The Economist in China
IN OUR nearly 170-year history, The Economist’s coverage of China’s Boxer Uprising of 1900 was not a high point. On July 21st 1900, under the headline, “The Situation in China”, we reported without a shred of doubt that the Chinese government had “succeeded in murdering all the Ambassadors of all the Powers who sent representatives to Pekin, with their wives, secretaries, interpreters, and guards.” We adjudged that “China has deliberately inflicted upon all Europe and Japan an insult without a precedent in history,” and that Europe “must avenge it in some adequate way.”
If you missed this unprecedented mass murder of diplomats in your history books, that is because it did not happen (though the embassy district was indeed under siege by the Boxers for 55 days); it was a fiction propagated by Western newspapers, led by London’s Daily Mail and then the Times, with The Economist joining in days later but no less ardently (the newspapers later backtracked, without apology). The vicious and disproportionate response of the troops of the Allied powers to the Boxer threat, just 11 years before the downfall of the Qing dynasty, is now fixed in the Chinese lore of Western oppression.
So it is with humility that we suggest that the quality of our reporting on China has improved somewhat since then. One crucial improvement is that we have our own feet on the ground in China, now numbering more than ever—three pairs of them in Beijing, one pair soon in Shanghai, we hope, and more in Hong Kong (as well as our colleagues in the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company). Four weeks ago, we began devoting a section to China in the print edition each week, the first time we have added an individual country report since we added America 70 years ago. Now we have introduced this blog on China as a companion to the expanded print coverage.
But even with fewer or no feet on the ground, The Economist has been opining on this place since the newspaper’s first months of publication in 1843, when updates from “Canton” arrived in the post, by way of a slow boat. The first extended analysis of China came in the eighth issue, dated October 14th 1843. The subject may ring a bit familiar: the potential of China’s consumer market to buy foreign imports. The Economist’s founding editor, the Scottish businessman James Wilson (who in those days wrote virtually the entire newspaper) was not bullish: “The truth is, it requires something more than treaties between governments to make trade.” Mr Wilson observed trenchantly that Chinese consumers have their own peculiar needs that are not met by foreign products, and that their incomes will need to rise as well. “We must not forget” of the Chinese, he wrote (without a byline, same as today), “… the mere liberty or opportunity of buying our goods, does not confer on them at once the ability to do so.” By 2012, it can now be noted, the consumer market for foreign luxury goods developed rather nicely.
In December 1843, The Economist relayed its first reported anecdotes about China: tales of foreigners being deceived by fake Chinese products. These included, according to one written account, “counterfeit hams” made of wood, coated in dirt and wrapped with an outer layer of hog’s s