China and the Transparency Gap
Rumors and Chinese politics are nothing new.
In fact, my memories of my four years as Reuters Beijing bureau chief in the 1990s are filled with frustrating days and nights trying to track down some intriguing/important/insane/incomprehensible rumor about political change, leaders’ health, diplomatic machination or fundamental shift in the landscape.
Some turned out to be true. Most turned out not to be.
Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose!
The air in China, polluted at the best of times, is now thick with the fug of rumors about president-to-be Xi Jinping and why he’s not been seen recently.
The NYT has a good round up
Some may turn out to be true; some won’t.
The big difference now is that China has a transparency gap. With hundreds of millions of users on line using microblogs and millions more sending sms messages over their phones, the feeling of urgency is greater than ever. The noise is overwhelming.
And, of course, China is much more of a world player than ever before – while China may still see itself as a developing country, the world looks at it as a major power and expects the same standards of openness as it would about the health of an American president.
Good luck getting that!
“We have told everybody everything,” said the foreign ministry spokesman. That’s clearly not true; what is true is that he may have told everybody everything that the foreign ministry knows. The black box that is the leadership means “need to know” extends to a very small number of people indeed.
That leads me to some of the lessons I learned as a foreign correspondent:
- Occam’s razor holds true. Don’t ignore the straightforward explanation; don’t rush to the most complex theory.
- Those who speak usually don’t know; those who know don’t speak.
- Those who speak, even if they know, have an agenda
- The level of noise has nothing to do with the level of truth
- Don’t expect China to play by other places’ rules
Do any of these rules help understand what’s really going on? Unfortunately no. But maybe they can help us avoid taking a severe wrong turn.