Beijing this, Beijing that … Just who is this [Mister] Beijing, anyway?

I may be in the minority here, but in my experience there’s enough subtlety and disagreement in even the simplest of government policy decisions, in any country, to remove any incentive for blaming said policy decisions on a specific city. For example, whether or not you agree or disagree with Barack Obama’s fiscal stimulus program, you’re not very likely to say – much less, write – something like this:

“Washington views a multi-billion dollar fiscal stimulus as an essential part of any American economic recovery program.”

Why? Because Washington is a big place, where big disagreements take place and – as it happens – there are more than a few people in Washington who don’t agree with that statement. And that brings me to a question that’s troubled me for some time: namely, why do perfectly sane journalists who would never ascribe a policy – controversial or not –  to “Washington” (or “London,” “Rome,” “Tokyo” or “Seoul”) throw caution to the wind and insist upon referring to the Chinese government as “Beijing” – as if it were a monolithic entity [“Beijing is concerned about the declining value of the dollar;” “Beijing is concerned that the US won’t have a pavilion at Expo 2010.” etc etc etc], and not a government town riven by disagreements and factions? I’ve long been annoyed by this lazy practice (while occasionally resorting to it myself), but never quite so much as when I read Francesco Sisci’s absurd “China’s Catholic Moment” in the current issue of First Things (full disclosure: a publication that has been critical of me). Take, for example, this sentence:

Beijing views the Catholic Church as an unambiguously Western embodiment of Christianity, untainted by syncretic confusion and therefore indispensable to the Westernization of China.

Got that? Beijing views the Catholic Church as indispensable to the Westernization of China. All of it.

Now, even if you don’t take much of an interest in Chinese religion, that might strike you as a bit of a stretch, and certainly a stretch that would benefit from a footnote or – even better – a Mister. That is, if Sisci had written, instead: “Mister Beijing views the Catholic Church as indispensable to the Westernization of China,” we would then be in a position to debate whether or not Mister Beijing is out of his mind. But we don’t have that; in fact, we don’t have a source at all. We just have a city propped up to represent the opinions of a few unnamed sources whom Sisci would like us to believe represent the unified opinion of everyone in, well, Beijing! Not to belabor the point, but: there must be someone in Beijing – perhaps, even high up in Beijing! – who has a different opinion on whether or not Catholicism is indispensable to the Westernization of China. Of course, the proven existence of such a person would force Sisci to give up the use of [Mister] Beijing, and instead require him to identify his sources, or at least their factions. But odds are, Sisci – like other journalists who use [Mister] Beijing – doesn’t know who those factions are. Thus, source [Mister] Beijing.

And no surprise, Sisci’s article is loaded with mistakes (for another time, I’m afraid), and other outrageous claims sourced to (Mister) Beijing, or nobody at all (my favorite: “Just as China imported science and Western methods of industrial organization, so it could import what [Mister] Beijing understood to be the spiritual counterpart of Western science.”).

[Could use Granite Studio’s expertise on that point …]

Unfortunately, Sisci isn’t the only journalist, or foreign politician, or bar stool wag, enamored of using [Mister] Beijing to explain the policies and thinking of the sprawling Chinese government bureaucracy headquartered in Beijing. Heck, I’m 100% sure that I’ve done it in conversation and (let it not be so) in print, too. And so, as of today, I hereby renounce the use of [Mister] Beijing as a source when I don’t have somebody to whom I can pin a specific policy. I hope my China blogging and reporting colleagues will join me.

[Addendum: I’m well aware that there are, in fact, journalists who like to refer to “Washington” in a manner somewhat similar to [Mister] Beijing. And having just spent fifteen minutes googling for “Washington hopes,” “Washington fears,” Washington believes,” etc etc I am disappointed to report that a Mister Washington post may be in order, too. The only difference – again, after a 15 minute study – is that [Mister] Washington most often speaks for an agency – Defense or State, say. So far, I’ve yet to come across his opinions on the Westernization of China.]

10 comments

  1. Excellent post. I’m surprised that more journalists don’t get called on the carpet for this BS.

  2. Funny isn’t it that Mister only applies to national capitols and not provincial ones. No chance of having a Mister Shanghai or a Mister Albany. In the case of Albany reporters would be laughed off the news desk if they tried to pin policy characteristics to it. “Albany hopes that blah blah blah.” I don’t think so.

  3. I would assume that in countries where there is a one party political system, such as China or North Korea (and maybe you could lump in Iran too because they have a supreme leader that trumps the president), that any political or legislative decision that comes out of the capital — Beijing, Pyongyang or Tehran — is attributed to the capital because in political system with one party there should be no differing opinion. Just a stab at that one.

    Adam, I am sure as a journalist you could shed some light as to the validity of the question I am about to ask, how do you attribute a statement to an actual person if said individual, or group of individuals (say …. the Chinese government) typically don’t go on record for said statements? I remember you posted an article this year on the lack of attribution in NYTimes pieces after reading a story on the number of Chinese citizens that were investing their money overseas. What you’ve got are a number of leads (or rumors, depending on how you look at it), but no one to confirm/deny the information. As a journalist, who do you attribute to?

  4. The Economist provides yet another reason to avoid this usage: “Do not use the names of capital cities as synonyms for their governments. ‘Britain will send a gunboat’ is fine, but ‘London will send a gunboat’ suggests that this will be the action of the people of London alone. To write ‘Washington and Moscow now differ only in their approach’ to Havana is absurd.”

  5. I too have met the kind of Chinese gov’t official who likes to tell foreign journalists things like China must Westernize. usually though the foreign journalists have enough brains to smile and walk away without taking notes. who is this joker???

  6. If China is at all similar to the US as a confederation of regional interests — as indeed are most national governments of large nations — then it can only be expected that the regions aren’t terribly happy about ascribing all national purpose to the capital. Even with my limited knowledge of Chinese history, I’m aware that a central theme has been the cities vs. the countryside and above all the capital vs. everyone else, the units maintaining a delicate balance because that is in their common best interest. In the US from whence I hail, this balance long ago was made concrete in the US Constitution, but enough wiggle room exists for people to fantasize about moving the Capital from Washington to a better — who gets to say what “better” is? — or at least more central location. East Coast culture has strange mores and relations to the larger world quite different from those in the Midwest or the West Coast; why should those be controlling policymakers? Of course, should someone seriously talk about devolution or worse, secession, they’re viewed as troublemakers or crazy — and if they pick up arms, as secessionists liable to be hanged. Our Civil War was not beautiful; 500,000 Americans died in four short years and the nation, though intact, was emotionally shattered to this day.

    I harbor fantasies of Ecotopia, a breakaway West Coast province in the 1975 novel of the same name. It would certainly be a nicer place to live but most of all, it’s very existence would offer an alternative political point of view and cultural state of mind to Americans and the world. An opinion issued by Ms. Ecotopia would be very welcome indeed, even to Americans living beyond its borders — maybe more so to these poor outsiders.

  7. Regarding Beijing this, would Zhongnanhai (the clubhouse somewhere to the west of Tiananmen housing CPC elites, apparently they don’t have air-filtration so they’re breathing the same slummy air as everyone else) be a better synecdoche than Beijing?

  8. What annoys me even more is the articles that say things like “The Chinese want this” or “The Chinese expect that” etc.
    I have never read an article (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist) where what certain groups or individuals think in America characterizes every single person in the country.

  9. in the West you would commonly hear “Westminster” or “The White House” wanting this or that, replacing “The current UK /US governent”, despite everyone knowing there’s no single voice; numerous party within the buildings and a myriad of factions within parties.

    i think the poster above is right in suggesting Zhongnanhai as a suitable replacement for Beijing, and for all I know, the Chinese might well use Zhongnanhai such a way, but as yet the wider world outside expat-land is unfamiliar with the name, and probably unlikely to pronounce it in any case.

    which is probably why people refer to Brussels for the EU government. i’ve been an EU citizen as long as its existed, and perhaps we were taught the parliament name at school, but offhand, I actually don’t know the name of the building.

    it’s a linguistic issue really, only political in as much as English being the global language instead of say, Chinese, cannot at some level escape being political…
    it’s

Comments are closed.