By Robert Delaney
Late last month, Beijing renewed the credentials of many, but not all, foreign journalists working in China for The New York Times and Bloomberg News. The renewals, which took much longer than usual to process, came little more than a week before these reporters would have had to leave the country. The not-so-clean resolution of the standoff followed a personal appeal by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden about the issue. The delay in granting journalists their status in the country is ostensibly in retaliation for reports by the Times and Bloomberg on the wealth of China’s top leaders, the latest in a never-ending series of episodes that tests the relationship between China and the West.
I spent nearly five years working in Beijing for Bloomberg News. My time with the company in the capital city capped more than a decade I spent in China, (on four stints stretching from 1992 to 2007), studying Mandarin and working as a journalist. There wasn’t much that didn’t change over that 15-year period. I watched entire neighborhoods of grimy post-communist housing blocks with ground floor tuck shops selling soap and watermelons transform into translucent shopping malls featuring Louis Vuitton and BMW. One thing didn’t change. As wealth boosted standards of living, Beijing continued to crack down on dissent and limit the activities of journalists.
Throughout, I maintained the same mistaken assumption that policy makers in Washington, Ottawa and Brussels make when it comes to confrontations with the world’s most populous country: China just needs time. Time to understand that the West’s long struggle into an era wherein authorities respect and promote principles that apply universally is the path that China will need to take. Time to accept that no one is above the law. Time to adopt the Enlightenment era’s idea of basic human rights as being part of something the West calls Natural Law.
Will China learn this time? Will they understand that transparency, to the degree that we have it in the West, will ultimately strengthen China and empower its people?
I asked the same questions. It wasn’t until I left Bloomberg to attend graduate school in Canada that I realized my assumptions and questions were wrong. One of my professors pointed out how few people in the world enjoy the human rights that intellectuals of the Western world insist should exist universally as part of a natural order.
My professor asked: How can these rights be natural and universal if they’re not?
Critics of Western society can point out how poorly universal rights and responsibilities are applied in North America. A lack of clean water would mean societal collapse in the 416 area code (Toronto); it’s just an everyday occurrence if you live in a rural outpost that happens to be near a tailings pond. Many of those who caused the financial crisis of 2008 were enriched when Washington bailed the financial sector out with taxpayer funds. How does that square with Western principles?
As for China, it’s not as though the country’s citizens don’t want justice. Noted sinologist Joseph Needham described Chinese cosmology, enshrined in classic Confucian texts, as “an ethical solidarity of the universe,” or a paradigm in which eclipses, the change of seasons, government policy and actions as mundane as eating must be seen in the same context. Emperors changed policy in accordance with celestial and terrestrial phenomena. Drought called for leniency while abundance compelled rulers to be more vigilant, just as different seasons call for different diets. No principles have ever applied permanently across all contexts. A son has fewer rights and more responsibilities compared to his elders, but he benefits as he ages. Feudal lords may have had more rights than farmers, but most citizens of the kingdoms that now comprise China understood that disaster befalls rulers who allow their subjects to starve.
While many in the West struggle to understand Beijing’s central leadership, just as many citizens in China wonder why Western leaders prattle on so much about human rights that don’t seem to exist in many corners of the societies they govern.
For my thesis, I explored the degree to which the Chinese and Western cultural contexts are “incommensurable,” a term used to describe a situation where those who understand one paradigm have no way to understand the other because the units of measure and reference are completely different. (Think Newtonian physics versus Quantum physics.) Using editorials in mainstream Chinese and U.S. newspapers, I found that leaders on both sides could find a “fusion of horizons” in the realms of finance and economics, but that commensurability is nearly impossible in the political realm.
As for China’s efforts to censor news and information about the country, I would evaluate the situation by using the assumptions common in the Chinese cultural paradigm. There’s an argument to be made that information is now nearly as important as food. Now more than ever, developments in the financial realm determine our individual wealth profiles and retirement prospects. Those without access to information face tougher odds.
By threatening journalists who work for two of the world’s best news organizations with expulsion, Beijing sends a signal to news outlets domestic and foreign that prying isn’t acceptable. That makes probity a dangerous game, which could lead to a paucity of information available in China relative to its availability elsewhere. And everyone in China knows what happens to leaders who let subjects starve.