China’s Com­mu­nists open to all feed­back, as long as it’s glow­ing

Lit­tle grasp of the pur­pose of a free press

Windsor Star - - NP - JOHN IVISON Na­tional Post jivi­son@na­tion­al­post.com

Anews re­port on the front page of the China Daily news­pa­per Wed­nes­day com­mended the Com­mu­nist Party for its “re­mark­able per­for­mance at home and abroad dur­ing the past year, with Xi Jinping at the core.”

Hav­ing grown used to such hard-hit­ting jour­nal­ism, it is no sur­prise the Chi­nese lead­er­ship is up­set with the tone of some of the Cana­dian re­port­ing this week.

The Com­mu­nists, it seems, can tol­er­ate any level of scru­tiny, as long as it’s fawn­ing, lauda­tory and unc­tu­ous.

Cana­dian of­fi­cials in China to ex­plore the prospects of launch­ing free trade talks find them­selves spend­ing an in­or­di­nate amount of time de­fend­ing the cov­er­age of Justin Trudeau’s visit by the trav­el­ling me­dia. Well, maybe not de­fend­ing — but at least ex­plain­ing that they can do very lit­tle about por­tray­als of the Chi­nese regime as au­thor­i­tar­ian.

The Cana­di­ans have told their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts that to com­plain about the me­dia in a coun­try with a free press is a bit like a cap­tain com­plain­ing about the sea.

The anal­ogy has not trans­lated and the dis­con­tent over press cov­er­age is said to have proven a ma­te­rial bar­rier to progress on free trade talks.

The Chi­nese re­tal­i­ated Wed­nes­day in the pages of the Global Times, a gov­ern­ment mouth­piece, which ran an edi­to­rial at­tack­ing “the su­pe­ri­or­ity and nar­cis­sism of the Cana­dian me­dia” and re­ferred to a Globe and Mail ar­ti­cle that called China “an ab­so­lute dic­ta­tor­ship” as “ir­ri­tat­ing and ridicu­lous.”

The same day, the China Daily, an­other English lan­guage pa­per, launched a broad­side against the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment for ban­ning for­eign po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions and “wrongly mak­ing China the scape­goat.”

The ban fol­lowed me­dia re­ports that China was try­ing to in­flu­ence the Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem — a charge the news­pa­per called “un­sup­ported” and based on spec­u­la­tion.

“The un­jus­ti­fied fin­ger­point­ing at China only hurts Australia’s ties with its big­gest trad­ing part­ner ... if this ten­dency per­sists it could even­tu­ally un­der­mine ties,” the pa­per cau­tioned.

(As an aside, Canada still al­lows for­eign money to pour into third-party or­ga­ni­za­tions — a loop­hole the gov­ern­ment should slam firmly shut.)

The two cases are in­struc­tive be­cause they high­light the ten­sions emerg­ing as a rigidly con­trolled China is in­creas­ingly as­sertive in its re­la­tions with the lib­eral democ­ra­cies with which it comes into con­tact.

“China en­cour­ages other coun­tries to ex­plore ways that suit their own na­tional sit­u­a­tion,” Xi said this week.

“China will never close its doors. They will only be opened wider and wider go­ing for­ward,” he told the World internet Con­fer­ence at the week­end.

Yet the rhetoric is a far cry from the re­al­ity, as any­one try­ing and fail­ing to log on to Face­book in China could tell you.

I last came to China four years ago, and the ex­pec­ta­tion then was that a more con­sen­sual pol­i­tics, if not po­lit­i­cal plu­ral­ism, would emerge. The idea of “so­cial­ism with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics” was al­most ris­i­ble, as the coun­try rushed head­long to­ward un­bri­dled cap­i­tal­ism. The only way to tell the com­mu­nists was by the car they were driv­ing — usu­ally Audi A3s and Porsche Cayennes.

But no one is laugh­ing now. Re­form never did ar­rive, as Xi con­cluded the risks were too great that China would un­ravel like the for­mer Soviet Union.

In­stead, the party has tight­ened its grip on ev­ery­day life, em­pha­siz­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit that brought it to power.

One of the more dis­turb­ing de­vel­op­ments is the sys­tem of “so­cial credit” — where peo­ple are rated on how they be­have — with de­merit in­curred by ev­ery­thing from fi­nan­cial delin­quency to crit­i­ciz­ing the regime.

Ian John­son, a re­porter for The New York Times in Bei­jing, said he has been con­duct­ing a se­ries of ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sions with dozens of Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tu­als over the past five years. “It’s hardly an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that al­most all of these peo­ple have been si­lenced in the pub­lic sphere. Few have been ar­rested but the gov­ern­ment has turned them into non­per­sons by block­ing their ac­cess to any sort of me­dia out­let,” he said.

Con­se­quently, de­mands for re­form have dried up and pub­lic dis­sent is al­most non-ex­is­tent.

But that may be OK with younger Chi­nese rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the “sugar gen­er­a­tion” (their par­ents, who lived through the Great Leap For­ward and Tianan­men Square use a Chi­nese ex­pres­sion mean­ing “eat vine­gar” to de­scribe their ex­pe­ri­ences).

The Party may be an ir­rel­e­vancy for the chil­dren of the re­tail rev­o­lu­tion, but they are not mo­ti­vated to over­turn it — as long as they can as­pire to the af­flu­ence they see all around them.

To visit cities like Bei­jing and Guangzhou is to feel like we in the West have been lapped — the lat­ter has a pop­u­la­tion of 15 mil­lion and makes Toronto look like Dog River, Saskatchewan.

A 250 km/h high-speed rail link be­tween Chengdu in Sichuan prov­ince and Xi’an in Shaanxi opened Wed­nes­day, re­duc­ing the 10-hour jour­ney by six hours.

We will never see its like in Canada — even though Bom­bardier helped de­velop the tech­nol­ogy.

There is much to ad­mire in a so­ci­ety that has lifted a bil­lion peo­ple out of poverty and trans­formed it­self into a global eco­nomic en­gine through its lav­ish “One Belt, One Road” in­fra­struc­ture ini­tia­tive.

The air in Bei­jing was also sig­nif­i­cantly cleaner this week than my last visit in Jan­uary 2013, when the den­sity of par­tic­u­late mat­ter in the air was of­fi­cially “beyond in­dex.”

China is likely to be a ma­jor force for good in the bat­tle against cli­mate change — largely as a side-ef­fect of its ef­forts to re­duce the air pol­lu­tion that is poi­son­ing its cit­i­zens. The two is­sues are re­lated, if not iden­ti­cal, and China’s at­tempts to re­duce the par­tic­u­late count in the air will also sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce car­bon-emis­sion lev­els.

For all that, hu­man rights abuses have grown worse un­der Xi, dis­si­dent lawyers have been im­pris­oned and fem­i­nist cam­paign­ers have been ar­rested.

That all this is at odds with Trudeau’s pro­gres­sive agenda clearly reg­is­tered with the prime min­is­ter when he was asked whether China is still the coun­try he most ad­mires — a claim he orig­i­nally made while run­ning to be Lib­eral leader.

He neatly sidestepped the ques­tion on Tues­day by say­ing he most ad­mires “the mother of all par­lia­ments” in the U.K.

Prob­a­bly just as well. If he’d said China, it’s un­likely the cov­er­age would have lauded “a re­mark­able per­for­mance at home and abroad.”

SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has not been im­pressed with how Cana­dian re­porters have cov­ered Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s visit this week.

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