On April 1, the day Americans call April Fools Day, the Sunday New York Times carried a front page scoop: "Secret U.S. Study Concludes Taiwan Needs New Arms." The story revealed that top officials of the U.S. Navy have concluded that Taiwan needs to buy the very advanced U.S. Naval vessel that China fears could become a component in a U.S. missile shield program it has already denounced as an act of aggression.
The story read like a press release from the Pentagon or any number of arms suppliers hot to get the juicy, billion-dollar contract despite China's strong objection. A few hours later, fortunes shifted as a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet in what officials called a "bizarre encounter." Suddenly, China had an unexpected present and some new leverage in their risky rivalry with the United States. A Chinese fighter was downed in the incident, which has led to an escalation of tempers aided and abetted by saber-rattling journalism on both sides before any impartial investigation can be concluded. Washington demanded the return of the plane and the crew. China demanded an apology. No way, Jose, insisted U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, indignantly.
As the story escalated in intensity, an AOL Time Warner repairman fixing my cable told me angrily: "This is an act that I could go to war over." Hold on, Lenny, and the other Lennys of this world, ready to go mano à mano with a billion people. Let's all a take a deep breath and realize that it is not surprising that China would take offense at such U.S. surveillance flights. What if the situation were reversed, and we had Chinese planes flying over the U.S. coastline? Imagine!
And do we really know all the details? Recall that recent incident when a U.S. submarine overturned a Japanese fishing boat. The original story crumbled after an investigation. This one may too. Does anyone recall what happened when a Soviet MIG flew into Japan years ago? The U.S. military descended on the plane like locusts and absconded with its innards, unmoved by Soviet claims that the plane was their "sovereign" territory. Remember the U.S.-NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade? We ended up apologizing and paying compensation after insisting initially that it was one big accident.
In the U.S. press, China is pictured as being "acutely sensitive" about its borders. What country isn't? China bashers are having a field day with this one, but let's recognize that China may have some legitimate interests at stake here, and that no one will benefit from a new Cold--or, G.W.B. and Jiang forbid--Hot War.
Press accounts of this incident so far are no more reliable than much of what passes for coverage of China. And that, as the rest my column this week explains, may have something to do with the interests of some in the media itself.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to hurl a question at the media magnate everyone loves to hate (including MediaChannel.org readers, who picked him as their least admired mogul in our recent online poll). We were in the Pierre Hotel, a posh palace for plutocrats that fronts New York's Central Park. Rupert Murdoch, who had just spoken to the Big Picture conference sponsored by Variety and an investment bank, deigned to answer some questions from an audience composed mostly of businesspeople who tend to genuflect toward those in power.
I asked about the ethics of his decision to dump the BBC from his Star satellite system in China because the government there objected to the Beeb's human rights reporting. His decision was obviously prompted by a fierce Chinese reaction to a 1993 speech in which he called satellite TV "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere." When Beijing clamped down on satellite dishes in response, Murdoch did an opportunistic turnaround. His decision was denounced as a seedy "betrayal" by Chris Patten, then British governor of Hong Kong. Later Patten would be personally betrayed by Murdoch in canceling Patten's book contract with HarperCollins UK, one of Murdoch's publishing affiliates, because it was too critical of China. When reminded of his treatment of the BBC, Murdoch guffawed before saying he had nothing more to say. "No, I won't talk about that. If I do I may get into trouble," he replied with a shit-eating grin.
The lesson of the father was apparently not passed on to the son because on March 20 28-year-old James Murdoch, now head of operations for dad's News Corporation in Asia, put an unexpected hoof into his big mouth. With his father watching, James was speaking at the Milken Institute business conference in Los Angeles, where, according to The New York Times, he "stunned listeners" by criticizing both Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual practice, calling it an "apocalyptic cult," and Western reporters for their "unfair and harsh" coverage of China. In terms that seemed to echo Beijing's hard-line propaganda, Murdoch said Falun Gong "clearly does not have China's interests at heart." He had nothing to say about confirmed reports of more than 150 practitioners dead in police custody or more than 50,000 in detention. He also pressed advocates of democracy in Hong Kong to recognize that China's government is absolutist and beyond challenge. Nor did he tie — as most news accounts did, to their credit — his blatant kowtowing to the Chinese regime to his company's major plans to expand its investments and satellite distribution into the world's biggest market.
The setting was significant too. Michael Milken was back in the news recently when he lobbied unsuccessfully for a presidential pardon. The even sleazier Mark Rich got one. Milken didn't. In February, 1998, he agreed to pay $47 million to settle a government suit charging that he violated his parole on security fraud charges by advising Rupert Murdoch on a TV deal. Milken did not admit any guilt. It is widely understood that his advice was well compensated by Murdoch and other media moguls for helping them in allocating acquisition funds, choosing merger partners and identifying key market opportunities. Murdoch was in bed with Milken in the same way that he has been in bed with China. (And speaking of payback, Rupert's News Corporation was an underwriter for the conference. When you pay for the platform, you get invited to speak!)
From Mighty Oaks
In many ways, Murdoch the younger was acting true to family form. The elder Mr. M, one of the world's most vociferous defenders of unregulated capitalism, agreed to collaborate with the People's Daily, house organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Also, HarperCollins shelled out a large sum to buy a book allegedly written by Mao Mao Deng, daughter of the late Deng "To Get Rich Is Glorious" Xiaoping, about the brilliance of her father's achievement in moving China from Marx to the market. More recently, Rupert linked himself to China in a more personal way, dumping Anna, his wife of many years, to marry Wendy Deng, who hails from the mainland and had climbed to corporate heights in his Hong Kong operation before "merging" with the boss (who is 30 years her senior).
Wall Street Journal deputy editor Tunku Varadarajan cited other cases of Murdoch's services to Beijing: "There are other examples, some boorish, some insidious, of Mr. Murdoch's willingness to sing Beijing's tune. He has described the Dalai Lama as 'a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes,' and has spoken of pre-1950 Tibet, before China's illegal occupation, as being 'a pretty terrible old autocratic society out of the Middle Ages. ... Maybe I'm falling for propaganda, but it was an authoritarian medieval society without any basic services.' " As Jonathan Mirsky, a peerless authority on China, said in the New Statesman of London: "Murdoch is not falling for Chinese propaganda. He's repeating it word for word."
The Roots of Sinophilism
How did Rupert and Co. become so enamored with China? According to a profile in Details magazine, the Harvard-educated James had plastered his News Corp office with pictures of Chairman Mao before being reassigned to Hong Kong. Apparently, the old Red Book doesn't fall far from the tree. Back in his English college days, Rupert had flirted with the left, earning the appellation "Red Rupert." He is said to have kept a bust of Lenin in his room. Those days are long gone, and his pendulum has swung rightward. Far rightward. Former Murdoch editor Andrew Neil, who worked with him closely at London's Sunday Times, characterized him in his memoir "Full Disclosure" as "far more right-wing than is generally thought." To cite one instance, Murdoch's acquisition of Pat Robertson's religious TV network gave that fanatic more than a billion bucks and a deal that permitted him to continue to pump his "700 Club," as much a political pulpit as a TV show, into millions of homes. Yet Murdoch is also pragmatic, says fellow conservative Neil, and willing to "curb his ideology for commercial reasons." Now he's the best friend the Chinese Communist Party ever had.
Among media moguls, he's not alone. As I have reported in earlier columns, Viacom chief Sumner Redstone called on foreign journalists in China not to offend their hosts when he spoke at a business conference in Shanghai sponsored by AOL Time Warner's Fortune magazine. Disney's Michael Eisner is building a new Disneyland there. And NBC's parent company General Electric has been selling turbines to China. An NBC News producer told me he was not surprised that there has been so little coverage of the environmental consequences of the Three Gorges Dam project, which environmentalists have criticized vehemently, since it comes complete with GE turbines.
Overall, U.S. coverage of China's human rights issues has been episodic and rarely as tough as Lord James assumes. I have written extensively about the pathetic coverage of abuses against Falun Gong and even the superficial and possibly rigged reporting on the recent high-profile story of alleged self-immolations in Tiananmen Square. You can bet that Murdoch's Fox News is not pursuing this issue with that "we report, you decide" critical attitude they unleash regularly on Democrats and liberals.
In fact, critical news about China is suppressed by Murdoch outlets just as it is in China's state media. Says Mirsky, who used to work for Murdoch: "Nothing the Murdochs say about China surprises me. I watched their influence at The [London] Times. There, in the last year, reporting from Beijing has avoided all controversial subjects and all analysis, unless they were of huge news importance like the Falun Gong suicides [sic-DS]. Whenever possible, on days when other papers, such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, etc., were analyzing events, the [London] Times printed old stories about early discoveries about Christians — and others of that sort."
What Western news media outlets don't suppress themselves, China suppresses for them. "The International Herald Tribune, of which I am executive editor, has seen its distribution limited in China recently, in part because we carried stories about the Falun Gong religious sect," wrote David Ignatius on March 29. "What makes China's censorship surprising is that it coincides with Beijing's preparations to join the World Trade Organization and its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. This is a time, you would think, when the Chinese would want to show the world that they are embracing the 21st century, rather than trying to hold it at arm's length through censorship."
This blatant opportunism, what The Wall Street Journal's Varadarajan calls "corporate prostitution," can easily backfire. So observes Willy Ho Lop Lam, a Hong Kong-based journalist who was pushed out of the South China Morning Post at Beijing's bequest because of his well-informed insider analysis that repeatedly embarrassed Party apparatchiks: "Many businessmen seem willing to do or say anything to get into the China market. This is a tricky venture because Chinese politics is going through unprecedented changes. Rules and regulations — and more importantly, the cadres running the show — can change overnight. The millions of dollars spent and the flattering remarks and half-truths uttered by Western businessmen could come to naught when the wheel of political fortune in Beijing spins in an opposite direction." In fact, a journalist who was at the conference at which Murdoch spoke told me that another panelist, Robert Kapp, the chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for U.S. companies doing business in China, "politely disagreed" with young James' snotty remarks.
But for now, Murdoch's kowtowing is already paying off. Just a week after his statement, China showed its appreciation. According to the Independent on Sunday, Beijing suspended laws which prevent foreigners from owning telecom assets so that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp can now launch the country's first broadband telecoms network. "In the latest example of one rule for Rupert Murdoch, another rule for everyone else, the media tycoon has been allowed to buy into China's information revolution in clear breach of local law," says the paper.
Sadly, other media outlets that are emulating this collusion are just as guilty as Murdoch's in pulling their punches, especially in giving the Falun Gong issue the sustained coverage it merits. In many ways this also reflects Washington's lackluster attitude, as Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote recently in The Washington Post: "The U.S. government keeps records. It jots down all the instances of Chinese torture. Every few months the U.S. government 'raises the issue' of human rights. Then it goes back to keeping records." Everyone knows this is just talk, a sham and a ritual in which China is criticized publicly but embraced privately. This game is currently being played in Geneva where the U.N. Human Rights Commission will likely defeat for the eleventh year proposals to debate China's horrific human rights record. That body is so discredited that its commissioner, Mary Robinson, the former Irish president, just announced she is quitting in disgust.
Even private agencies promoting public awareness of China-U.S. relations are compromised. The prestigious Asia Society recently hosted a talk by the Chinese vice premier, which I attended, at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Happily, the Asia Society's president did read a question I posed to Qian Qichen, who was to meet with President G.W. Bush the next day. I asked how he envisaged the conflict with Falun Gong might be resolved. The vice premier responded smoothly with one phrase: "When the law is enforced."
So, no thanks to Qian Qichen for being so inscrutable and no thanks to those at the Asia Society for not permitting follow-up questions. But unexpected thanks to James Murdoch for having the guts his father lacks and for being so close-minded and open-mouthed at the same time, letting the world know so explicitly where his family stands.
Finally, and this surprises me as it must regular readers, my special appreciation to The Wall Street Journal for allowing one of its editors to speak his mind in print, a rare example of truth breaking through the Murdochian fog that envelops so much of the media on this issue. Listen, media moguls, listen. I will leave the last word to Tunku Varadarajan:
"China is run by sophisticated tyrants. They see the use of people like Messrs. Murdoch, père et fils. They aren't taken in by flattery, unctuousness or bowings of the corporate knee. They aren't unduly impressed by the Murdoch attempts to be more Catholic than the pope when it comes to China. They know that he wants to make more money in China and that he will pay any price to do so. They also know that the Murdochs become less useful to China by becoming such obvious prostitutes."
Oops, I lied. I get the last word in this space. Prostitutes, as we know, have pimps. And they know who they are.