• Thu
  • Apr 17, 2014
  • Updated: 1:49pm
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 10:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 1:56pm

Xi makes The Economist cover again, but Beijing's censors are unimpressed

Beijing may have taken umbrage at the headline of The Economist’s May 4 issue, which reads: “Let’s party like it’s 1793”.


George Chen is the financial editor and columnist at the South China Morning Post. George has covered China's financial industry and economic reforms since 2002. George is the author of Foreign Banks in China. He muses about the interplay between Shanghai and Hong Kong in Mr. Shangkong columns every Monday in print and online. Follow George on Twitter: @george_chen

For the second time in just over six months, China’s president, Xi Jinping, is gracing the cover of The Economist, although Beijing appears unimpressed and unamused.

Xi is dressed in the imperial robe of Qianlong, one of the most influential and successful emperors in Chinese history, and Beijing’s response was as swift as it was predictable. All related online pictures and links to the latest issue of the British newspaper have been heavily censored, just hours after the publication of the Xi cover.

Beijing may have taken umbrage at the headline of The Economist’s May 4 issue, which reads: “Let’s party like it’s 1793”. It may also possibly disapprove of the London-based publication’s decision to portray Xi in Qianlong Emperor’s imperial robe on the cover.

Why 1793?

This is a key date in modern Chinese history, and The Economist is quick to explain to those unversed in the history of the Middle Kingdom: “In 1793 a British envoy, Lord Macartney, arrived at the court of the Chinese emperor, hoping to open an embassy. He brought with him a selection of gifts from his newly industrialising nation.”

“The Qianlong emperor, whose country then accounted for about a third of global GDP, swatted him away,” The Economist recounts, noting that the emperor welcomed Britain’s “sincere humility and obedience” but China did not have “the slightest need for your country’s manufactures”.

Despite the emperor’s dismissive tone 220 years ago, the British were not so easily deterred and Lord Macartney’s visit ultimately signaled the end of the Qing dynasty, and helped to change the course of China -- and possibly the world.

Now, when President Xi describes his vision for the future of China as a “Chinese dream” of which all Chinese should be proud, The Economist may feel Xi has something similar in mind to Qianlong Emperor’s.

“Mr. Xi’s emphasis on national greatness has made party leaders heirs to the dynasts of the 18th century, when Qing emperors demanded that Western envoys kowtow (Macartney refused),” The Economist said.

Despite heavy online censorship -- particularly on China’s most popular Twitter-like real-time microblog service, Sina Weibo -- some Chinese online users were still able to glimpse The Economist’s new cover about Xi before Internet censors swooped to delete all relevant photos.

As a result, they were swiftly redistributed online hundreds or even thousands of times for about half an hour on Friday morning. Reactions from Chinese netizens were mostly upbeat.

“I like this picture. I like Xi Jinping. As a Chinese, I am proud to have a leader like him,” commented one Weibo user.

Other netizens commented that China has Xi as Russia has Vladimir Putin, whom some Western media portray as an empire builder and wannabe Tsar.

The Economist Group has an official Weibo account, but did not post its new cover story there, and the account appeared to be operating normally on Friday.

Beijing has deleted several foreign media Weibo accounts. For example, the New York Times’ Chinese Weibo account was expunged after the US newspaper published articles about former Premier Wen Jiabao's family wealth, angering the Chinese government, which said they were “false and negative”.

The Economist, just like all other foreign newspapers and magazines, cannot be sold publicly in the street in mainland China. While it may be available at some top-end hotels and embassies and consulates, those who wish to subscribe to the weekly newspaper must apply for permission to a state agency. Officials there sometimes tear out pages that contain politically "sensitive" content before allowing it to reach subscribers. 

The last time Xi graced The Economist’s cover was October 27 last year, when he was set to be officially named as the new leader. Its headline was “The man who must change China” and Xi was dressed in black suit, and was portrayed sitting in an armchair with fault lines around him.

A lot has changed since Lord Macartney’s fateful visit more than 200 years ago. China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s No.2 economy, just behind the United States. Whether China’s economic surge can continue, probably hinges on how Xi improves or reforms the Communist Party, which has ruled the “New China” since 1949.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Like the Mr. Shangkong column? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong



This article is now closed to comments

The top leadership of China, has, in my opinion, done an amazing job of anticipating the direction that China must go. The leadership must address all the contradictions that rapid growth brings with it, rebalancing the country's economy, so that all sectors of China, and its people, can share in the new found wealth that this growth is providing. This involves balancing the interests of its country side with those of it cities, the interests of the disadvantaged with the advantaged, and China's past with its future. China can never be divided, as it was in the past. It can never be made vulnerable to invasion, as it was in the past. It must be expected that it will project its "soft power" in the future, which contrasts markedly from the power of the United States, which has been projected in the recent past with terms like "shock and awe". China's leadership, in my opinion, has become one of the most sophisticated in the World in negotiating this tight balancing act, while still keeping its focus on the future needs, and desires of the Chinese people. The United States and China would do well to view each other with respect, and allow each other room, and civility. Nature has provided them with the opportunity of lasting partnership as they face each other across the great Pacific Ocean.
"...China's leadership...has become one of the most sophisticated in the World in negotiating this tight balancing act, while still keeping its focus on the future needs, and desires of the Chinese people."
My friend, you've got the gist of the complexity in governance. There are actually two parties within one CCP, each of which is very diverse. For sure there is struggle for dominance of ideas via rational dialogues within each de facto party.
While ideological battle lines in China's politics are not infrequent, you don't see media polarization that promotes ideological government gridlocks during crises in the West, let alone the relentless ideological hatred expressed by self-hate Hong Kong bananas (readers below).
All this talk about China lacking democracy and human rights are just vituperations from hate and envy, the green eye monster.
"This involves balancing the interests of its country side with those of it cities... and China's past with its future."
Right on! You seem to have the feel of dynamic economic models, Ramsey and others, which columnists in this publication sorely lack.
Perhaps we should talk some more about linear and dynamic programming in goal setting for China.
"Xi is dressed in the imperial robe of Qianlong" - I would censor this picture simply because it is both academically incorrect and fails to honour the basic symbolic imagery and certainly the ideography of the court robe regardless of time. A cheap shot does not equate to amusement or irony, satire or caricature humour when done so badly as this. Is censorship based on poor taste so unacceptable when there is a direct challenge to cultural values and heritage?
Britain should learn from China instead of being jealous and refuse to accept the new reality in the world . In my 60 years I saw Britain as a very important country in the world and going straight down to its present state . During the early years of my life all cars and manufactured goods come from Britain . It is unbelievable to see Tony Blair begged PM Wen to rescue the Rover group few years ago . I forsee Britain as a country will go down further simply because it cannot sustain its lifestyle . Unfortunately we still have this group of old British who are kings in sarcasm and forgetting to look at themselves . I look forward to see China be the next superpower in the near future . Maybe in 30 years we can see British girls working as maids in China . Emperor Qianlong will rock in his grave .
I am a Brit in China, reading all about this from within China.
To portray Mr. Xi as a Manchu Emperor is quite the most insulting thing the Economist could have done. China's central Government today is one of the World's most professional and capable. Whereas the western world limps from one recession to the next, Beijing has managed to keep China growing at a considerable rate. Beijing is able to control the precise volume of money supply and its allocation, and therefore retains control over its economy.
The nine men that reside at the top table of Chinese politics are some of the most capable on earth; whereas Westminster and Capitol Hill have some of the most dithering buffoons in the history of global Governance.
I am British and proud of it. But I am sufficiently humble to know when the competition is getting something right. China's rigid control of the money supply is their secret weapon in the Global Economic War, and Beijing knows how to use it.
@TheEconomist: grow up fellow Brits, stop aimlessly bashing China, open your eyes, and you might just learn something useful from Mr. Xi and his colleagues.
I agree on many points made here. However, let's not get carried away with comparisons of relative merits and differences of these great nations. It's fun, but scientifically not meaningful to juxtapose two countries with separate identities at different stages of development, then add and subtract items into a single figure of merit.
Yes, both countries have so much to learn from one another.
I am 100% thoroughbred Chinese. But I must concede the world would be a lesser place without Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall and British Empiricists.
Let's put everything in perspective. China's dynastic tyrannies are legion and so is British Democracy with its colonialism, slave trade and opium peddling.
Modern China after Mao Zedong is a work in progress. Your praises seem valid. But we must yield to History as the Ultimate Arbiter. Being cautious and circumspect in my projections, I must say China has uncertainties (unknown unknowns) matching her limitless opportunities.
As for The Economist consistent China bashing, ill wishers are ignorant that China's welfare translates into no small measure of global well being.
In the Great Recession, China contributed the lion share to global growth. Understand that in economics what matter occurs at the margin.
Competition between nations is essential to global economic growth. War is the bugaboo. No more Pax Britannica or Americana. China has never had the habit of projecting military power.
The cenship or the internet and of the free exchange of ideas is similar to China's closed door policies of the Qing period, which eventually left China weak, venerable and subject to colonization.
Journalism gold: "A lot has changed since Lord Macartney’s fateful visit more than 200 years ago."
Then, nimbly leaping past all that has happened in the intervening two centuries, we come to the necessary evidence to illustrate the blindlingly obvious above statement. And it is .. (drumroll)...
"China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s No.2 economy, just behind the United States."
Is this the best SCMP can do for a website splash? ripping off the economist?



SCMP.com Account