On the eve of a bilateral U.S.-China economic meeting next week, Xi Jinping has repeated an oft-heard Chinese demand. “We hope the U.S. will objectively view China’s basic national conditions as well as its domestic and foreign policies,” Xi said to visiting former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. The subtext: Stop doing things that tick us off.
It’s clear what Chinese officials are irked about. Washington’s comment that it supported democracy in Hong Kong, following massive protests there earlier this week, angered Beijing. U.S. demands for China to permit its currency to appreciate, certain to be raised at the meeting, which will occur on July 9 and July 10 in Beijing, are counterproductive, the China Daily reported today. “The always-complex relationship between Beijing and Washington has recently been disturbed by remarks from the US on issues such as territorial disputes and alleged cyber-attacks,” the paper added.
Xi’s message, be more objective when dealing with China, is an all-too-familiar refrain, regularly directed at visiting dignitaries, business people, and of course, foreign reporters. It’s what I heard from a foreign ministry official almost two decades ago as he handed me my Chinese press card, allowing me to start legally reporting from China.
Be “impartial, objective, and fair,” another Chinese official told a group of American reporters, including me, shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At the time, Chinese officials were angry about foreign reporting on riots in Tibet and the crackdown that followed. It’s a recurring call, evergreen, never changing, heard again and again by those who interact with China.
I get that being fair is important. Foreign media coverage of China does slip too easily toward the negative. No one likes being lectured at, least of all by an overbearing U.S. And Xi’s additional message delivered to Paulson, that Washington and Beijing should “plant more flowers, not thorns, clear the interference and avoid suspicion and confrontation,” is eminently reasonable.
Still, no matter how many times one hears the lecture about being more objective, it never fails to rub the wrong way. The problem, at least for me, is this: China’s government expends huge effort on trying to restrict people’s access to information. It has, in effect, declared vast parts of the less savory parts of its history off limits. It jails those who speak too openly on taboo topics. Then it tells others to be more objective? Suppress half the story and ask for evenhandedness? Sorry, you can’t have it both ways.