AmericanOpinion

Diplomatic balance

There is a fine line between comment and cant in the online forums of Asian analysis

By Jason Miks

My magazine is funded by US think tanks who themselves are funded by the US government as part of a global disinformation campaign. But we’re also funded by the Japanese government. This is despite the fact that we are (admittedly, less often) Chinese Communist Party sympathisers who are trying to disrupt an Asia-Pacific that would otherwise be completely harmonious if it weren’t for the American PSYOPS we also dabble in from time to time. At least, that’s according to some of those who take the time to comment on The Diplomat’s website.

Every region in the world has its issues, its disagreements, bad blood, deep-rooted anxieties, and fears, frequently stoked by nationalism. But writing about Asia sometimes seems so much trickier than other regions. Not always, of course. We rarely raise an eyebrow when we cover Bangladesh, Singapore, or Australia. But touch on India, Pakistan, Japan, and most of all China, and you will invariably bring down on yourself a barrage of criticism. The actual engagement on the objective issues — the things you can prove or verify — seems inversely proportional to the delicacy of the subject. For example, when I’ve written on China’s advances in clean energy — and its pledge to spend more than $300 billion developing green energy and reducing carbon emissions over the next five years — there’s little to say. Similarly, if I talk about China’s slowing economy, there’s generally little debate. But touch on Taiwan, human rights, or relations with Japan, and suddenly everyone has an opinion.

These are, admittedly, sensitive issues, and while it’s sometimes easier to simply relay the facts on China’s green investment or the Communist Party’s fiscal policies, it’s harder when blogging not to take a side on some of the hot-button issues. But that raises the question of balance. How balanced should you be when writing about Asia, and China in particular?

Of course, from a business point of view, controversy makes sense — one of The Diplomat’s biggest days ever in terms of visitor numbers came when one of our (Chinese) bloggers wrote on the controversy surrounding two-year-old Wang Yue, who was left dying on a Guangdong Province street after she was run over and at least 18 people walked past her body. But post too many of those kinds of blog entries, and you risk getting labelled sensationalist and anti-China.

To an extent, this is fair. If a man was caught in Beijing eating parts of the face of someone he had just killed, then it would be tempting to try to find some kind of local angle (last year some random attacks on children in schools in China were seen by some as somehow a reflection of a pervasive sickness in Chinese society) and just watch the traffic roll in. But to the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t happened in China. It has, however, happened in Florida. Is there something about US society specifically that is cultivating face-eating zombies? Probably not. So why would there have been if it had it happened in China?

But coupled with the consideration of fairness, is the notion of balance. Even if you might have an opinion on an issue, how do you strike a balance when blogging? And if you fail to have complete balance, is it because you’re anti-China? US media outlets tie themselves up in knots worrying about this over the country’s domestic politics. Stung by frequent criticism from the right that the media is too liberal, even the most venerable of US publications have to commit remarkable acts of contorted reasoning to seem fair and balanced. I remember during the last presidential election campaign, a major US daily reported that Republicans (or at least some of their supporters) were engaged in a voter suppression effort in one state by running robocalls in minority areas reminding people to vote on Thursday. The problem was that the election was on Tuesday. Yet in an effort to appear balanced, the paper noted that Democrats were engaged in their own voter suppression effort—by trying to demotivate Republicans, arguing that George W. Bush’s policies hadn’t been good for the country.

The absurdity of this is clear, but similarly, should a blogger writing on China feel compelled to try to find balance — and offer a disclaimer that yes, something similar might have happened in another country, too? I would say that if your criticisms are measured, and your examples fair, then no, there’s no need to constantly acknowledge that a problem wasn’t just made in China (or Japan or Pakistan).

One reason is that it isn’t our duty as an Asia-Pacific magazine to do this. When I write about Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities — its deliberate distortions or sleights of hand—I’m not suggesting that the United States and Israel are always candid and open. But when a commenter gleefully points out such an omission as evidence of bias, then I respectfully submit that they are missing the point. Our focus as an Asia-Pacific magazine is rightly on Iran. There’s much that could be raised about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, but that is for a different article in a different publication. And yes, the treatment of native Americans by the early settlers in North America was often awful, but it’s difficult to see how this excuses China’s treatment of Uyghurs.

And that brings us to history, which is one of the biggest minefields in any effort to write on Asia. That many, many Chinese suffered at the hands of the Japanese before and during World War II is undeniable except, sadly, to a small minority of Japanese ultra nationalists. But should young Japanese now be pressured to repeatedly express remorse for the actions of their grandfathers?

Of course Japanese education should include an exploration of the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, because, as US political commentator and Japan watcher Steve Clemons says, the country has in many senses been engaged in a kind of historical amnesia. But by the same reckoning, it’s reasonable to point out that China’s education system, with its focus on 100 years of humiliation, has been exploited by those seeking to use nationalism as a distraction from shortcomings at home. And that’s a dangerous path to tread.

This is all, of course, just my personal opinion. But it’s a view that will no doubt mean that despite The Diplomat being owned by an Australian and edited at the time of writing by a British-American, that we will always be accused by someone, somewhere, of being a secret Japanese operation. Or maybe an American one.