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  • Dec 30, 2014
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My Take
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 2:43pm

Reporting on China? Pick your own facts

A neutral reader of news may be forgiven for being thoroughly confused by international media reports and foreign experts' views on China today. Beijing is always complaining about the bad press it gets, but I would say that has more to do with conflicting reporting and commentaries in the foreign media. As a result, those with fixed positions and an ideological axe to grind can cherry-pick what they like to support whatever they believe in. And naturally, Beijing would fixate on the bad rather than the neutral and favourable press. With China, whether you are pro or anti, prejudice and bias rule.

The once-a-decade leadership change has caused a spike in reporting on China around the world. So you will find predictions that China's economy is heading towards collapse; that it will surpass the US economy in a few more years; that it will stagnate like Japan's, its population growing old before it grows rich. Politically, the Beijing leadership has been called a brutal dictatorship; an enlightened meritocracy; and a fragile system in need of urgent reform to avoid disaster.

For example, Martin Jacques, a former Hong Kong resident and author of the critically acclaimed When China Rules the World, wrote this month on the BBC website that the central government is more legitimate and stable than any current Western government.

He cited surveys by Tony Saich of Harvard University and Pew Global Attitudes that found, respectively, more than 80 per cent of Chinese citizens were either relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government; and 91 per cent thought its handling of the economy was good, compared with the British figure of just 45 per cent.

But in two widely reported speeches given by China expert Roderick MacFarquhar in Hong Kong this month, China's political system is described as corrupt and fragile.

The Harvard professor said unpredictable events could trigger the regime's collapse. Part of the fragility and illegitimacy of Chinese communist rule, he said, was because new leaders could only emerge through back-room deals.

Space prevents giving more examples here, but such contradictory pronouncements abound. So take your pick about China: buy, sell or hold.


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Martin Jacques' work notwithstanding, at the very height of academic, unbiased research, to draw a readable conclusion still requires an amount of subjectivity and ideological platform. The pitfall here is the way we ask the question; not what the answer is. We SCMP readers are Socratian thinkers demanding a binominal conclusion to everything. China: good or bad? advancing or regressing? The people are poor or rich? happy or angry? Translate that dichotomy to the US population and you get the same heterogeneity. The only difference is that the US media machinery has made an art form of presenting useless data into infotainment.
Martin Jacques clearly has no idea what he is writing about, having totally thrown out many of the major economic and political issues facing China and instead assuming the status quo last for the next 30 years - and it appears he made his conclusions before he completed his research and then reverse engineered the whole book.
However, part of the problem with China reporting is the opaque nature of the government and its state companies. Often, we are left to make educated guesses to put the pieces together just to write a story that is not full of holes. If the media and the flow of information in China was more free, it would do a lot to solve this problem.
"... China's economy is heading towards collapse...; that it will stagnate like Japan's.." The Schadenfreude for the latter is extremely unlikely. Based on fairly sound neoclassical growth theory in economics, there is good evidence for what is known as conditional convergence in development economics. What it means is at a certain level of capital stock per capita, a nation would only grow at a long-term steady state. By every indication, China is still capital stock poor and far from slow, steady state growth. In other words, China is nowhere close to the convergence criterion.
Despite skepticism about its over-investment, high savings (investment) rate will push the steady state capital stock higher and further into the future. This will disappoint many economics illiterate media ill-wishers. China won't stagnate like Japan.
Chinese economy has also been refusing to collapse for at least 3 decades against the wish of its detractors. There might still be a remote possibility for its collapse if Cardinal Zen, Lai Chee Yin, Martin Lee and others were given a free hand in using Hong Kong as a base to stage massive subversive efforts on the mainland.
Don't hold your breath on this one though.
With a population of 1.3billion, China is a country of contradictions. With such varied opinions and groups, is it not strange that it is a one-party system that represents them? How can that possibly be? Is it nation for its people? Or the people for its one-party system? The fact is: a one-party dictatorship cannot possibly represent 1.3 billion people.
Don’t forget, the most influential documentary this year and essential viewing for everyone:
I'm sure if u do a survey in North Korean the satisfaction could be much higher than in the West. But does it tell you anything? Everything is relative. To illustrate i watched a documenatry from a young reporter spent 3 night at a coffin home ( 18 people to share 200 sq ft space, shameful HK) and returned to his public housing of around 500 sq ft found it is huge for family of 4! I'm sure this young reporter now is extremely satisfied with his living condition after the visit and if you now do a survey on him. But would you and I be happy with 500 sq ft for 4 people? No.
There is also another statistic showing 80% of mainland millionaires wanting to immigrate aboard too, does it tell you anything about China? Let's look at things from both angels.
SpeakFreely: You should be ashamed of your ignorance. Mr. Lo's quotes are from Pew Survey and Tony Saich, which are the gold standard of surveys with scholarship to boot. Mr. Martin Jacques is an outstanding writer with credentials from London and Cambridge universities. None of them should be compared with your young reporter.
Instead of speaking like an ideologue, why don't you get yourself admitted into a decent university and get yourself a good education like Professors Saich and Jacques?
Giving equal time to a wise person and a moron is not about balanced free speech. It is the rape of speech freedom and productive speech.
I had read Mr. Martin Jacques' book When China Rules the World and it has a good descriptive account on China. However, I feel there is also an element of jumping to conclusion, not that I disagree with his conclusion, but the way he arrived at it.
I certainly will give credence to studies and works done by prominent academics and well trained professionals, however, I would stop short of deeming whatever they say as (always) right or relevant. One reason is the world with 7B people is way too complex for any institution, let alone an individual, no matter how bright and wise, to decipher and make bull eye's projections and conclusions all the time.


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