I enjoyed Walter Russell Mead’s February 3 Wall Street Journal Global View column published under the headline “China is the real sick man of Asia.” Beginning with China’s respose to the coronavirus outbreak, Mead widened the scope to economic issues:
China’s initial response to the crisis was less than impressive. The Wuhan government was secretive and self-serving; national authorities responded vigorously but, it currently appears, ineffectively. China’s cities and factories are shutting down; the virus continues to spread. We can hope that authorities succeed in containing the epidemic and treating its victims, but the performance to date has shaken confidence in the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad. Complaints in Beijing about the U.S. refusing entry to noncitizens who recently spent time in China cannot hide the reality that the decisions that allowed the epidemic to spread as far and as fast as it did were all made in Wuhan and Beijing.
The likeliest economic consequence of the coronavirus epidemic, forecasters expect, will be a short and sharp fall in Chinese economic growth rates during the first quarter, recovering as the disease fades. The most important longer-term outcome would appear to be a strengthening of a trend for global companies to “de-Sinicize” their supply chains. Add the continuing public health worries to the threat of new trade wars, and supply-chain diversification begins to look prudent.
Events like the coronavirus epidemic, and its predecessors—such as SARS, Ebola and MERS—test our systems and force us to think about the unthinkable. If there were a disease as deadly as Ebola and as fast-spreading as coronavirus, how should the U.S. respond? What national and international systems need to be in place to minimize the chance of catastrophe on this scale?
Epidemics also lead us to think about geopolitical and economic hypotheticals. We have seen financial markets shudder and commodity prices fall in the face of what hopefully will be a short-lived disturbance in China’s economic growth. What would happen if—perhaps in response to an epidemic, but more likely following a massive financial collapse—China’s economy were to suffer a long period of even slower growth? What would be the impact of such developments on China’s political stability, on its attitude toward the rest of the world, and to the global balance of power?
China’s financial markets are probably more dangerous in the long run than China’s wildlife markets. Given the accumulated costs of decades of state-driven lending, massive malfeasance by local officials in cahoots with local banks, a towering property bubble, and vast industrial overcapacity, China is as ripe as a country can be for a massive economic correction. Even a small initial shock could lead to a massive bonfire of the vanities as all the false values, inflated expectations and misallocated assets implode. If that comes, it is far from clear that China’s regulators and decision makers have the technical skills or the political authority to minimize the damage—especially since that would involve enormous losses to the wealth of the politically connected.
Tom Friedman, call your office.
This somehow could not stand. China’s Communist rulers took offense to the column — allegedly to its headline, but also, we may assume, the substance of the column itself. Kimmy Yam reported for NBC News “The Wall Street Journal criticized for op-ed with derogatory reference to China in title.”
And not just China’s rulers! Yam consulted Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Choy opined: “The consequences of publishing an opinion like this by mainstream media include stoking more fear and anxiety, and increasing hostility against Chinese and other Asians throughout the world. This is extremely harmful and wrong.”
The Berkeley professor channeled the views expressed by China’s tyrants. They should sign her up to do public relations work for them, now that the Communists have expelled three wall Street Journal journalists as a result of the Journal’s refusal to “apologize.”
The BBC reports that story in “Coronavirus: China expels Wall Street Journal journalists for article it deemed racist.” The BBC reported that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the article was “racist” and “denigrated” China’s efforts to combat the outbreak that has killed more than 2,000 people in the country. “The Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racist statements and maliciously attacks China,” Geng said.
Journal reporters are on board with the demand for an apology to the Chinese regime. Marc Tracy covers that angle for the New York Times in “Inside The Wall Street Journal, Tensions Rise Over ‘Sick Man’ China Headline.” Subhead: “After China announced the expulsion of three of the paper’s journalists, 53 reporters and editors at The Journal asked top executives to consider changing the headline and apologizing.”
Wall Street Journal publisher William Lewis expressed “regret” for any harm the headline had caused but did not issue a formal apology. This wasn’t good enough for the Journal reporters. I should add that Professor Mead has let it be known that he did not choose the headline.
What is to be made of this series of events? The Journal’s excellent February 19 editorial on the Chinese reaction to Mead’s column is “Banished in Beijing.” Among other things, the Journal editorial observes: “What Chinese officials don’t understand is that a free press would have helped them better cope with the virus fallout. Democracies are resilient because a free media sends signals and information that allow an outlet for grievances and alert leaders to problems before they become crises.”
But what about those protesting Journal reporters? They are on board with the Chinese Communists. They want to…kowtow.