‘I Was Wrong’ To The New York Times: Comments On China’s Censorship Squeeze Are Lemons — And Mistakes

Editor’s note: Buck Ryan, a professor of journalism in Kentucky, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer in Wuhan, China, seek cross-cultural understanding through current events—this time, a critique of a prominent author’s views on Chinese censorship over the past 27 years.

Ray: I was wrong, Buck.

Buck: Thank you, Ray. It takes a big shot to admit mistakes.

Ray: Well, it started with The New York Times.

Buck: What?

lei: i guess you missed Cinderella who fell on the sword. Eight opinion writers published “I was wrong” accusations of previous articles, explaining why they changed their minds.

Buck: When was that?

Ray: A few weeks ago. Paul Krugman on inflation, Brett Stephens on Trump voters, Gail Collins on Mitt Romney, Michelle Goldberg on Al Franken, David Brooks on capitalism, Zene Putufikci talks about protests, Farhadmanjo talks about Facebook. But you know the one that actually got my goat?

Buck: No.

LEI: Thomas L. Friedman, “I Was Wrong About Chinese Censorship,” Opinion, July 21, 2022. I think I was wrong too, about the New York Times. I consider this a reliable and credible source of news and information.

Buck: Ha! I guess you’ve never met Carl Thomas.

Ray: Who is Carl?

Buck: One of America’s most popular syndicated columnists. A true go-to for conservative thinkers and writers.

Ray: So what does he think of The New York Times?

Buck: “Every morning when I wake up, I read The New York Times. Then I read the Bible and see what they say.”

Ray: I think I like Carl. Wait, let me google him.

Buck: Are you kidding me? Google is blocked in China.

Ray: Buck, you’re drinking Friedman’s favorite drink.

Buck: What do you mean?

Ray: Here’s one of his wrong lines from 2006: “I still think it’s hard to have a culture of innovation in a country that censors Google — to me, it’s about people imagining and trying whatever they want. ability of things.”

Buck: Got it wrong?

Ray: True, the nature of censorship is repressive, but is censorship really possible in this day and age? China is not a giant censorship machine, everyone is silenced and lives like a robot.

Buck: You mean, the Chinese can easily jump over another Great Wall, right?

Ray: Yes.

BUCK: I think back to my early days teaching in China when I naively wanted to show a YouTube clip. One of my students said, “Professor, YouTube is blocked in China. But wait, I’ll help you.” Within minutes, I had the clip on the classroom screen.

Ray: It’s not that we can’t find what we need, it’s that we have too much. For those who want to understand the outside world, they can. Most people just have no need or motivation at all.

Buck: So China isn’t exactly “diminishing people’s imaginations,” is it?

Ray: As far as I know, in a free world where Google is omnipotent and free of censorship, there is never a shortage of brainwashed trolls.

Buck: Ha! What about “innovation culture”?

lei: he’s going to kill me, buck. You know, we didn’t steal all your intellectual property. We have a lot of smart, innovative, hard-working people here—thousands of years before America existed.

BUCK: Interesting, Ray, I saw a Wall Street Journal story about how Elon Musk and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey are racing to create a new “super app” — to follow in China’s footsteps.

Ray: Oh, which app?

BUCK: Launched by Tencent in 2011, WeChat is considered an exemplary super-app, starting with messaging and social media, then expanding to booking rides, doing e-commerce, and even providing government services.

Ray: Friedman can sit back and relax about our innovation culture and other things.

Buck: What is that?

Ray: Elon and Jack may also be looking for some of the top graduate students in China. According to a Forbes article last year, Chinese Ph.D. By 2025, graduates in STEM fields (77,179) are expected to nearly double (39,959).

Buck: Well, what else bothers you about Friedman’s fault?

Ray: He started out as a wishful attempt to unilaterally Americanize China into something China is simply not. Like he married a woman he wished to change and was shocked by the 50% divorce rate.

Buck: What the hell did he say?

Ray: “One of the most important questions I’ve grappled with since becoming a columnist in 1995 is whether, when and how quickly China will open up its information ecosystem to allow unauthorized access from Chinese and foreign sources. Censored news spreads more freely. I admit I was too optimistic. I plead guilty.”

Buck: God, he’s talking about the past 27 years. This covers three different Chinese leaders and five US presidents. What is he so worried about?

Lei: He said that “if China is interested in developing a high-tech economy,” uncensored journalism is necessary.

Buck: Wait, I thought you had one.

Ray: We have, Buck. Look back at the 2001 world GDP picture.

Buck: Then why?

Ray: That’s when we joined the World Trade Organization. Your president is Bill Clinton, and the leader of China is Jiang Zemin.

Buck: Okay, here are the trillions of dollars I found: $10.6 in the US, $4.3 in Japan, $1.9 in Germany, $1.6 in the UK, $1.4 in France, and $1.3 in China.

Ray: Yes, Buck. The latest data shows that the United States ranks first with $20.9, and China ranks second with $14.7.

Buck: Friedman worries that censorship will hinder China.

Ray: That’s Trump’s job, being a cow in a Chinese store. He made America aware of what happened under Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Joe Biden.

Buck: So you think Friedman was blinded by his own Western bias against the power of the media?

lei: yes, not just him. All Friedmans need to face the realization that China is not Japan or another Soviet Union. This is not the American way or the highway.

BUCK: It sounds like an old Chinese expression might emerge.

Ray: Yes, Buck, here it is: “The rascal thinks of others by his own desires.”

Buck: What else upsets you?

Lei: How about this quote from 2009: “If Beijing refuses to allow a fair amount of free flow of information on the Internet and in public speech—if for no other reason than to promote entrepreneurship and innovation—China will never be able to surpass The U.S. economy is dynamic in the 21st century.”

Buck: What’s the problem?

Ray: Associating liberal media directly with innovation and entrepreneurship is like trying to get a car to go without an engine.

Buck: What’s the engine of the business, Ray?

LEI: Greed, Demand and Financial Capital – Whether you’re in the US or China. If press freedom is the key to business success, why are American newspapers dying at the rate of two a week?

Buck: Touché, Ray.

Ray: Look, Buck, I don’t like censorship — who does? We know that information in China can be censored for political or ethical reasons. But my daughter can read a book like To Kill a Mockingbird at school without worrying about political correctness.

Buck: Do you see censorship in your work?

Ray: Yes. We were asked to pull references and visuals from our English textbooks, especially anything suggesting red, white and blue. Our China-US relationship is so bad.

Buck: Ray, as AJ Liebling famously wrote in The New Yorker, “Only those who own the news can guarantee a free press.”

Ray: Ha! Honestly, Buck, we would all benefit from more humility and less arrogance and arrogance.

BUCK: So have you finished your search for Cal Thomas?

Ray: Yes, I found his book America’s Due Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers…and America’s Future.

Buck: That’s fine. Carl was inspired by the British diplomat Sir John Grubb, who discovered an interesting pattern of empires in human history.

lei: what pattern?

Buck: With a few exceptions, superpowers only lasted 250 years.

Ray: Well, then 246-year-old America is approaching its “expiration date.” I get it. It looks like fun to read at the beach this summer.

Buck: Is it fun?

Ray: If I’m wrong, I’ll let you know.

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky, and Jiao Lei, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology in Hubei Province, China, collaborated on articles to promote cross-cultural understanding. You can read their previous article here (“Kissinger’s new book evokes Nixon’s specter, ringing skeletons. In China, they’re still revered on Mao’s 70/30 ratio.”):


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