As a journalist who writes on China (among other countries), I often find myself curiously conflicted. For anything that one can state with compelling persuasiveness about China, exactly the opposite statement might also hold true. Finding the right nuance about reportage on China is often the most difficult challenge for me – and although on occasion I have erred on either side of the line, the endeavour is almost always to be fair-minded. Of course, where the requirement is for me to offer an editorial commentary, not just report (a distinction that’s lost on many), I allow myself a bit more swing room. But that’s par for the course, and anyone who knows the distinction between a news report and an editorial page column will understand that.
Reportage on China that is factually wrong – or commentary on China that is lacking in nuance or that has over time been proven to be erroneous – routinely get ‘out-ed’ and ridiculed by informed Sinophiles. In 2008, foreign media organisations that, from all accounts, got some facts wrong while reporting on the unrest in Tibet, faced an enormous pushback from within China – as witnessed by the campaign by the Anti-CNN website to expose “the lies and distortions in the Western media”. Likewise, Sinophiles have no patience – and even dollops of disdain – today for author Gordon Chang’s theory about The Coming Collapse of China – or economist Andy Xie’s extremely bearish prognostications on the China property market.
For the most part, these Sinophiles can justifiably claim that they know and understand China better than many foreign media representatives or (more appropriate to this post in the context of the WikiLeaks documents) foreign diplomats in China. But every once in a while, in their eagerness to rush to China’s defence against what they perceive is erroneous reportage and commentary about China, they get a tad too touchy – and themselves slip up on fact or nuance.
This post appears to me to be one such instance. It’s by Adam Minter, an American writer in Shanghai (more about him here) whose blog (Shanghai Scrap) I follow regularly and enjoy immensely for its on-the-ground insights and fact-based reporting that occasionally outdoes the mainstream media.
Yet, on this occasion, it appears to me that he has – in his own words – gone out on a limb, and fallen off it.
The back-story is this: as the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos notes, not too many of the leaked WikiLeaks documents have (yet) exposed anything juicy about China. But this cable, from the US Consulate-General in Shenyang, has what – on the face of it – looks like a tantalising tale of bribery that leads up to China’s top leadership.
In Paragraph 4, the cable reports on a source’s account of the experience of two Chinese companies – Wanxiang and Shandong Guoda – that were competing to gain sole access to a North Korean copper mine. It records that the unnamed source “believes Wanxiang, which has close ties to (Chinese) Premier Wen Jiabao, will likely win out” by paying the other company to “go away”. It further notes: “Without naming names, (the unnamed source) also suggested the strong possibility that someone had made a payment (on the order of USD 10,000) to secure the Premier’s support.”
Whoa! Is a US Consular officer reporting that an unnamed source had suggested that China’s Premier Wen Jiabao had been paid what appears to be a bribe by a mining company to secure sole mining rights in North Korea? Minter seems to think so.
On his blog, he writes:
That’s right: somebody at the US Consulate in Shenyang reported the “strong possibility” that China’s premier had been bribed for less than the cost of a used Buick in Shanghai. That is to say, somebody at the US Consulate in Shenyang – probably several somebodies – believes that the Premier can be bribed for less than the cost of a used Buick in Shanghai.
Now, you don’t need to know anything about graft in China, much less world leaders, or Wen Jiabao, to know that $10,000 not only wouldn’t get the job done, it’d be viewed as an insult and an automatic disqualification from this any other mining contract. So I’m going to go out on a limb here: there’s simply no way that happened. None. Zero. Zilch. Now, is it possible that Wen has a “relationship” with Wanxiang? Sure. But not the one described in the cable.
Minter is of course right to say that the idea that the Chinese Premier’s support can be secured with a $10,000 bribe is laughable. But perhaps that’s not what the cable says…
The cable merely records the unnamed source as suggesting that “someone had made” a “payment” of $10,000 “to secure the Premier’s support.” It doesn’t say to whom the “payment” was made: it certainly doesn’t explicitly say, as Minter suggests, that “the Chinese Premier was bribed”. Such a payment could – perhaps, just perhaps – have been made to an intermediary who had guanxi with the Chinese Premier. It’s entirely possible that the Premier knew nothing about the payments, and gave whatever approvals he may have given on the strength of just the guanxi relationship. That may mean that a connection between a $10,000 payment and the Premier’s approval can be made without inferring that the cable suggests that the Chinese Premier was personally bribed.
This may sound like nit-picking and excessive parsing of words, but it goes to the core of Minter’s post. And while it’s possible that his reading of the cable is exactly as the US consular office intended, it’s equally possible that it’s not. Based on his (arguably) erroneous reading of the cable, Minter goes on to state that it’s symptomatic of the fact that “US State Department employees in overseas posts often don’t know very much about the countries in which they’re posted” and that its employees (at least in Shenyang) aren’t “equipped with even a budget-grade bullshit detector”.
Factually inaccurate reporting in the mainstream media – and commentary that’s lacking in nuance – is grating in the extreme, and of course Sinophiles are right to be whistle-blowers. But by the same token, when credible bloggers with a keen understanding of China extrapolate on the basis of what is arguably an incorrect reading of events, it’s fair to call them to account.