Tea Leaf Nation

Dear Chinese Media: Americans Don't Hate You, We Just Can't Find You on a Map

An open letter to those overthinking our relationship.

Dear Chinese media,

We understand that recently, you've been especially sensitive about U.S. coverage of China. First, there were those investigative reports in Bloomberg and the New York Times in June and October 2012 revealing hidden financial assets of the relatives of important Chinese leaders; those news sites are now blocked in China. Then there was that secretive Communist Party directive, which declared in April 2013 that "hostile Western forces" were "infiltrating the ideological sphere." Since that document was leaked (by a Chinese journalist later jailed for the offense), China has seen a noted uptick in state media-led efforts fanning the flames of Chinese popular resentment towards the United States and other Western nations, with the state-run Global Times most recently accusing the New York Times, in a June 24 editorial, of being "biased" and "spreading the China threat theory."

Chinese state media fell yet further down the analytical rabbit hole in an August 6 report in party mouthpiece People's Daily. In a dispatch from San Francisco, a Chinese reporter interviewed 20 Americans to see how much they knew about an unfolding Chinese food safety scandal, one in which Shanghai Husi, the American-owned supplier of McDonald's, KFC, and other foreign-owned restaurants allegedly sold expired meat products to the fast food chains prolific in Chinese cities. Of the 20 people interviewed, according to the report, only three had heard of the Shanghai Husi food scandal. Of those three, the article added, not a single one knew that Shanghai Husi is actually owned by a U.S. company.

Somewhat incredibly, the article blamed selective U.S. reporting for this misunderstanding, accusing U.S. news outlets of purposefully hiding the fact that it was a U.S. company at the root of the trouble, and concluded that "this is yet another example of U.S. media misleading the American people...and it most certainly won't be the last." Or, it could be because the company in question is called Shanghai Husi -- it doesn't exactly hit the ear like "Jimmy Dean."

Chinese media, we in the United States are sympathetic to the difficulty you may experience -- coming from a country where the heavy hand of government exerts increasingly tight control of the media environment and where even posting a "rumor" on social media can get you arrested -- in fully grasping the freewheeling nature of U.S. journalism and public discourse.

But please understand that U.S. media outlets aren't engaged in a top-down conspiracy to smear you. Some Americans struggle even to locate your country on a map, much less appear well-versed in the nuances of a food scandal unfolding on the other side of the globe. At least we are, by and large, a self-aware bunch. The People's Daily reporter who surveyed hapless San Franciscans is perhaps unfamiliar with American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel's "man on the street" interviews, the most recent example of a televised bit that mocks this characteristic. Popular highlights from Kimmel include Americans offering sincere condolences upon being told that (long-dead) President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just passed away, and earnest attempts to analyze President Obama's (apocryphal) nomination of TV land's Judge Judy to serve on the Supreme Court. Yet American ignorance of our own history pales in comparison to our collective ignorance of the rest of the world, profound enough in some cases to border on disregard. Once on a domestic flight heading to Los Angeles for a layover to China, this author's seatmate, an American, asked whether China or Japan were bigger. He wasn't being metaphorical.

That doesn't mean our media gets it right every time. In an October 2013 report about giant killer hornets in China, Atlanta-based CNN -- cable news providers reaching 98 million American households -- placed Hong Kong on the east coast of South America, somewhere around Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a widely circulated (and mirthfully ridiculed) April 2014 article called "The Ten Days in China That Shook Me," American Chris Matthews, host of New York-based MSNBC's talk show "Hardball," breathlessly chronicled his first trip to the world's most populous country. Matthews was shocked to find that China doesn't resemble the boxy industrial monochrome of the Iron Curtain-era Soviet bloc, even though China's economic rise and showy development were old news here by 2008, when Beijing's gauzy splendor was televised to a global audience. Matthews also marveled that Guangzhou, "a city I had never heard of," has more people than New York City. (Guangzhou, one of China's most prosperous cities, has been a major international trade hub for over 150 years.)

In conclusion, Chinese media, we ask that you not overthink this whole thing. American media has neither the inclination nor, frankly, the resources to engage in a coordinated, Machiavellian plot to besmirch you. And for better or worse, most Americans just don't spend that much time thinking about your country. The next time you find yourself concerned over our reporting, just remember: Many Americans have a notoriously hazy grasp on the nuances of their own country's affairs. Don't be too alarmed when they don't know much about yours.

Image: Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

It's Time to Tear Up China's 'Get Out of Jail Free' Cards

Anti-corruption efforts claimed Zhou Yongkang's career, but there is one last taboo we must break.

What follows is a translation of a blog post originally published in Chinese. --The Editors

On July 29, 2014, the other shoe dropped squarely on Zhou Yongkang, China's former security czar. Zhou is now under internal investigation by the Communist Party for "serious violations of [party] discipline," according to a cable from state-run Xinhua News Agency, a milestone in the party's anti-corruption campaign, ongoing since January 2013. But the party has still not gone far enough.

At the height of his power, Zhou was thought to have a "get out of jail free card" for any wrongdoing. Zhou controlled China's domestic security, judicial, and intelligence systems. The budget allocation for the areas under his purview was rumored to exceed that allotted for national defense. During his long career, Zhou also managed the country's highly profitable petroleum industry and set his roots deep within the party apparatus of western Sichuan province, where he served as party boss for years. On top of it all, Zhou was a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), a small group of men (once nine, now seven) who run China. Over the past two decades, there has been an unspoken rule among party elites that once someone makes it to the PSC, he will not be investigated or prosecuted -- even after retirement. Zhou's fall from grace means that this rule is now broken.

The tacit code that shielded members of the PSC from prosecution particularly included current members. When those in power go astray because of a lack of checks and balances, it is usually extremely difficult to correct the wrong while they occupy their posts. Justice usually goes into hiding when political power reigns; most of the time, only when political power is weakened or ceded can judicial proceedings get into gear.

Going the last mile to combat corruption means breaking that barrier as well: allowing disciplinary authorities to investigate or even prosecute current members of the PSC and take away their "get out of jail free card" too. This radical step would finally subject the most powerful seven men in China to the same standard as others. This could help prevent corruption from happening in the first place, and would constitute the most crucial step towards reforming the foundation of China's current political system.

The April 2012 investigation and September 2013 prosecution of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai for corruption and abuse of power was a step in the right direction. The investigation began while Bo was in office; he was ultimately removed from his post and his abuses were stopped in their tracks. But Bo had never ascended to the PSC; the closest Bo got was the Politburo, a group of 25 Communist overseers. In the past 25 years, only a handful of Politburo members have been purged, including former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu, former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou, and Bo. Zhou is the first retired member of the Standing Committee to be investigated for corruption in more than two decades.

But authorities have not gone far enough in their work, not even with Bo. While he was punished for graft, he never fully answered for the abuses of power he committed while in charge of Chongqing, and it has been hard for the victims of Bo's corruption and extra-judicial campaigns against organized crime to seek redress. In Zhou's case, if we fail to reexamine the legal black hole created by his "stability maintenance" programs -- a euphemism for a system that included censorship and extra-legal detentions -- the delayed justice meted out to him will not mean much.

Zhou's case presents an important opportunity to reform the leadership system of the party and our nation, which is a necessary step if we are to fully establish rule of law in China. The core objective of reform is to completely rebuild a system in which power is highly concentrated in the hands of few men, with neither checks nor balances. Only with democracy and the rule of law can we have an orderly transition of power on a regular basis, overseen by an independent judiciary and other regulatory bodies. At the end of the day, democracy and the rule of law are the best auto-correct for our political system.

Translated by Rachel Lu. 

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