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."
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.