Their Own Worst Enemy

AS CHINA PREPARES to take its place as the world’s dominant power, it faces confounding obstacles: its insularity and sheer stupidity in delivering the genuine good news about its own progress.

After two years in China, there are still so many things I can’t figure out. Is it really true, as is always rumored but never proved, that the Chinese military runs most of the pirate-DVD business—which would in turn explain why that business is so difficult to control? At what point in Chinese culture did it become mandatory for business and political leaders to dye away every gray hair, so that gatherings of powerful men in their 50s and up are seas of perfect pitch-black heads? How can corporations and government agencies invest huge sums producing annual reports and brochures and advertisements in English, yet manifestly never bother to ask a native English speaker whether they’ve made some howler-style mistake? (Last year, a museum in Shanghai put on a highly publicized exhibit of photos from the Three Gorges Dam area. In front, elegant banners said in six-foot-high letters The Three Georges.) Why do Beijing taxi drivers almost never have maps—and almost always have their own crates or buckets filling the trunks of their cars when they pick up baggage-laden passengers at the airport? I could go on.

But here is by far the most important of these mysteries: How can official China possibly do such a clumsy and self-defeating job of presenting itself to the world? China, like any big, complex country, is a mixture of goods and bads. But I have rarely seen a governing and “communications” structure as consistent in hiding the good sides and highlighting the bad.

I come across examples every day, but let me start with a publicly reported event. Early this year, I learned of a tantalizing piece of news about an unpublicized government plan for the Beijing Olympics. In a conversation with someone involved in the preparations, I learned of a brilliant scheme to blunt potential foreign criticism during the Games. The Chinese government had drawn up a list of hotels, work spaces, Internet cafés, and other places where visiting journalists and dignitaries were most likely to use the Internet. At those places, and only there, normal “Great Firewall” restrictions would be removed during the Olympics. The idea, as I pointed out in an article about Chinese controls (“‘The Connection Has Been Reset,’” March Atlantic), was to make foreigners happier during their visit—and likelier to tell friends back home that, based on what they’d seen on their own computer screens, China was a much more open place than they had heard. This was subtle influence of the sort that would have made strategists from Sun Tzu onward proud.

The scheme displayed a sophisticated insight into outsiders’ mentality and interests. It recognized that foreigners, especially reporters, like being able to poke around unsupervised, try harder to see anything they’re told is out-of-bounds, and place extra weight on things they believe they have found without guidance. By saying nothing at all about this plan, the government could let influential visitors “discover” how freely information was flowing in China, with all that that implied. In exchange, the government would give up absolutely nothing. If visiting dignitaries, athletes, and commentators searched for a “Free Tibet” site or found porn that is usually banned in China, what’s the harm? They had seen worse back at home.

When the Olympics actually started, things did not go exactly according to plan. As soon as journalists began checking in at their Olympic hotels, they began complaining about all the Web sites they couldn’t reach. Chinese officials replied woodenly that this was China, and established Chinese procedures must be obeyed: Were the arrogant foreigners somehow suggesting that they were too good to comply with China’s sovereign laws? Unlike the brilliant advance scheme, all this was reported.

After huddling with officials from the International Olympic Committee, who had been touting China’s commitment to free information flow during the Games, the Chinese government quietly reversed its stance. For a few days, controls seemed to have been lifted for Internet users in many parts of Beijing—in my apartment, far from the main Olympic areas, I could get to usually blocked sites, like any BlogSpot blog, without using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Eventually the controls came back on for everyone except users in the special Olympic areas. By then the Chinese government had turned a potential PR masterstroke into a fiasco. Now what the foreign visitors could tell friends back home was that they knew firsthand that China’s Internet is indeed censored, that its government could casually break its promise of free information flow during the Games, and that foreign complaints could bully it back into line.

From the outside, this blunder might not seem note­worthy or surprising, given the dim image of the Chinese government generally conveyed in the Western press. It might not even be thought of as a blunder—rather, as a sign that the government had, for once, been caught trying to sneak out of its commitments and repress whatever it could. To me it was puzzling because of its sheer stupidity: Did they think none of the 10,000 foreign reporters would notice? Did they think there was anything to gain?

The government’s decision was more complicated but even more damaging in another celebrated Olympics case, this one the most blatantly Orwellian: the offer to open three areas for “authorized protests” during the Olympics—followed by the rejection of every single request to hold a demonstration, and the arrest of several people who asked. It’s true that even if China is wide-open in many ways, public demonstrations that might lead to organized political opposition are, in effect, taboo. But why guarantee international criticism by opening the zones in the first place? Who could have thought this was a good idea?

Such self-inflicted damage occurs routinely, without the pressure of the Olympics. Whenever a Chinese official or the state-run Xinhua News Agency puts out a release in English calling the Dalai Lama “a jackal clad in Buddhist monk’s robes” or a man “with a human face and the heart of a beast,” it only builds international sympathy for him and members of his “splittist clique.” A special exhibit about Tibet in Beijing’s Cultural Palace of Minorities this year illustrated the blessings of China’s supervision by showing photos of grinning Tibetans opening refrigerators full of beer, and of new factories including a cement plant in Lhasa. Such basic material improvements are huge parts of the success story modern China has to tell. But the exhibit revealed total naïveté in dealing with the complaints about religious freedom made by the “Dalai clique.” It was as if the government had hired The Onion as its image consultant.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that reporters are viewed with suspicion or loathing by the political or business leaders they cover. That doesn’t keep governments in many countries from understanding the crass value of cultivating the press. Anyone with experience in neighboring South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan knows how skillful their business-governmental establishments are at mounting “charm offensives” to make influential foreigners feel cosseted and part of the team. Official China sometimes launches a successful charm offensive on visiting dignitaries. When it comes to dealing with foreign reporters—who after all will do much to shape the outside world’s view of their country—Chinese spokesmen and spinners barely seem to try. Maybe I’m biased; my application for a journalist visa to China was turned down because of “uncertainty” about what I might be looking for in the country (I have been here on other kinds of visas). But China’s press policy seems similar to, say, Dick Cheney’s (if without the purposeful stiff-arming) and reflects the same view—that scrutiny from the Western press is not really necessary. I’m convinced that usually these are blunders rather than calculated manipulation.

This is inept on China’s part. Why do I consider it puzzling? Because of two additional facts I would not have guessed before coming to China: it’s a better country than its leaders and spokesmen make it seem, and those same leaders look more impressive in their home territory.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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