China’s Communists open to all feedback, as long as it’s glowing
Little grasp of the purpose of a free press
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.”
The Chinese government has not been impressed with how Canadian reporters have covered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit this week.