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 skin: “The whole is so curiously painted and prepared, that a knife is necessary to detect the fraud.” Another foreigner, “M. Osbeck”, told of being duped by a blind flower-salesman on the street: “I learned from this instance that whosoever will deal with the Chinese must make use of his utmost circumspection; and even then must run the risk of being cheated.”
The same 1843 article, headlined “Russian Trade Overland With China”, observed that Russia had “a great moral superiority” over the British in trade with China because they were not “engaged in the degrading trade in opium”. For The Economist, this marked the beginning of an estimable record in opposition to Britain’s and the other European powers’ exploitive, militarily backed trade policy with China. In 1845, The Economist urged the reduction of a steep tariff on Chinese tea, in line with the central founding principle of the newspaper: free trade. In 1859, The Economist, very much against the tide of national sentiment, castigated Britain’s arrogant treatment of China and argued in vain against waging what would become known as the Second Opium War: “There is nothing like the arrogance with which Englishmen are disposed to treat the great Oriental nations,” the newspaper wrote in one edition, going on to “record our emphatic protest against a false and arrogant tone of dictatorial ignorance which is growing up in England with regard to Oriental States…” This moral outrage against intervention in China did not come without patronising arrogance of The Economist’s own, including this, also from 1859: “No nation in the world is so slow as the Chinese in taking in new ideas; and their prejudices are so deep-rooted that nothing but time can alter them.”
Not only did the newspaper argue against military intervention in China, it also at almost the same time threw in its lot with the authoritarian Qing regime in Beijing against the Taiping rebels who nearly toppled the dynasty in more than a decade of carnage. The Economist demonstrated a bias in favour of regime stability in 1862 that would be comforting to the leaders running China today: “The Government of the Emperor,—which we fear that England has done too much to shake and injure,—bad as it is, is not a destructive Government. All its vices have been the vices of a corrupt and greedy bureaucracy, not of a desolating anarchy.” Meanwhile, “the Tae-pings are a mere horde of depredators.” (A new book by Stephen R. Platt, “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom”, offers a dramatically different assessment of both sides in that bloody civil war, which the Manchu Qing ultimately won with the help of the British and American governments).
Such 19th century insights were hindered greatly by the fact that The Economist relied heavily on the Foreign Office and on other press reports for its information. After the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, this began to change. Accounts from a “special correspondent” in Beijing in 1913 accurately conveyed the sorry and tenuous state of the young Republican government of that period. In June 1949, when Mao Zedong and his band of revolutionaries were on the verge of establishing the People’s Republic, the newspaper’s “special correspondent” in Hong Kong relayed the discipline that prevailed among Communist soldiers, the transformation of its media into “organs of propaganda”, and the nervous mood of some among the public, in a long article titled, “China under the Communists”:
There has been no terror yet in Peking or Tientsin, and it is probably too
early to say whether Communist China will develop into another police
state…Nevertheless, the Chinese wealthier and middle-classes and all those who
had any contact with the nationalist regime are in a state of considerable
anxiety about the
The reporter also wisely dismissed the persistently sanguine view of some British merchants in Hong Kong, who held that not much would change under the Communists. Astutely, the correspondent believed it more likely “that what is happening is something completely without precedent in Chinese history of the past one hundred, or one thousand, years.”
A year later, in 1950, The Economist gave an eyewitness account of the new China with a colourful dispatch titled “Marxist Shanghai”. Authored “by a correspondent recently in China”, it talked of a city fascinated with its communist condition, with bookshops full of literature on Marxist theory, communists putting on plays and the sounds of the song “The East is Red” playing in the streets:
But no impression could be more deep or more lasting than that of the
immense evangelical force of the movement. As one sees it in Shanghai it is a
pill presented with a little coating of jam. The attack is insistent, for new
hearts go hand-in-hand with new thoughts and in this process of regeneration
‘self-criticism’ plays so large a part and seems to be having so considerable an
effect that it deserves at least closer attention than the slightly sneering
tone in which it is often dismissed in the Western
Over the next quarter-century, until Mao’s death in 1976, the newspaper’s reporting (like that of others) was hampered by an inability to travel the country at will. As such, Mao’s purges were reported, but without enough detail of their brutality, and the calamitous famine of the Great Leap Forward was not grasped in real time. The crazed excesses of the Cultural Revolution were reported with much more clarity and detail, thanks to the distinguished work of Emily MacFarquhar, whose expertise on China stood out both at the newspaper and among her peers in journalism; still more of the insanity and chaos would come to light only much later. This was how Mao wanted it, of course. Though The Economist was by no means blind to Mao’s totalitarian rule, the newspaper was not able to observe firsthand its worst effects. As a consequence, The Economist rendered too kind a verdict upon Mao’s death in 1976. Among other accomplishments, he was credited with having built an “egalitarian state where nobody starves”; true, perhaps, that nobody was starving to death at the moment of writing, but the horrible fact that 20m to 30m of Mao’s subjects had perished in famine would emerge only years later.
Since Mao’s death and China’s opening, The Economist has been able to report more knowledgeably from inside the country. The newspaper first took full advantage of this in December 1977, with 24 pages of reportage and insight on China from Ms MacFarquhar and two other senior staffers, with the cover title “Chairman Hua’s China”. Given that Hua Guofeng, who was Mao Zedong’s hand-picked successor, would not last another year in power, some predictions understandably hit well wide of the mark, and there were some grave underestimations of the damage done to China during Mao’s rule. This included the judgment that “most Chinese are rightly grateful for what their government has done since 1949”. Such are the hazards of contemporaneous writing.
We know today with the benefit of a longer lens that many Chinese are more grateful instead for what their government has done since those words were written. As it happens, Norman Macrae, the then-deputy editor of The Economist, predicted this would be the case. His prescient contribution to that 1977 report, beginning under the title, “A miracle has been postponed”, predicted that Chinese leaders would soon reinterpret Mao as they liked (while not abandoning him in name), liberalise the economy and launch decades of 10% annual economic growth. Fifteen years later, in 1992, Jim Rohwer explained in another special report how the reforming Chinese economy was even more vibrant than outsiders supposed, and was poised to keep booming for yet another 20 years.
The newspaper was sometimes too close to the action to get the underlying story right: On May 20th 1989, The Economist (and other Western media) almost wrote Deng Xiaoping’s political obituary, swayed by rumours just hours before our publishing deadline that he was stepping down in the face of student protests; the newspaper noted the 84-year-old Deng’s shaky use of chopsticks on the occasion of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit that week. “And while Mr Deng grew older and feebler, the China around him changed, too,” we wrote. Weeks later, Deng was in as firm control of power as ever, and the newspaper would lament the bloody crackdown near Tiananmen Square that proved it so.
The Economist established a permanent China bureau in Beijing in 1997 (the application was first made in 1994; the authorities were in no hurry to approve it). From that perch, the newspaper chronicled the historic transformation of the economy and China’s place in the world that has compelled so many news organisations, including ours, to expand our presence. The country’s transformation continues: in this week’s China section, we note that economic development of interior cities like Chengdu and Chongqing has progressed to the point that history’s largest in-country migration of workers is now reversing its flow. Both in print and here at Analects, we endeavour to convey a fuller picture of a China that has changed dramatically since we began paying attention in 1843—politically, socially, culturally and economically. Certainly, the story has developed beyond the narrow scope that the newspaper conceived in that first article about China, in October 1843:
…that our demand for their produce will stimulate increased industry,
produce among them more wealth and more ability to consume our goods, is
certain; and a large and regularly increasing trade with this extraordinary
people may be experienced for many years to come, and in the course of
time…arrive at an amount at present little thought
Little thought of indeed. Allowing for grievous errors like the account of the Boxer Uprising, we have done our best to provide worthwhile reporting and analysis on China in our pages for nearly 170 years. Long may useful fragments continue to find their way into print, and into these Analects.