A tongue-in-cheek list of imperfect China articles
As China-US relations sour and nations become more cloistered in their own interests, it’s more important than ever to have nuanced information about, and reporting from, China. In its stead (and in the wake of recent journalist expulsions), there are ever more hot takes, helicopter articles, stereotype-bolstering blogs and second-hand opinions. That’s why we feel its valid and valuable to collect a few of the more egregious “bad China takes” from the last decades, in the hope that the next years can bring more informed detail and sager balance. To avoid cheap shots, we’re calling out established publications rather than smaller blogs. In no particular order:
10. The 10 Days in China that Shook Me (MSNBC, 2014)
MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews comes to China for the first time, on a ten day trip with his wife. Most of the article is dedicated to his amazement that the cities are really big, and that Chinese eat McDonald’s and know European brands. Calls Hangzhou a “resort town” akin to Lake George in NY. Attempts some thin political analysis, but can’t get past his surprise at China’s modernity despite it having been there for decades.
Guess what? The Chinese love it. In all the big cities, you see giant billboards for designer products from Europe”
9. Looking for a Jump-Start in China (NYT, 2013)
Where Nicholas Kristof predicts Xi Jinping – on the eve of his ascent to power – will become a great reformer, liberalising China’s economy and politics, removing Mao’s body from Tiananmen square and freeing Liu Xiaobo from prison. Awkward. Of course, hindsight is easy (as is mockery), but this hot-take was wilfully blind to warning signals such as Xi’s track record, his Mexico City speech and avowed red background.
The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well”
8. Our One-Party Democracy (NYT, 2009)
In which Thomas Friedman calls the Chinese government of 2009 (right after Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned) “a reasonably enlightened group of people,” with obvious dictator-envy for the efficiency of their system. We could also have chosen ‘The Shanghai Secret’ – in which he gushes lyrical about China’s education system after visiting one affluent school – or indeed anything else from Friedman’s robotic or satirical equivalents.
There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy”
7. What I Saw Inside China (Slate, 2009)
Staffer on a journalist junket in China touring the Three Gorges Dam. After a few paragraphs one realises there is no actual insight in the piece, only thin observation and complaints from his boat that “conditions onboard were borderline Soviet”. Finishes by asking why he hasn’t seen a chocolate bar in China, despite the Dove brand being in almost every convenience store in China by then. Must have been looking for Hershey’s.
It was the closest thing we’ve had to American-style Chinese food all week”
6. My Sweet and Sour Dating Experience (Daily Mail, 2013)
Nikki Aaron’s travails finding Mr Right in China feed all too uncomfortably into stereotypes of Chinese masculinity. She calls herself “beautiful, smart, successful and hilarious” by the second sentence (as well as a “ripe” 30, playing into the leftover woman fallacy that she purportedly decries). Congratulates herself on daring approach of actually dating Chinese men in China, then calls her ex effeminate, mollycoddled and unhygienic.
I also understand what really makes Chinese people tick”
5. Enough Laowai Living: It’s Time to Go Local in Shanghai (People’s Daily, 2013)
A much-mocked gem, with bizarre internal monologue throughout that says much of the patronising insecurities of foreigners abroad. A white expat in Shanghai decides to “go local” and live like a Chinese. Eschews bakery for “unidentifiable things on sticks”. Speaks Chinese to a barista who has fluent English. Takes the bus (because no Chinese ever use taxis). Fails to make it for the whole ride, but congratulates herself for trying.
Yes that’s right, I’m a foreigner,” I think proudly. “And I’m taking the bus”
4. I Love My Life in China (China Daily, 2014)
A prime example of why not to write for Chinese state media. Teacher Michael “serves the Chinese people” by going to English corner on Sundays, and unwittingly (or willingly) becomes state propaganda in the process. His story “has been documented in more than 40 television broadcasts”. False modesty crumbles by the end: “I’m very humbled and yet very honored to receive the wonderful recognition that I have gotten.”
I came here to serve people with the talents, experience and knowledge that I’ve gained in over 5 decades of living”
3. I Accidentally Blew $400 On Lunch In Beijing (Business Insider, 2013)
Reporter Nicholas Carson on holiday in China, bravely cancels his pre-arranged tour of the Forbidden City in order to “see the ‘real’ China”. Frets about how fast his taxi driver is going. Gets the names of buildings in Tiananmen square wrong. Falls for the infamous tea scam. Drinks “Chinese sake”. Contains the poetic photo captions “My cab to Tiananmen Square” and “Beijing from the window of my cab”, which pretty much sums it up.
I didn’t know there was such a thing as Chinese sake. But there is, and it’s strong”
2. Business Flight Across China Leaves Man Stranded (USA Today, 2006)
Maybe it’s the Dan Brown prose. Maybe it’s the presentation of the capital of Shanxi province as the heart of darkness (“literally 200 miles south of the Mongolian border”). But we couldn’t resist including this story of a man who accidentally booked a flight to Taiyuan instead of Taiwan. Tearfully recounts his travails, which include escaping a brothel, dodging traffic and withdrawing money using AmEx, while “nearly breaking into sobs”.
Nelson said he faced danger and indignity … enduring the spit that some Chinese hurled his way”
1. The Party’s ‘Mandate of Heaven’ Is Fraying (NYT, 1993)
At risk of overly singling out the NYT op-ed pages, they have a long tradition of Polyannaism on China. In 1993, Robert Elegant makes the argument that the CCP has lost the “mandate of heaven” – a trope tired even back then, as well as wrong. Hot-takes on China that refer to Confucianism or long-term thinking tend to be shallow, a trend that continues in 2020 (“Chinese leaders stretching back to Deng Xiaoping have often thought in terms of decades”).
With the Mandate of Heaven in tatters and the radiator of the economic Juggernaut beginning to boil, China is heading for trouble” (1993)