Evan Osnos has a piece on the failure to provide a work visa for Chris Buckley, a New York Times correspondent, in which he says something I don’t agree with:
That is a pattern of pressure that the United States government cannot ignore. These kinds of reports, as well as stories on the downfall of Bo Xilai, have become a vital part of the world’s understanding of China’s political strengths and weaknesses. It informs how the U.S. government understands the men on the other side of its most critical foreign-policy relationship.
Well no, not really. Or at least I hope not, especially when it comes to all those stories that go ‘some bloke on Weibo angry – can the Communist Party Survive?’ It also occurs to me that no set of internal or external circumstances ever work objectively to the advantage of the Communist Party but always constitute a threat, and that any given event or personality is likely to ‘scare’ Beijing, to the extent that you wonder why Beijing doesn’t just hide under the duvet. There were a lot of familiar themes returned to last year. And the speculation around Xi’s mini disappearance was, frankly, just bollocks from first to last, though I suspect editor-pressured bollocks. Oh yeah. And China's collapsing economy. Debt doom. Whatever happened to that?
What the stuff around Bo amplified was the state of the rumour mill in China among those with the capability of appearing to journalists as informed sources. A lot of really interesting conjecture came out but there was no interview with any named principal in the affair, no discovery of eyewitnesses or physical evidence and nothing that factually contradicted the version of events eventually issued by the authorities. Likewise all the leadership speculation. No-one even knew the date of the Party Congress until it was officially announced, which turned out to be within the timeframe decided on five years ago. This isn’t anyone’s fault: it’s just a condition of reporting China, especially overclass China. No-one who actually knows tells you anything until they’re good and ready, which is often never. And you can never assume that the people who will talk don’t have an agenda of their own, especially since they’re invariably quoted anonymously.
The three ker-ching! Stories on Bo, Xi, and Wen were unimpeachably solid, but the irony there is that a lot of the evidence was dredged out of databases: you didn’t need to be in China to find most of the content.
People are highlighting a reciprocity problem in terms of journalists access to China. I’m not sure access to China is so much a problem as the fact that access to China doesn’t get you access to the definitive story about what’s going on, especially at top levels. There was certainly a brave attempt to storm the wilderness of mirrors this year, leveraging the way the Bo affair forced the CPC to give some account of what the hell was going on. It was a wild ride, and overall it clarified the difference between things that could be true and things that are probably false. But I don’t think it told the actual story. I don't think it's tellable in current circumstances, at least not by journalists.