photo by John Wisniewski
With China’s health care system swamped by the newly emerged coronavirus, its economy hamstrung and nearly 60 million of its people under virtual lockdown, you would think the Chinese government has no time to worry about a snarky headline in a Western publication most of its citizens can neither access nor read.
Don’t underestimate the Chinese Communist Party and its aspiring leader for life, President Xi Jinping.
This week China gave the boot to three Wall Street Journal journalists over an opinion piece that none of them had a hand in writing, editing or publishing. The move was intended to send a message, and it did. I would interpret that message as: Don’t try to make sense of what we say or do, because this virus has made us delirious.
The column that motivated Beijing to expel the three correspondents ran Feb. 3 under the title “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The phrase “sick man of Asia” harks back to a period of Chinese history known within the country as the “century of humiliation.” The opinion piece focuses on China’s current woes. It argues that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus now called COVID-19 has illuminated ongoing problems with governmental opacity.
Walter Russell Mead, the column’s author, observed that “There are signs that Chinese authorities are still trying to conceal the true scale of the problem” of the disease first identified in Wuhan. Mead also noted that the epidemic is likely to cause a short, sharp fall in economic growth, with a recovery as the outbreak dies down. Yet, as many outside observers have long known, you cannot trust Chinese economic statistics any further than you trust its claims about the epidemic. When faced with bad news, Beijing admits only what it cannot successfully deny – and not always even that much.
As punishment for Mead’s remarks, China revoked the credentials of the Journal’s deputy bureau chief and two reporters. Like most publications, The Wall Street Journal runs its news room and its opinion page as separate operations. Yet this was immaterial to Beijing’s desire to make its point. All three journalists were asked to leave the country within five days.
Western journalists have been an increasingly sharp thorn in China’s authoritarian side recently. The BBC and other outlets have reported at length on the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in the country’s far west. The New York Times also delved into that story, publishing a trove of leaked documents late last year. Document leaks are a regular feature of news in the free world, but are simply not a thing in China.
If Beijing is sending a message, is anybody hearing it? Not in China, though the Chinese people are not really the audience for it anyway. Probably not in Western newsrooms, either. The Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief, Matt Murray, made clear that the journalists’ expulsion will not stop the outlet from writing about China. “Let no one doubt that The Wall Street Journal remains fully committed to covering China, with the highest standards of news reporting,” Murray wrote in a note to the Journal’s news staff. China could decide to kick out the entire foreign press corps, of course. But even then it would face unflattering coverage fed by dissidents and expatriates, without any balance that on-the-scene reporters could provide.
I hope China’s message is being received in boardrooms and executive suites around the world, however. China’s society is highly successful, but also highly brittle. You never know where the next crisis is likely to arise, and nobody in government there will say anything about it when it happens until there is no other choice. Maybe not even then. The international business community should mitigate its exposure to China for the sake of good fiscal, as well as physical, health.