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.]