The New York Times on China – Often Wrong, Seldom in Doubt


The impetus for writing the last blog post was reading this in a New York Times article on China:  “Most people in China can only dream of being able to afford an expensive phone. But millions of Chinese are developing a taste for luxury goods, and Apple products have joined Louis Vuitton bags as totems of wealth.”

The comment was vintage NYT reportage: managing to be both condescending and ill-informed. The reality is otherwise: personal wealth in China is widespread and growing quickly. While not yet at levels seen in Taiwan or Hong Kong, more people in China can afford “an expensive phone” than in the US. The New York Times, however, prefers more often to characterize China today much as it has for the last 30 years – as a largely poor country, with a few selfish and wealthy autocrats lording over a teeming mass of mistreated peasants subsisting on starvation wages.

Back when I was a reporter, I once heard someone describe another journalist as,  “Often wrong, but never in doubt”. The same, writ large, can be said of The New York Times Its primary activity is one of substantiation, not investigation. It seeks out, or partly imagines, stories that will support its rather simple, binary world view: Democrats good, conservatives bad; UN good, US military action bad; tolerance for its favored groups and causes, good; tolerance for the groups and causes it loathes, bad.

I don’t get my business news from The New York Times, a habit I first cultivated over 20 years ago when I went to work at Forbes. The times I do read business stories in the NYT they seem to be written by reporters with a disdain and distrust for business. I’ve met a few NYT business reporters over the years. If I had to sum up their basic belief system, it would be “property is theft”.

As far as China goes, the NYT’s reporting mainly has two dominant flavors: “we don’t like it”, or “we don’t understand it”. Human rights, pollution, Tibet and defective manufactured products figure prominently. China’s remarkable positive transformation, and the huge increases in personal, political and economic freedom, all get short shrift inside the pages of the NYT.

Of course, there are many and better sources of information about China. The Wall Street Journal, for example, is consistently good. The NYT’s circulation is shrinking year-by-year, as is its influence. But, for a certain group of Americans, particularly on the left and in the more elite precincts of academia and the media, the NYT remains the primary source of information about the world.  So, its reporting about China has outsized consequences,  helping to shape (or deform) elite opinion in the US.

It will come as news to many of the NYT’s readers that China is on the whole a stable and contented nation. This is, arguably, the most important story of my lifetime, China’s return, after at least a 500-yeaar hiatus, to a place of central importance in the world, as a confident and prosperous nation. The New York Times too often seems the last to know.


3 thoughts on “The New York Times on China – Often Wrong, Seldom in Doubt”

  1. Thanks for the well written article. I’ll have to admit I’m not a newspaper reader so it doesn’t have much influence on my what the New York Times writes, though it is good to know that they have this poorly informed view of China. I’ll keep your advice in mind when I hear anyone quoting the NYT.


  2. Wombadan Shunde

    I think the growth to Western style acquisition of such items will be in the primary markets of Beijing, Shanghai and so on, but for folk in cities like Anhui, Chengdu and Xi’an – ie the majority of the Chinese population – such items are still going to be too expensive.
    There was a China Briefing report on items that people buy in China’s 2TC that made interesting reading – mobile phones (although one suspects iphones make up only a small percentage) are in the top ten purchases, but then so are refridigerators and microwave ovens. They are still acquiring basics at the moment and may not be as wealthy yet to acquire top end brands. China is still mainly a low-middle income consumer market.

  3. There is a lot more consumption firepower out there is Tier 2, 3 & 4 cities, townships and rural cities than you might otherwise think. Residents of Tier 1 cities’ disposable income is chewed up by excessively high living costs, particularly cost of housing, transport, food and other basics.

    Overall, I agree the NYT and other Western media does little justice to the profound changes that have taken place in China since the 90s. The script of a litany of human rights abuses, economic good news and the bizarre has changed little. There are exceptions but far too few.

    Strange that wealth in the West is not mapped by the media by logging sales of global ‘luxury’ brand items. Thankfully, across the world, many people with money choose not to splash it on rather pointless consumption of vanity items.

    One extraordinary indicator of the spread of wealth in China is the size and quality of housing OUTSIDE metropolitan areas. Modern Chinese farmhouses are getting excessively large and are rather well equipped with all mod cons. Housing in small towns is being rapidly upgraded by new developments with pleasant and modern public areas. Recent travels in rural areas across Yunnan, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Sichuan surprised me with just how deep the transformation of the countryside is going.

    I don’t think the key issue is affordability (ie an iPhone is not that expensive), but lack of Chinese consumer ‘vanity’ in the regions and a focus on other key areas in life.

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