The Zakaria-Friedman Complex: How & Why the Establishment Media Whitewashes China

by: David Sirota

Thu Sep 17, 2009 at 09:15

Thanks to all of you who read my recent "American Griswold In China" series. this summer I got a lot of email about the series, and I hope it gave you a glimpse of what I saw on my trip. Just to conclude that series, I want to pass on the sum-up newspaper column I wrote about it, which you can read here.

What's been amazing to me since coming back from China is reviewing the Very Important Writing and Reporting about China from the D.C. Villagers that has been published here in the United States over the last few years. It is just mind-boggling to see how grossly uninformed the supposed international "experts" are - and how much they've misinformed their American readers about China. I say this after reading Tom Friedman's latest hagiography trumpeting China's authoritarian government and lack of democracy - but we'll get to him in a minute.

First, let's take a writer considered even more "serious" than Friedman - Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. He is almost universally billed in the American media as a Very Serious expert on such questions as China. He gets this billing thanks to pieces like this one, entitled "Does the Future Belong to China?" I won't go line-for-line dissecting the whole piece because all you need to read to know this piece is a steaming pile of propagandistic bullshit is this paragraph:

China has grown around 9 percent a year for more than 25 years, the fastest growth rate for a major economy in recorded history. In that same period it has moved 300 million people out of poverty and quadrupled the average Chinese person's income. And all this has happened, so far, without catastrophic social upheavals. The Chinese leadership has to be given credit for this historic achievement.

Zakaria's piece was written in 2002, just 13 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, which, I'd say is "catastrophic social upheaval," considering the death toll. The Tiananmen massacre, of course, comes on top of the scores of riots and uprisings that have happened - and still do happen - daily in China. And that says nothing of the social upheaval that the Chinese Communist Party itself creates - the kind where it bulldozes neighborhoods, towns and swaths of cities and/or helps corporations defile communities' basic natural resources. But to a "journalist" like Zakaria, who likely never travels beyond the Shanghai Four Seasons if/when he ever visits China, that's not significant "social upheaval" - and he certainly doesn't see it as "catastrophic" because it only affects the peasantry. In fact, what he sees is a nation that is so calm and placid and benevolently run that its "leadership has to be given credit."

Now, let's go back to Friedman. His latest column on China touts the country as - I shit you not - the world's leader in environmental conservation. "You might think that China is only interested in polluting its way to prosperity," he gushes. "That was once true, but it isn't anymore."

David Sirota :: The Zakaria-Friedman Complex: How & Why the Establishment Media Whitewashes China
Again, I'm not going to go through all the data and statistics about China's pollution, its despoiled water supplies, its defiled cities, and its carbon emissions. Friedman's assertion should be absurd on its face to anyone who has ever bothered to visit interior China.

And maybe that's the same problem that he shares with Zakaria: Friedman, like his Newsweek counterpart and his international "expert" counterparts in other corners of the American media, seems only to tout his visits to China's coastal cities - and seems never to visit the interior of the country where most Chinese live. From his undoubtedly lavish accommodations in places like Dailan, he tells us that China is a nation "of wide avenues, skyscrapers, green spaces, software parks and universities." And sure, there are some places in China that have those things - but he implies that's the whole country, which is grossly inaccurate.

Zakaria and Friedman are only two of our much-esteemed China "experts" - but they are emblematic of the broader problem whereby the American media is depicting China only in the way the corporate Establishment wants.

You see, it's not just the Chinese Communist Party that wants China to look great - it's Big Money interests, too. Corporations don't want criticism of China's human rights or environmental policies (or lack thereof), because they don't want our government to take any action that might shut down those interests' ability to exploit those policies for profit. Multinational manufacturers, for instance, want to be able to keep cutting costs by dumping chemical byproducts in China's rivers and emitting carbon in China's skies - and they want to keep doing that without having to face any sanctions/tariffs when they export their cheap Chinese-made products to the United States.

It's the same for many other industries - and they need Very Important "Experts" like Zakaria and Friedman to create a Conventional Wisdom about China that ignores, omits and downplays the most obvious and uncomfortable questions. But those questions persist - the challenge is forcing them to be asked.

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Oh yes you should provide the facts. (4.00 / 1)
When you say things like, "I'm not going to go through all the data and statistics about China's pollution, its despoiled water supplies, its defiled cities, and its carbon emissions," readers will be inclined to question why.  The choir might not, but those not automatically on board with you will.  So it does help to cite specific examples and statistics when debunking the outright lies of lying liars like Friedman and Zakaria.

American media (0.00 / 0)
 Every subject the American so called media addresses is depicted "only in the way the corporate establishment wants". That is a large part of the problem. The public has been propagandized into believing so many "facts" that are just not true that your (and our) job is a constant battle to get the truth out in the face of their HUGE megaphone that is unavailable to us. They even have convinced a large number of people they are liberal although most talking heads could not state the liberal position on any subject. Liberal media; just another lie by the people with no facts on their side.                    

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR

Reality Check (4.00 / 5)
One way China ensures "social peace" is by suppressing news that could cause social unrest.  Such as a World Bank Report that 3/4 of a million Chinese die annually as a result of air pollution--mostly outdoor, but a good share indoor--a rather hefty "externalized cost" for their booming economy.  From the Financial Times in 2007:

750,000 a year killed by Chinese pollution
By Richard McGregor in Beijing

Beijing engineered the removal of nearly a third of a World Bank report on pollution in China because of concerns that findings on premature deaths could provoke "social unrest".

The report, produced in co-operation with Chinese government ministries over several years, found about 750,000 people die prematurely in China each year, mainly from air pollution in large cities.

China's State Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and health ministry asked the World Bank to cut the calculations of premature deaths from the report when a draft was finished last year, according to Bank advisers and Chinese officials.

Advisers to the research team said ministries told them this information, including a detailed map showing which parts of the country suffered the most deaths, was too sensitive.

"The World Bank was told that it could not publish this information. It was too sensitive and could cause social unrest," one adviser to the study told the Financial Times.

Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, according to previous World Bank research.

Guo Xiaomin, a retired Sepa official who co-ordinated the Chinese research team, said some material was omitted from the pollution report because of concerns that the methodology was unreliable. But he also said such information on premature deaths "could cause misunderstanding".

"We did not announce these figures. We did not want to make this report too thick," he said in an interview.

The pared-down report, "Cost of Pollution in China", has yet to be officially launched but a version, which can be downloaded from the internet was released at a conference in Beijing in March.

Missing from this report are the research project's findings that high air-pollution levels in Chinese cities is leading to the premature deaths of 350,000-400,000 people each year. A further 300,000 people die prematurely each year from exposure to poor air indoors, according to advisers, but little discussion of this issue survived in the report because it was outside the ambit of the Chinese ministries which sponsored the research.

Another 60,000-odd premature deaths were attributable to poor-quality water, largely in the countryside, from severe diarrhoea, and stomach, liver and bladder cancers.

The mortality information was "reluctantly" excised by the World Bank from the published report, according to advisers to the research project.

Sepa and the health ministry declined to comment. The World Bank said that the findings of the report were still being discussed with the government.

Ah, China!  The future, indeed!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

A slap in the face for neoliberal scum like Zakaria and Friedman (4.00 / 3)
 -- will always get applause from me.

More detail, as Kwiatkowsky calls for in his comment, would certainly be welcome. Perhaps in an expanded (professional) article on fact-based reality vs purveyors of error-filled conventional wisdom...I recognize your post as what it is, a quick blog post.

Another piece of the puzzle (0.00 / 0)
China is taking the lead in "green tech" investment, development, manufacture, etc. Of course, part of the reason for this is that many of these industries involve extremely toxic materials, by-products and manufacturing methods that won't be highly regulated there -- so Big Capital, as ever placing profits over people and the environment, loves it.

I Couldn't Help It! (0.00 / 0)

China Celebrates Its Status As World's Number One Air Polluter

I am totally in favor of health care reform.
I am diametrically opposed to health insurance reform.

I would not consider (0.00 / 0)
Tiananmen Square nor the type of clashes you linked to as "catastrophic social upheaval".  There's conflict to be sure, but none of it is catastrophic and none has caused significant social upheaval.

On pollution, the article you cite even says "in too many places, its people can't breathe, fish, swim, drive or even see because of pollution and climate change."  It totally acknowledges that it's a dirty country now, but is commenting that their forward-looking programs are far better than our own.

I can't find any mention of skyscrapers in any of the articles you linked, so I can't comment on that.

This whole article feels like a excuse to puff up yourself and your travels.

Some Ground Zero Observations (4.00 / 1)
I just read David's diary of his travels in China. It was somewhat comical to see that his reactions and observations sounded just like mine when I first came to China some 8 years ago. I say, "comical" because traveling to another dimension (as he put it), was incredibly traumatic to me; if felt like a nightmare of which I was sure never to wake up.

Overall, David's comments and observations are accurately consistent with mine, down to the micro detail, as I would comment today, after 8 years in China.

As for pollution, there's no way to collect true statistics, that could match direct, and personal observation. But there is one aspect that I have never heard anyone mention as the greatest source of waste and pollution: Poor quality products, which force the yearly growth appear higher ever-more. When "growth" means replacing a large number of last years' poor products, the growth is questionable.  

Hardly anything that is produced for consumer consumption can be expected to last more than a few months. Although this isn't an absolute universal fact, because China does in fact produce many high quality products, much of it is waste. This alone tells one that a product that should last ten or more years, has to be made again and again every six months or year, more than quadrupling the resource consumption.

There are many reasons for this, and without making any effort at listing them, I will give a few examples, that are close to home. When my coffee carafe, which is made of glass broke, I could only get a replacement from the one single manufacturer that made it. Manufacturers phase out old models in just a few years, so if you bought your machine at the end of the run, and needed a replacement part... tough luck. You need to buy a completely new machine.

Appliances are made with a very wide variety of plugs, which makes it necessary that sockets be designed to receive all of them. They have a clever way of designing plugs so they will accept a variety of plugs, but you always need an extension cord that has at least 4 configurations to accept all types of plugs.

Consider the huge volumes of junk that was sold through Wal-Mart and other box stores in the US over the approximately two decades, including electronic products. Much of these products were built to last no more than a year, if that. I'm sure you've gone to buy some gadget and discovered it was faulty out of the box; returned it, and found the replacement was also inoperable.

Refrigerators: a major manufacturer had to warranty their machines for a year to a US distribution chain. They recorded 5% failures on the first year, and an additional 3% the second year. It costs the Chinese manufacturer $170 for the house call to handle the warranty repair. That's already $80 higher than the wholesale price charged the American wholesaler. That is a total loss for the manufacturer. They don't care; they make up the difference by selling at higher prices in China.

While some of it is anecdotal information from friends and family that they didn't keep their refrigerator past 2 years. Yet, in one instance, a manufacturer candidly confessed that they had a 40% return on some of their products. Because of the particular product I happen to be familiar with, we have discovered that the design of many of the refrigeration equipment, including air conditioners, which makes drip pans impossible to clean, makes it possible for any mold build up to create a stench that will cause anyone to have to dump the machine. All this dumping explain the prolific recycling industry in China. Almost anywhere you go you will see recycling going on, from rickshaw drivers who pick through trash, to warehouses that collect it for resell to manufacturers.

Nevertheless, while everybody in China talks with a great deal of concern and passion about curbing pollution, they keep on driving down the highway with a trail of white and black smoke, with no visible or expressed intention of ever changing the path.

This is not "walking in our shoes" when thirty and forty years ago we made products to last 30 years and more. We taught them "planned obsolescence," and they seem to practice it religiously.

Things are changing though... and China is improving... (but painfully slow-which they do not verbalize...) and that's what any Chinese person will tell you if you ask about "how is China doing?"

A National Progressive Alliance, is the only viable solution.


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