed substantially.

U.S. rhetoric turned positively triumphal, as if Communist China would be swept away any day now. The Congressional Record was no longer full of denunciations of Chinese human rights abuses, but assurances that continued economic engagement would usher in a free China. Naturally, Clinton was a major proponent of this argument. In 1997, he told Jiang Zemin, “You’re on the wrong side of history,” confident that economic engagement would “increase the spirit of liberty over time .  .  . just as inevitably as the Berlin Wall fell.”

By 1999, there was already almost no daylight on China between Clinton and soon-to-be President George W. Bush. “The case for trade is not just monetary, but moral,” Bush said in one of his first foreign policy speeches. “Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy.” He added, “Trade freely with China, and time is on our side.”

But 24 years after Tiananmen Square and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist party in China is still thriving. It looks increasingly like China isn’t necessarily on the wrong side of history, so much as critics of China are on the wrong side of the American business and foreign policy establishment.

There’s a strong case to be made in favor of economic engagement with China. To the extent that China has awkwardly embraced capitalism in the last 30 years or so, economic conditions have undeniably improved as a result. In a country with a billion people whose living standards are deplorable, that’s not something to dismiss lightly. But at the very least this progress must be weighed against the high cost of American business interests going out of their way to silence criticism of China’s human rights record in order to curry favor with the Chinese government.

When America’s post-Tiananmen China policy was being hashed out, the rapid emergence of the Internet was frequently cited as a reason for optimism about China. Not only would the Chinese government no longer be able to control the free flow of information within their borders—American technology companies would get rich selling them technology that would ultimately be the Communists’ undoing. In 2000, Senator Kent Conrad argued for “increas[ing] the presence of American and other Western firms in China. It will open China to the Internet and other advanced telecommunications technologies that, over time, will expose average Chinese to our thoughts, values, and ideals on human rights, workers’ rights, and democracy.”

This Internet-fueled optimism about China still runs rampant. But so far there’s little reason to think the Internet will be the country’s salvation. The government claims it employs some two million people to monitor and censor the Internet, and goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the Great Firewall remains intact. In 2006, suspected Chinese government agents broke into the home of Yuan Li, a Falun Gong practitioner who helps Chinese dissidents circumvent the government’s Internet controls, and beat him. They stole his computers, cell phone, hard drive, and briefcase. This is business as usual in China, but the Princeton-educated Li happened to live in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, not only does it appear American technology companies have done little if anything to help the Chinese people—in some cases they’ve actively aided government oppression. In September 2005, Hunan journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending the Chinese Propaganda Department’s directives to a website that advocates democracy. Specifically, it was a memo warning journalists not to publish anything relating to Chinese dissidents marking the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. It emerged that Shi Tao had sent the directives using a Yahoo email address, and that Yahoo ceded to the demands of Chinese police and revealed his identity. When Yahoo’s CEO was asked about his company’s complicity, he responded, “We respect the customs of the countries where we do business.”

And indeed, Yahoo’s doing a lot of business in China. Thanks to its respect for China’s customary repression of free speech, less than a year after Shi Tao was arrested, the Chinese government allowed the company to purchase a hefty stake in the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, known as the “Amazon.com of China.” To celebrate the purchase, Yahoo threw an expensive party. The guest of honor was none other than Bill Clinton.

The former president was surely aware of Yahoo’s collusion in the arrest of Shi Tao, which had made international news, but he chose not to exercise any moral leadership in defense of the imprisoned journalist. In 2011, Yahoo donated $50,000 to Clinton’s foundation and webcast the foundation’s benefit concert, “A Decade of Difference: A Concert Celebrating 10 Years of the William J. Clinton Foundation,” featuring Lady Gaga, Usher, Kenny Chesney, and Bono. As for Yahoo, it still owns about a quarter of Alibaba. The company is expected to file an IPO next year valuing Alibaba at as much as $100 billion, which should prove extremely profitable for Yahoo.

Yahoo is far from alone. U.S. business leaders have been less than subtle in their attempts to encourage the political establishment to espouse pro-business positions, even when they conflict with human rights concerns. Insurance magnate Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who oversees the multibillion-dollar C. V. Starr Foundation, has a history of being involved with and funding many of the biggest institutions in Washington’s foreign policy establishment—including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Nixon Center, and the Brookings Institution.

In 2000, the Washington Post reported that Greenberg wrote a letter threatening to cut funding to the Heritage Foundation—the Starr Foundation had given the conservative think tank at least $100,000 a year during the previous decade—over a report Heritage had produced that questioned the rush to lower trade barriers with China. “It is critical that Congress not allow the [Clinton] administration’s haste in this matter to hinder its own consideration of other priority interests with China, such as national security and human rights,” read the report. The Washington Post dryly noted Greenberg’s firm “would benefit from a trade deal with China.”

Greenberg is no longer as active in the business world. He stepped down from running American International Group (AIG) in 2005. But he still heads the influential Starr Foundation, and his opinions of China do not appear to have softened. Mann observes that Greenberg “has repeatedly belittled the idea that the United States government should give emphasis to human rights or democracy in its policy toward China.” In 2007, he wrote in the National Interest, “The histories and cultures of countries are vastly different, so it is unrealistic to expect China to have a political system that parallels any other.” It’s also unrealistic to expect Chinese political culture to change when foreign governments and businesses take Beijing’s side as it oppresses beleaguered dissidents.

Of course, whitewashing China’s abuses of power isn’t just about money. Some people do these things for free. There are still plenty of ideologues willing to rationalize the failure of communism or deny it outright.  

If you want a near-perfect mélange of all the credulous pieties tossed around whenever China is discussed, it would be hard to top Andy Stern’s December 2011 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. Stern is the former head of the Service Employees International Union, arguably America’s most politically influential union. After driving the SEIU deep into debt and spending $80 million on Democratic campaigns in 2008, Stern was the second-most frequent visitor to the White House during Barack Obama’s first year in office behind then-SEIU treasurer Anna Burger. It would be hard to find a better weather vane than Stern for what the American left thinks about any given topic.

To witness China’s “people-oriented devlopment,” Stern made a short visit to Chongqing, “a city of 32 million in Western China, which is led by an aggressive and popular Communist Party leader” (i.e., the now-imprisoned Bo Xilai). He was impressed enough to write an op-ed titled “China’s Superior Economic Model.” Suffice it to say, Stern is easily impressed:

Last month, the China Daily quoted Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, as saying: “I think we have come to realize the ability to plan is exactly what is missing in America.” The article also noted that Robert Engle, who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for economics, has said that while China is making five-year plans for the next generation, Americans are planning only for the next election. .  .  .

The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model—so successful in the 20th century—is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century. In an era when countries need to become economic teams, Team USA’s results—a jobless decade, 30 years of flat median wages, a trade deficit, a shrinking middle class and phenomenal gains in wealth but only for the top 1%—are pathetic.

So there you have it—one of America’s best-known labor leaders approvingly cites an official propaganda outlet of the Chinese government, which in turn cites a famous “China hand” lamenting America’s unwillingness to centrally plan our economy. Stern then trots out the Occupy Wall Street talking points. For reasons both obvious and dishonest, he doesn’t bother explicitly discussing how America stacks up to China when it comes to income inequality and other economic benchmarks. Stern rounds out his op-ed by quoting an American executive with substantial business interests in China—Intel chairman Andy Grove—praising  government economic planning and making an explicit reference to Thomas Friedman’s bestseller The World Is Flat.

But while the Chinese government may tell gullible foreigners that it values “people-oriented development,” the people themselves tell a different story. Like most Americans, Stern probably isn’t familiar with Wei Jingsheng, even though he might be China’s best-known dissident. Wei’s story is recounted in Sorman’s Empire of Lies. As a teenager, Wei traveled across China as part of the Red Guard and was deeply and permanently affected by the poverty he encountered. As an adult, Wei flouted authorities by living with a Tibetan girl—at the time, Chinese marriages had to be sanctioned by the workplace. When Wei was 29 years old in 1978, Deng Xiao-ping was trying to drum up support for his economic modernization plans and asked supporters to put up posters on a wall in Xidan. Wei decided to put up a poster in support of “political modernization.”

“History shows that there must be a limit to the power conferred on any one individual. Those who ask for the unreserved trust of the people are consumed by unrestrained ambition,” read Wei’s poster. “We must choose people whom we can trust and, more importantly, make them accountable to ensure that the will of the majority is carried out. We can only trust such representatives as those we elect ourselves and who are accountable to us.”

Not only did Wei publicly call for democracy, he signed his name at the bottom of his poster. Soon people were gathering around the wall in Xidan every day, and his poster was being read out loud to the crowds. Deng had the wall razed and Wei arrested. As a result of his newfound notoriety, Wei had given an interview to a foreign journalist. That was enough to accuse him of selling state secrets. Wei was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. We know Wei’s conviction was a sham because a courageous journalist—Liu Qing—smuggled out an audio recording of the trial. For that, Qing earned his own 10-year stint in prison.

By all accounts, the conditions in China’s so-called laogai facilities are horrific. Wei was not a cooperative prisoner. “I was happier than [my jailers] because I lived out my conviction, whereas the others just did what they were told,” he told Sorman. Still, Wei suffered greatly—among other things, he lost all his teeth from malnutrition. But even after serving out his 15-year sentence, Wei decided he was not done sending a message to the government. Here’s the part of the story where Andy Stern might want to pay attention: Wei was arrested again and sent back to a labor camp for the crime of trying to form a union.

After nearly 18 years, the Chinese government realized they weren’t going to break Wei, and he’s now been exiled to the United States. Looking back on his experience, Wei told Sorman, “At that time, I hadn’t read Western philosophers like Montesquieu or John Locke; but I was sufficiently informed to know that democracy was better than communism.” It’s more than a little troubling to reflect on how many influential Americans can’t say the same.

Stern’s left-wing politics aside, there was another disconcerting aspect of his op-ed: “I was part of a U.S.-China dialogue,” he explained, “a trip organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the Center for American Progress—with high-ranking Chinese government officials, both past and present.” 

Owing to its close association with the Obama administration, the Center for American Progress has emerged as the most influential liberal think tank in the country. The China-United States Exchange Foundation, which was established in 2008, is a more curious organization. The chairman is Tung Chee Hwa, who following Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty in 1997 became the titular head of the newly minted Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. As chief executive and president of the executive council of Hong Kong, Tung Chee Hwa was not exactly beloved—in 2003, 500,000 protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong demanding his resignation. He resigned in 2005 before finishing his second term. While Tung Chee Hwa was technically an elected official, his family owes its incredibly successful shipping business to its close relationship with the Chinese government. A quick perusal of the other Chinese leaders involved in the organization reveals a great many ties to the Chinese government. 

Stern’s op-ed was not the first time this alliance between America’s institutional left and the Chinese government resulted in favorable press. In the years before Stern’s trip to China, junkets sponsored by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the Center for American Progress brought a slew of young liberal pundits to China. The resulting spate of publicity had to be read to be believed, or in this case, not believed. The New Republic filed dispatches about China building an “eco-utopia.” MSNBC host Chris Hayes’s article in the Nation appeared, with no apparent sense of irony, under the headline: “The Great Leap.”

But for sheer credulousness, it would be hard to top the dispatch from the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. As part of his trip in May 2010, Klein and his fellow junketeers were brought to a new condo development on the outskirts of the city of Dalian. The condo development was built on the site of an existing village, so Klein asked what had happened to those who previously inhabited the land where the new condos now stood:

The obvious question with this sort of rapid development is what happens to the people who had the shack that sat on the land where the government wanted to put condos? The answer, at least in Dalian, was that they bought the previous inhabitants off. A conversation with some residents revealed that they didn’t just get one free apartment in the new building. They got four free apartments, three of which they were now renting out. And medical coverage. And money for furnishings. And a food stipend. And—I’m not kidding, by the way—birthday cakes on their birthdays. Sweet deal.

Now, the fact of the matter is that many of the massive development projects in China are enabled by forced relocation and seizure of property—the Chinese government displaced some 1.5 million people just to build the facilities used to host the 2008 Olympics. Even if the details Klein reported were true of the particular development he toured, living conditions in China are decidedly not a “sweet deal.” There are dozens of villages in China where AIDS infection rates top 70 percent. That’s because the government denied the existence of the disease for years, while an underground blood donor trade flourished among poor Chinese who were desperate to earn extra money to pay off the country’s corrupt tax collectors and one-child policy enforcers. But villages like that were not part of the tour. Instead, Klein and his fellow travelers were taken to a condo development, and left believing the Chinese government gives people medical care, housing, rental properties, and—no kidding—birthday cakes.

Clearly, more skepticism of Chinese authorities is in order. The opening of China’s economy may have done a lot to improve living standards, but despite what you may have read, there’s little evidence this automatically correlates with more political liberty. One place the money has gone is into a surge in public security spending, which comes as so-called mass incidents, everything from strikes to riots and demonstrations, are on the rise. There were at least 180,000 such incidents in 2010, twice as many as in 2006, Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said in a February 25 article in the Economic Observer.

As bad as that sounds, the good news is that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest China is responsive to global opinion and can be nudged in the right direction. It was international outrage that caused China to finally admit it had an AIDS epidemic. It was international pressure that saved many of its famous dissidents, such as Wei Jing-sheng. Most recently, the Chinese government grudgingly allowed Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who fought to protect thousands of Chinese women from the horrors of forced abortion, to travel to the United States last year after his escape from house arrest. The Chinese government was also forced by global denunciations to release celebrated artist and social critic Ai Weiwei after his 2011 arrest.

Despite these success stories, the China debate is still largely governed by those who insist that applying too much political pressure will undermine China’s economic progress. But Dan Blumenthal, a member of the congressional United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission and one of the few China experts in Washington who makes a genuine effort to be appropriately critical, observes that economic progress actually makes the Chinese government more susceptible to international political pressure.

“The growing middle and upper classes want to be accepted by the West and thought of as cosmopolitan and law-abiding,” he writes. “There is an increasing divergence between the parochial party cadre who run China’s government and the country’s vibrant populace. But the Communist Party is .  .  . beholden to a more cosmopolitan elite who are embarrassed by their leadership’s policies. This development is one lesson of Ai Weiwei’s release.”

Unfortunately, just as the opportunity to apply additional pressure on China is presenting itself, influential American opinion shapers, ranging from Yahoo to the Washington Post, increasingly have vested interests in appeasing the Chinese government. But the cause of a free China is a worthy one, and a good first step toward achieving it is to build a consensus that it’s unacceptable for major media outlets to routinely insist on the glories of China’s leadership.

Perhaps the only way to do that is to confront those at the very top of the media food chain. Somebody’s going to have to start somewhere, and Jeff Bezos assumed control of the Washington Post on October 1. Maybe the threat of losing one newspaper subscription doesn’t mean much to a guy who’s worth $27 billion, but I don’t think demanding that the Washington Post stop taking money from the Chinese government and distributing its propaganda is too much to ask.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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