Their Own Worst Enemy: AS CHINA PREPARES to take its place as the world’s dominant power, it faces confounding obstacles: its insularity and sheer stupidity in delivering the genuine good news about its own progress.

James Fallows – The Atlantic

Copyright The Atlantic
After two years in China, there are still so many things I can’t figure out. Is it really true, as is always rumored but never proved, that the Chinese military runs most of the pirate-DVD business—which would in turn explain why that business is so difficult to control? At what point in Chinese culture did it become mandatory for business and political leaders to dye away every gray hair, so that gatherings of powerful men in their 50s and up are seas of perfect pitch-black heads? How can corporations and government agencies invest huge sums producing annual reports and brochures and advertisements in English, yet manifestly never bother to ask a native English speaker whether they’ve made some howler-style mistake? (Last year, a museum in Shanghai put on a highly publicized exhibit of photos from the Three Gorges Dam area. In front, elegant banners said in six-foot-high letters The Three Georges.) Why do Beijing taxi drivers almost never have maps—and almost always have their own crates or buckets filling the trunks of their cars when they pick up baggage-laden passengers at the airport? I could go on.
But here is by far the most important of these mysteries: How can official China possibly do such a clumsy and self-defeating job of presenting itself to the world? China, like any big, complex country, is a mixture of goods and bads. But I have rarely seen a governing and “communications” structure as consistent in hiding the good sides and highlighting the bad.
I come across examples every day, but let me start with a publicly reported event. Early this year, I learned of a tantalizing piece of news about an unpublicized government plan for the Beijing Olympics. In a conversation with someone involved in the preparations, I learned of a brilliant scheme to blunt potential foreign criticism during the Games. The Chinese government had drawn up a list of hotels, work spaces, Internet cafés, and other places where visiting journalists and dignitaries were most likely to use the Internet. At those places, and only there, normal “Great Firewall” restrictions would be removed during the Olympics. The idea, as I pointed out in an article about Chinese controls (“‘The Connection Has Been Reset,'” March Atlantic), was to make foreigners happier during their visit—and likelier to tell friends back home that, based on what they’d seen on their own computer screens, China was a much more open place than they had heard. This was subtle influence of the sort that would have made strategists from Sun Tzu onward proud.
The scheme displayed a sophisticated insight into outsiders’ mentality and interests. It recognized that foreigners, especially reporters, like being able to poke around unsupervised, try harder to see anything they’re told is out-of-bounds, and place extra weight on things they believe they have found without guidance. By saying nothing at all about this plan, the government could let influential visitors “discover” how freely information was flowing in China, with all that that implied. In exchange, the government would give up absolutely nothing. If visiting dignitaries, athletes, and commentators searched for a “Free Tibet” site or found porn that is usually banned in China, what’s the harm? They had seen worse back at home…
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