Eugene Robinson, Honorary China Hand

November 30, 2011

So many pundits, politicians and journalists hop over to China for a week or two, do the tourist thing and interview a couple CEOs (I’m looking at you, Friedman), then return home convinced that China is either: a) a perfect, modern society that will reign supreme in a few years; or b) a nation so plagued by economic, political, social and environmental problems that it’s a wonder it didn’t implode years ago.

Both opinions are ludicrous and indicative of a profound misunderstanding and ignorance of the Middle Kingdom, but at least those guys get to write off the trip as a business expense. Whenever one of these columns finds its way onto the pages of a major newspaper, expat heads in Beijing and Shanghai explode in sequence like a Spring Festival string of firecrackers.

And then there’s Eugene Robinson, a longtime columnist for the Washington Post, who to the best of my knowledge has no China background. He is currently over here doing the journo thing, and although he has plenty of time to embarrass himself with an off-base column, his first try is stunningly reasonable and spot on.

After reading this first paragraph, I was hooked:

This is my first visit to China, and I plan to spend the next few columns reporting what I see and learn. I spent enough years as a foreign correspondent to know how tricky first impressions can be. The subtleties and complexities of any society are — unsurprisingly — subtle and complex.

Oh my. I purposely used the phrase “stunningly reasonable” because columnists these days don’t get very far by being reasonable. This also applies to bloggers of course — I always expect more comments and traffic after writing a blistering rant than a well-reasoned, fair exposition that explores both sides of an issue. The Voice of Reason is often quite boring.

Robinson goes on to explain why U.S. politicians, with the exception of Jon Huntsman of course, get China wrong. His first target is Mitt Romney, whom Robinson chides for claiming that China is “running all over” the U.S.:

Really? From here, it looks more like an embrace than a war. My hotel is in the chic, yuppified Chaoyang District, just up the street from an Apple store, a Starbucks, a Calvin Klein boutique and just about every luxury retailer you could possibly name. An hour’s drive away, at the visitors center for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the first restaurant you see is a Subway. High-status automobile brands in China include not just Porsche, Audi and Mercedes, but also Buick.

Not only is this a fairly accurate observation about foreign brands in downtown Beijing, illustrating the success of some multinationals here, but it is also accompanied by careful disclaimers. Robinson notes, for example, his understanding that conditions in Beijing and Shanghai are not indicative of less-developed parts of the country.

Robinson relates this evidence of economic interdependence between China and the U.S. and posits that talk of a trade war makes little sense. If anything, he says, China’s interests are in ensuring that the U.S. economy remains strong enough to purchase products manufactured here. As recent export numbers reveal, a softening U.S. economy is definitely not good news for Chinese factories. This is old news, but many in D.C. still fall for the “China will dump all its dollars if we don’t kowtow to their demands” paranoia.

The Voice of Reason goes right at the vitriolic China bashing that has been a staple of U.S. politicians from both political parties this year:

So this is really a dispute over issues that shouldn’t be addressed with chest-pounding and tough-guy threats. The solution involves negotiation and simple arithmetic — and both sides have a powerful incentive to reach an accord.

Quite right. But before I leave you with the impression that Robinson’s column was all criticism of U.S. rhetoric and no “reality check” on the China side, he does mention in passing several troublesome issues, including currency manipulation, intellectual property rights enforcement, human rights, etc. He hedges his bets to some extent, which I think is always a good strategy for a reasonable columnist.

Robinson’s first piece from China isn’t flashy or sensationalist, and some may find it a bit boring (much like this post, I suspect). But compared to what his journo colleagues usually come up with after a brief trip over here, I am pleasantly surprised.