Beyond the US media’s love-hate relationship with China

LOS ANGLES - This will teach the Chinese who’s the boss! The New York Times, one of the world’s great papers, ran a series of negative articles about China. Everything that’s wrong with China — but you were afraid to ask! And these negative stories were appearing above the fold on Page One, the newspaper’s most prominent spot.


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Published: Sun 12 Dec 2004, 10:47 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:56 AM

The series was launched after the arrest by China’s authorities of a The New York Times researcher on charges of providing state secrets to foreigners. The paper’s staffer was allegedly the source of a September report in The Times about the planned retirement as head of the military of the former Chinese president, Jiang Zemin. President Hu Jintao now has that key job.

Understandably, The Times was royally peeved about the arrest. Management and other big guns, including top-notch op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, a former Beijing correspondent deny the spying charges. And so the vast Times editorial machine has rolled into action. Of course, the timing of the series has absolutely, totally no relationship to the arrest — and there is a Santa Claus!

China is generally on a mini-negative image roll in the Western media. The current litany emphasises the modest size of the Chinese economy (less than a quarter of Japan’s) as opposed to its astonishing rapid growth, the suffocating pollution of its cities as opposed to all the wealth-enhancing urbanisation, and the 800 or 900 million relatively impoverished Chinese in the country as opposed to the rise of an unprecedented large middle class nearing 300 million in size (more than the entire population of the United States).

This anti-China mood was reflected in a recent conference in Washington that focused on the rise of the Chinese military establishment. Speaker after speaker, representing an array of experts from the conservative American Enterprise Institute to the West Coast-based RAND, the past beneficiary of many lucrative Pentagon grants, raised the specter of Chinese militarism, especially regarding a putative invasion of Taiwan. Delegates emphasised China’s geopolitical ambitions and growing frustrations over feisty Taiwan.

On one level, there’s nothing too alarming about a downtick in optimism about China. Western perceptions of China have, historically, yo-yoed like a bipolar disorder. The problem is for those of us who honestly are trying to keep the true China in perspective — not too rosy, not too grumpy. Right now balance is harder than usual to maintain. To that end, here’s a helpful dose of countervailing optimism about China. Come January, just run to your bookstores — or — and get a copy of the new book, The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin. Published by Crown and penned by California businessman, author and unabashed China admirer Robert Lawrence Kuhn, it gives new meaning to the term sweet-and-light.

Positive spin notwithstanding, the book, which establishes Jiang as a supremely worthy successor to Deng Xiaoping, is based on extensive interviews over several years with top China officials and Western experts with special access to Beijing, including former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who is practically an icon among the Chinese.

Jiang is credited with moving the country from a true centralized dictatorship to a consensual single-party system of competing party factions. He is viewed as loosening up the country’s street talk, bringing all views into the room and establishing the need for quality and excellence in all things Chinese. Non-ideological, self-deprecating, a devotee of the arts, a supporter of intellectuals and learning — and a self-admitted country goofball — the former engineer and professor is pointedly portrayed in a way that gives China’s elite a human face.

Jiang’s orchestration of Beijing’s tricky relationship with Hong Kong is given an especially fresh perspective. The former president, asserts Kuhn, did not believe communism could possibly work in Hong Kong and did not want to give his party’s dinosaurs a chance to prove him right. Asserts the author: “Jiang was a Chinese patriot more than a crusading Marxist, and since he wanted Hong Kong’s international status enhanced, certainly not diminished, he was deeply serious about keeping the mainland’s ministries and mandarins out.”

When negative propaganda is coming at you in droves, this positive perspective can serve as a nice corrective. The great Aristotle reminded us that we should look for the truth as existing somewhere in the middle of extremes, which generally are to be avoided like the plague (or a Cultural Revolution!). But at the moment, it seems, we have to reach out for material on the extremes in order to maintain a balancing act on a very important issue — whether China is to be more feared than loved.

Prof. Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network.

©Tom Plate

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