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Jun. 1 2010 - 12:14 pm | 9,647 views | 0 recommendations | 14 comments

Potemkin Pundits: Did Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein Fall For Chinese Propaganda?

Chinese police show students how to protect th...

Image by AFP via @daylife

Take a walk (or rather, a scramble, a sprint, a jump – there are no “walks”) through Beijing, Shanghai, or any number of Chinese cities, and you’ll probably notice the character dao scrawled on many residential buildings. Dao means “destroy,” and even more bluntly it means, “you’re moving.” Tens of millions of Chinese people have been displaced from their homes in the past decade, as the country has been in the throes of a massive (and, in many ways, justified) construction boom. Prior to the Olympics alone, some 1.5 million Beijingers were displaced. This is possible because all property in China is state owned – if the local authorities tell you to pack up and go, you’d best do it. While in many ways, China’s construction boom has been a very good thing – it’s great to see formerly dirt poor Chinese people enjoying the conveniences of modernity – the way it has proceeded has been morally dubious at best. Residents are given no choice in the matter, and all too often, financial compensation is scant.

Forced migration has been become a massive source of social unrest in the Middle Kingdom. In 2005, there were 87,000 “public order disturbances” in the country – a shockingly high amount, given the repressive nature of the Chinese regime. According to a report prepared by the US Congressional Research Service, many mass protests have been caused by the fact that “peasants and urban residents … have lost their farmland or homes to development projects.” Imagine if a man with a uniform and a gun came to your childhood home and told you to “get out, we’re putting in a KFC here,” and you’ll see why forced displacement has become a huge human rights problem in China.

Apparently this fact is lost on some prominent American journalists. Indeed, two of the blogosphere’s most popular liberal voices, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, and Matthew Yglesias of the Center For American Progress, are currently in China on a group junket, and they have seemingly been snowed by Chinese propaganda. On the issue of forced displacement, they seem to have displaced their (generally sizable) intellects.

Klein and Yglesias’ group was taken to tour a spanking-new village built on the outskirts of the northern city of Dalian. As Yglesias describes it, “back in 2006 the former “village” of rudimentary structures was razed and the government constructed a large and extremely nice park (it’s in a very scenic area), reforested the hillsides, and constructed a series of apartment complexes. The former villagers now live in modest but up-to-date structures.” But don’t worry about the forcibly displaced, Yglesias admonishes us, because, “[w]e spoke to one retired couple who was given four apartments—they live in one and rent out the other three to families who’ve either moved out to Cha’an from the central city or else moved to the area from less prosperous regions of China. The town’s current party boss said he was given five apartments.” Klein’s coverage on the website of the Washington Post was equally credulous. He informed his audience, “A conversation with some residents revealed that they didn’t just get one free apartment in the new building. They got four free apartments, three of which they were now renting out. And medical coverage. And money for furnishings. And a food stipend. And — I’m not kidding, by the way — birthday cakes on their birthdays. Sweet deal.”

Yglesias and Klein are on a junket managed and staged by a public relations firm based in Hong Kong called the China-United States Exchange Foundation. While the firm claims on its website it is a “non-government” organization, it would be impossible for it to operate without strictures imposed by the Chinese government. China has no concept of freedom of the press, and there is simply no way that the Beijing government would tolerate a group of American journalists traveling around the country with impunity. In other words, Yglesias, Klein, and their “fellow travelers” are being shown precisely what the Beijing government wants them to see. It is a non-governmental tour in name only. The fact that Klein and Yglesias report back on such obviously staged scenes without a hint of doubt raises serious doubts about their journalistic competence. The “sweet deal” that Klein alluded to above is obviously too – in fact, sickly – sweet. It is plainly obvious to anyone who knows a whit about China that they were visiting a stage-managed potemkin village.

Granted, it occurred to me that perhaps Yglesias and Klein’s dispatches were being censored. I contacted an anonymous source on the junket, who informed me that no such censorship is occurring. But even if there was either hard or soft censorship going on, that hardly excuses Yglesias’ and Klein’s posts. Why post at all, if you know what you are writing is fundamentally dishonest?

Lenin famously referred to Western sympathizers of the Soviet Union as “useful idiots.” Anyone familiar with Yglesias or Klein’s oeuvre recognizes that they are hardly “idiots,” however. That’s what makes their credulousness so strange and disturbing. Lenin also wrote a pamphlet entitled “What Is To Be Done?” Yglesias and Klein’s behavior raises another question, though: What Is To Be Dumb?


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  1. collapse expand

    I don’t exactly disagree, but the example cited here by Klein and Yglesias is only distinguishable from what’s going on a few hundred feet from me in Baltimore in that the displaced residents were promptly provided new housing in their old neighborhood, rather than be promised this and not having it delivered for several years if at all.

    Obviously, displacement for the Olympics or, more massively, for the Three Gorges dam, is a much different issue.

  2. collapse expand

    Why is this surprising? In an earlier time, Matt and Ezra would have absolutely loved, loved, loved Cabrini Green, too.

  3. collapse expand

    Kudos to you for the intellectual honesty in wondering how these apparent rubes can be unaware of being spun like a top. Your comment regarding “useful idiots,” and how these putatively really smart guys could fall for this raises the following question.

    What good is intelligence? Or rather, what guarantee is there that having it will produce a superior thinking result? I say intelligence is a tool. The world’s best hammer does not guaranteee its user will be a good carpenter. The world’s best microscope gives no guaranteee its user will make the right conclusions about what she sees through it. Intelligence is not much difference. it’s what you do with it that matters.

    And what you do with it depends on a lot of other factors: judgment, character, integrity, objectivity, humility, experience, something like “common sense,” to name but a few. These other factors are often more determinative of a useful, accurate thinking result than raw SAT firepower.

    The smartest person in the world is going to be blind to some things if he sees only what he wants to see or is conditioned to see or predisposed to believe. I for one am not impressed by hearing how very “bright” someone is. I am far more interested in how honest he is, for example. Putting it another way, “discernment” is made up of many things other than a certain slice of rational faculties.

  4. collapse expand

    “Dao”? Surely you mean “chai” (拆)!

  5. collapse expand

    Speaking of useful idiots, where is Tom Friedman on this? He is such an admirer of dictatorships that I am sure he thinks this is just another example of forward thinking. If only The One had that power. http://tinyurl.com/34pc6wm Well, we can all fantasize how much better it would be if he did, can’t we?

  6. collapse expand

    I saw this article on another website first, and commented on it there. So I’ll just paste it here. And one more thing, I’m Chinese.

    “The author failed to make a good argument. Actually, residential renewal and displacement projects are generally welcomed by the people here in China. Living environment gets improved, and by paying an affordable small amount of money you get to live in a new and bigger house. It’s a much better deal than selling your old house first and then buying a new one on your own.

    Displacement related social unrests happen mostly during big, national projects like the Olympics, road and dam constructions, etc. On the one hand, the government fails to take a democratic approach in informing and negotiating with the residents, and on the other hand, some residents want to take the chance to get as much compensation as possible, and when the government refuses to give a fuck, they riot.”

  7. collapse expand

    I like this author’s argument: “Why post at all, if you know what you are writing is fundamentally dishonest”? To depist what you have seen is dishonest? I am Russian, and I have lived and worked in China for five years. And for all these five years I’ve seen only increasing living standards in China. The way legislation is used is different, but it is not about any violations of human rights.

  8. collapse expand

    “On the issue of forced displacement, they seem to have displaced their (generally sizable) intellects.”

    I haven’t read enough Yglesias to argue one way or the other, but I would say that Klein’s intellect is far from sizable based on his former assertion that health care is somehow magically immune to rationing effects. Someone has apparently since educated him on the economic definition of “rationing”, but it didn’t stop him from opening his yap about it before he understood it (and yet somehow someone decided to pay him to spout his lack of knowledge).

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    I'm a writer based in Portland, Oregon. My work has appeared in the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, the New York Press, The Big Money, sp!Ked online, the Epoch Times, the Daily NK, and others. From 2005 to 2007, I wrote a column on culture and politics for the (alas, now defunct) Seattle-based Internationalist Magazine. In so doing, I filed dispatches from Berlin, Seoul, Paris, New York, and, yes, Reno - among other places. In 2009, I reported on business from Shanghai. I attended Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

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