Three cheers for the Wall Street Journal.
As reported here in the Washington Post and here in the New York Times, various WSJ reporters have protested a WSJ headline that editors attached to an op-ed by Walter Russell Mead, the paper’s Global View columnist. The Mead column, with the headline chosen not by Mead but the editors, is found here.
China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia
Its financial markets may be even more dangerous than its wildlife markets.
The topic was an obvious one: the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic on China.
Why the upset?
Here is how the WSJ editors stated it in this subsequent editorial, titled
Banished in Beijing
China expels three WSJ reporters to deflect from its coronavirus woes.
This editorial, taking note of the protest — and what began it — said this:
President Xi Jinping says China deserves to be treated as a great power, but on Wednesday his country expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters over a headline. Yes, a headline. Or at least that was the official justification. The truth is that Beijing’s rulers are punishing our reporters so they can change the subject from the Chinese public’s anger about the government’s management of the coronavirus scourge.…
Anyone who reads the piece can see it describes the problems in Chinese governance exposed by the response to the coronavirus outbreak. Beijing has since sacked Wuhan province officials, proving Mr. Mead’s point.
The editorial went on to say,
As for that headline, we have heard from thoughtful people that to Chinese ears the “sick man” reference echoes in insensitive fashion the West’s exploitation of China in the mid-19th century during the opium wars. Others say it refers to Japan’s 20th-century invasion of China. We take the point, and we were happy to run letters to the editor criticizing the headline.
Most Americans, however, understand the phrase in the context of the dying Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe.” That was our historical analogy. These days the “sick man” phrase is used to describe many countries, most notably the Philippines as the sick man of Asia. The Financial Times, the Economist and the Guardian all referred to Britain as “the sick man of Europe” in the throes of Brexit.
Precisely — and historically — correct.
But the real problem here comes from those who are all too willing to abandon the core American values of free speech and a free press — values robustly on display when reading not only the paper’s editorials but also its reporting — to appease the Chinese dictatorship. (Full disclosure: The annual American Spectator gala is named in honor of the late and legendary Robert Bartley, the longtime WSJ editorial page editor.)
But there is an unanswered point not addressed by Post or Times stories. The Post story identifies the WSJ journalists as follows:
The Wall Street Journal’s China staff is urging the newspaper to apologize for a headline that prompted the Chinese government to expel three of its journalists this week.
The email from the Journal’s China bureau to the top officers of the paper’s parent companies, in effect, sides with the Chinese, who have demanded an apology and retaliated with the expulsions this week.
The Times story says that the letter, signed by “53 reporters and editors,” was sent by the WSJ’s “China bureau chief Jonathan Cheng.” The biography of Cheng provided by the WSJ states that he is a native of Toronto, Canada, who “oversees a team of more than two dozen correspondents and researchers in Beijing and Shanghai, with responsibility for the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.”
Two of the three expelled reporters are identified by the Times as American citizens, the third as an Australian citizen.
The obvious question: as the letter in question was sent by the China bureau chief, who operates out of China, this does not appear to be a protest from Journal staffers who are sitting in the WSJ headquarters in the middle of Manhattan. So how many of that “team of more than two dozen correspondents and researchers” for the WSJ that are operating in China are themselves Chinese citizens — and thus potentially subject, along with family members, to pressure from the Chinese government? The same question arises with the “53 reporters and editors” who signed the letter of protest.
The Times story also took note of this fact:
Like many other international news organizations, The Times among them, The Journal is blocked online in China, and the “Sick Man” headline was brought to wide attention there by state-controlled media, amid nationwide concern over an epidemic that has infected over 76,000 people in China and killed more than 2,400.
Which is to say, this underscores that by definition the Chinese government is anti-free press. Thus for this “offensive” headline to infuriate the Chinese people — who were blocked from seeing it in the first place — the government made a point of publicizing their own manipulated version of a blocked story.
Then there is the question of an academic mentioned in these two articles, who appears to be siding with China.
To spotlight one absurdity, the Times story says,
Shen Yi, a lecturer on international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said The Journal’s headline displayed a sense of racial superiority. The language was similar to comments by Kiron Skinner, a former director of policy planning at the State Department, who had said that with China, the United States had “a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” Mr. Shen wrote in a recent essay.
“The increasing prominence and scope of this sort of language gives you a feeling for the despicable thoughts that underlie it,” Mr. Shen wrote. “Even now, in the 21st century, some U.S. officials and elites still deep in their hearts know and understand the world through the framework of the suzerain and its colonies.”
In other words, a Chinese academic, surely mindful of the consequences of opposing his own government, suggests that Skinner (now resigned from the State Department) was some sort of Trumpist white supremacist. Years ago I met Skinner at a Reagan alumni event, she a co-author of books on President Reagan. Newsflash for Professor Yi and the Times: Skinner is African-American.
This problem of American institutions being pressured to bend a knee to the Chinese dictatorship is far from limited to a handful of Western journalists for one of America’s most prominent newspapers.
Recall the controversy over a simple tweet from the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. Morey had tweeted during the showdown between China and Hong Kong protestors standing up for freedom. The Washington Post described the protests this way:
The proposal by Hong Kong to allow extraditions from the semiautonomous territory to China sparked the protests, which stem from a fear that Beijing’s leaders would seek to systematically pick apart the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997.
The tweet from Morey read,
“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
In a blink, the Chinese government was lashing out at the NBA. And what did the NBA do? It caved to the Chinese communist dictatorship in a blink. That same Post story described the NBA’s reaction this way:
The NBA, which has an office in China and plans to add a gaming team in Shanghai to the NBA 2K League, moved swiftly.
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” the NBA said in a statement. “While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”
Officials in the U.S. and China say that as many as 500 million Chinese fans watched at least one NBA game last season. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China,” the NBA said in its statement, “and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
No less than the NBA’s most famous player of the moment, LeBron James, made a point of siding with the Chinese government, saying:
I don’t want to get into a … feud with Daryl Morey but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke.
Morey’s tweet was deleted, and he issued (was forced to issue?) this statement instead:
I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.
I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
Then there was this much less publicized incident, as reported here by New York magazine’s columnist Max Read. The story is about LeBron James and his bow to the Chinese, but it begins with another incident entirely, this one involving the Marriott hotel chain and China. The report begins,
On January 10, 2018, a 49-year-old Omahan named Roy Jones pissed off the Chinese government. At the time, Jones was working overnight shifts as a Marriott customer-care manager, where he made $14 an hour responding to people from the hotel chain’s various Twitter accounts. In practice, at the time, the bulk of his shifts were spent triaging thousands of tweets from spambots trying to scam rewards points from a Marriott-NFL promotion. “We would be underwater for days or weeks on end,” he later told the Omaha World-Herald, scrolling through tweets directed at Marriott accounts, responding to even the bots. On the night of the 9th, Jones scrolled by a tweet from an account called @FriendsofTibet, congratulating Marriott for listing Tibet as a separate country from China on a survey it had sent out. Presumably by accident, though he has no memory of doing so, Jones “liked” the tweet from the official Marriott account. He clocked out of his shift and headed home.
A day later, a top Marriott HR executive got on a plane to fire him.
Jones had, quietly and inadvertently, exacerbated an international incident. Chinese nationalists were already furious that Marriott’s survey (which had been created by a contractor) had listed as separate countries four regions the People’s Republic of China considers to be its territory — Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. A day after Jones’s like, the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration admonished Marriott to “seriously deal with the people responsible.” Regulators ordered Marriott to close its Chinese booking website and app for a week; Jones was interviewed and fired. “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career,” Craig S. Smith, president of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office, told China Daily a week later in an interview. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson released a fawning statement reading, in part, “We don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups.”
The message of these three separate incidents is exactly the same. Whether it is Wall Street Journal reporters, the leadership of the NBA and its most famous player, or executives running the Marriott hotel chain — the first instinct in any dust up with Chinese authorities is for Americans to cave instantly to a serious-minded dictatorship — throwing overboard the oldest of American values, not to mention constitutional principles, of free speech and a free press.
The Post story on the WSJ protesting reporters says that the email “sent on behalf of Journal employees” to the paper’s leadership said, in part,
We … ask you to consider correcting the headline and apologizing to our readers, sources, colleagues and anyone else who was offended by it.
Hello? Americans get out of bed every day and are subjected to all manner of stories in the American media that can — and all too frequently are — seen as offensive to somebody.
The reflexive appeasement of the Chinese government, this time coming not from the NBA or the management of a hotel chain but from journalists, is simply wrong.
Three cheers to the WSJ leadership for standing up for principle and refusing to bend the knee.