Bret Stephens: Bejing’s Great Leap Backwards

(Ng Han Guan | AP) Workers put up government propaganda to fight against the viral outbreak in Beijing, China on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. A viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 75,000 people globally. The World Health Organization has named the illness COVID-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus that causes it.

Several years ago, in an overheated room in Beijing, I was forced to endure a stern lecture from a Chinese foreign ministry official. My sin: As the editor at The Wall Street Journal responsible for the paper’s overseas opinion sections, I had apparently insulted the entire Chinese people by publishing the work of a “well-known terrorist” — courageous Uighur human-rights activist Rebiya Kadeer.

I had to clench my jaw to suppress the rejoinder that China’s best-known tyrant, Mao Zedong, has his portrait overlooking the killing field known as Tiananmen Square.

I thought of that episode this week on hearing Wednesday’s news that the Chinese government has decided to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters based in China — two Americans and an Australian — in retaliation for the headline of an opinion column by Walter Russell Mead, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” In a style reminiscent of my own experience, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming, “The Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racist statements and smear China with malicious attacks.”

Any reader of Mead’s column, headline and text alike, will note that there isn’t an iota of racism in it, though it makes a devastating case about the ways in which the coronavirus epidemic has exposed the broader fragility of the Chinese system. And those familiar with The Wall Street Journal will know that the paper, like The New York Times, enforces a strict separation between its news and opinion sections — meaning the reporters facing expulsion had absolutely nothing to do with the writing and publication of Mead’s column.

But factual accuracy is irrelevant in a political scapegoating exercise, which is what this strike on the Journal is all about. And this does more to underscore Mead’s broader point about China’s inherent weaknesses than it does to contradict it.

What are those weaknesses? Demographers point to China’s falling birthrate, aging population and gender gap. Economists cite its faltering productivity, its made-up statistics and its giant debt bomb. And political analysts point to ever more repressive policies from Beijing, leading to ever greater discontent from Hong Kong to Xinjiang.

But the coronavirus crisis has exposed a far-deeper weakness: The Chinese regime fears information.

It was just this fear that, as my colleague Nick Kristof pointed out, led the government to suppress news about the new virus — and punish whistleblowing doctors — when it should have done the opposite, swiftly, so as to better contain its spread. The result was the loss of the critical time in fighting the virus, all but guaranteeing the global health crisis that followed.

This sort of behavior is nothing new for the Chinese government: It mishandled the 2003 SARS epidemic in much the same way. Nor is the problem specific to China: Any regime that depends on the manipulation or manufacture of “truth” for its own survival is bound to act in similar ways. That’s one of the reasons Donald Trump’s nonstop lying and misstatements of fact aren’t just immoral but also dangerous. Truth driven underground doesn’t vanish. It stalks.

But the problem for the Chinese is much more acute, for the simple reason that they don’t have genuinely independent domestic journalism. That means that ordinary people have no access to timely, accurate and comprehensive information — and neither do China’s rulers. The result is rumor, which can be dangerous; ignorance, which can be fatal; and miscalculation, which can be catastrophic.

The move against The Wall Street Journal will compound the regime’s problems, since reporting by foreign news organizations has often been critical in filling the omissions and straightening the distortions of China’s official media. It was The Journal that did some of the most pathbreaking work to expose the scale of the country’s environmental catastrophes, just as it was The Times that exposed the extent of graft at the top of the Chinese leadership pyramid. Other news outlets, particularly Reuters, have done vital reporting on the frauds and scams endemic in China’s economy.

Suppress this kind of reporting, and the first people who will suffer information blindness are China’s leaders. Every dictator needs subscriptions to The Journal and The Times, even if they come — like smutty magazines of yore — in inconspicuous brown envelopes.

It’s always possible that the regime will think better of its move to expel the reporters or at least quietly let them return in a few weeks’ time. Wise leaders, facing a monumental crisis brought on by their own irrational distrust of information, would at least learn the lessons of their folly. But there might be a truth in China even more frightening than the coronavirus — foolish rulers.

For that, no vaccine has ever been invented.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.