Friedman's Flawed Beijing Bulletin

There are some superb foreign journalists based in China these days, including more than a few working for American news outlets, ranging from NPR to various newspapers and magazines. They know the country well and provide coverage of Chinese events that can help American readers avoid falling into common traps, such as assuming that China is such an exotic setting that nothing that occurs in Beijing could have a Washington parallel, and mistaking a further step along a well traveled road for a striking new direction in Chinese politics. These individuals are well positioned to help Americans make sense of the current crisis that's straining relations between Beijing and Tokyo, which began when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese vessel near islands both countries claim. Unfortunately, the most talked about American report filed from Beijing last week wasn't by one of them. Instead, it was by the influential best-selling author Thomas Friedman, who was making one of his periodic visits to China's capital. His column, which first appeared at the New York Times' website on September 14, was called "Power to the (Blogging) People" and, alas, it provided an analysis of the crisis that fell into both the traps described above.

I wouldn't ordinarily devote a whole post to ways that a single column went astray. However, doing so is important in this case. For within 72 hours of its first appearance, Friedman's piece had run in the print edition of the New York Times and various other papers, from the San Jose Mercury to the Scotsman. It had also been referred to approvingly on the websites of Foreign Policy, the Atlantic and the BBC. By week's end, it had probably become the single most widely read and discussed English language commentary on the subject, certainly the one by an American writer that had gotten the most play. This makes its flaws matter.

Before getting to them, though, here are some basic things about the crisis to keep in mind:

• The bits of land that the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands have triggered conflicts between Beijing and Tokyo before. This is also not first time relations between China and a major trading partner have been strained by a collision--the best-known previous one, the 2001 "spy plane incident," began when Chinese and American jets collided in airspace off the coast of China. • The Chinese government is in a tricky position now, as it has been before, due to the two-part strategy it has pursued since 1989 to legitimate its authority. On the one hand, it relies on patriotic education campaigns that highlight the Communist Party's past and present defense of Chinese national sovereignty. On the other, it claims to be uniquely capable of continuing to lift living standards--as long as social stability is maintained and foreign investment keeps flowing.

• Beijing has been issuing strongly worded official statements demanding that Tokyo release the detained fishing boat captain, while also striving to keep popular expressions of anti-Japanese sentiment under control. It is leery of public protests. These could scare off foreign investment or move, as some have in the past, from focusing on foreign enemies to also taking up domestic grievances.

• Things heated up last week due to the impending arrival of the 79th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, which occurred on September 18, 1931, and there were online calls for mass protests to be held on that politically charged date.

• The Chinese government worked to sweep the Internet clean of these calls to action. That's one reason only small gatherings took place last Saturday. But now, with the fishing boat captain still detained, we've started a new week of once again ratcheted up diplomatic exchanges.

What does Friedman say about all this?

Well, his column stresses that the Chinese Internet has become the "de facto voice of the people." His fan at the BBC lauds him for making this point, and for the way he "raises the question" of whether, since online chatter "seems to be predominantly populist and nationalist," cyber nationalists will "push the ruling Communist Party in directions it doesn't want to go."

Friedman goes on to note that, in light of recent developments, we should expect U.S.-China relations to be shaped not just by the push and pull between policy makers, but also by Chinese populist bloggers agitating for extreme positions. Playing on Princess Di's famous line, he says that there now not just two partners in the diplomatic marriage that Mao and Nixon brokered (between Washington and Beijing), there are "three people" in this marriage (with Chinese bloggers calling for tough lines being the intrusive "third party" in this case). One problem with Friedman's column is that it creates the erroneous impression that Chinese online politics equals blogging. In reality, online bulletin boards and chat rooms are also very important.

A second problem is that that he implies that most Chinese Internet activity is political. Some is, with complaints about corruption often being as common a subject as nationalism when discussions turn to politics. But in China, as elsewhere, people largely go online in search of fun, as a way to meet new people and stay in touch with old friends, and to buy and sell things.

In addition, when Friedman says things about the Chinese Internet and Chinese nationalism that are right, his anlaysis generally isn't as new as his breathless tone and use of phrases like "Watch this space" suggest. He wants his readers to think he's taking them places no one has tried to direct them gone before and that what's happening on the ground in China right now is novel. But this generally just isn't the case.

His vision of the Chinese Internet as constituting the closest thing to a public sphere in a country without elections and of popular nationalism influencing China's leaders, for example, echoes things that the best reporters and media analysts have been saying for years, as have many academic China specialists. And they've often made these points when previous crises that have much in common with the current one were unfolding.

Leaving aside all that scholars have had to say on this topic--and it's been plenty, sometimes communicated in specialized publications but in others conveyed in accessibly written books and articles--consider what the journalist Susan Lawrence wrote almost a decade ago in the April 12, 2001, edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Her topic was the spy plane crisis, and she reported that, for "domestic political reasons," China's leaders felt they could not "appear too soft" in dealing with Washington, and described "Internet chat rooms" as venues that "officials monitor closely for a sense of popular reaction to their policies." Friedman's three-in-this-marriage metaphor is not old hat--it is a truly novel formulation. But it is perhaps the most troubling part of his commentary. For it misleadingly suggests that, when it comes to popular nationalism, the Chinese case is not just distinctive (as it surely is in some ways) but unlike any other. There are things that make Chinese politics unique, but the fact that Beijing officials feel torn between appearing tough to a populist public and maintaining relations with a major trading partner isn't one of them. Japanese politicians, for example, have to worry right now about being portrayed as insufficiently patriotic if they take a softer line toward China.

And it isn't just in Asia that this kind of dilemma exists. Many U.S. administrations, including the current one, have had to deal with a comparable one. Admittedly, the stakes for American politicians aren't as high as they are for their Chinese counterparts, but they too have to contend with populist voices (what we'd called "nationalist" ones, if the country weren't our own) demanding a "tougher" line on China (albeit in the name of protecting American jobs rather than sovereignty over disputed islands) and ready to paint any effort at moderation as a sign of a lack of true patriotism.

If we have to use a matrimonial metaphor, there are more than three people in this particular diplomatic marriage. At least the way I do the math, two (sets of diplomatic actors on opposite sides of the Pacific) plus two (sets of populists) makes four.