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