‘I was wrong’ about The New York Times: Commentary on China’s censorship squeeze was a lemon — and the mea culpa, too


Editor’s note: Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, pursue cross-cultural understanding through current events — this time a critique of a noted author’s view of censorship in China over the last 27 years.

LEI: I was wrong, Buck.

BUCK: Thank you, Lei. It takes a big person to admit a mistake.

LEI: Well, The New York Times started it.

BUCK: What?

LEI: I guess you missed the Gray Lady falling on her sword. Eight opinion writers published “I was wrong” mea culpas about previous articles, explaining why they changed their minds.

BUCK: When was that?

LEI: A couple of weeks ago. Paul Krugman on inflation, Bret Stephens on Trump voters, Gail Collins on Mitt Romney, Michelle Goldberg on Al Franken, David Brooks on capitalism, Zeynep Tufekci on protests, Farhad Manjoo on Facebook. But you know the one that really got my goat?

BUCK: Nope.

LEI: “I Was Wrong About Chinese Censorship” by Thomas L. Friedman, Opinion section, July 21, 2022. I guess I was wrong, too, about The New York Times. I thought it was a reliable and credible source of news and information.

BUCK: Ha! I guess you never met Cal Thomas.

LEI: Who’s Cal?

BUCK: One of America’s most popular syndicated columnists. A real go-to guy for conservative thinkers and writers.

LEI: So what does he think of The New York Times?

BUCK: “Every morning when I get up I read the New York Times. Then I read the Bible to see what the other side says.”

LEI: I think I like Cal. Wait, let me Google him.

BUCK: You’re kidding, right? Google is blocked in China.

LEI: Buck, you’re drinking the Friedman Kool-Aid.

BUCK: What do you mean?

LEI: Here’s one of his erroneous lines from 2006: “I still believe it is very hard to produce a culture of innovation in a country that censors Google — which for me is a proxy for curtailing people’s ability to imagine and try anything they want.”

BUCK: Erroneous, eh?

LEI: True, censorship is repressive in its nature, but is censorship really possible in this day and age? China is not this giant censorship machine where everyone is silenced and living as robots.

BUCK: You mean, people in China can easily jump that other Great Wall, right?

LEI: Right.

BUCK: I’m reminded of my early days of teaching in China when I naively wanted to show a YouTube clip. One of my students said, “Professor, YouTube is blocked in China. But wait, I’ll help you.” And within minutes I had the clip up on a classroom screen.

LEI: It’s not that we can’t find what we need, it’s that we have too much out there. For those who want to know the outside world, they can. Most people just simply don’t have the need or the drive for it.

BUCK: So China is not exactly “curtailing people’s ability to imagine,” eh?

LEI: From what I’ve seen, in the free world with the almighty Google and no censorship, there has never been a shortage of brainwashed trolls.

BUCK: Ha! What about that “culture of innovation” thing?

LEI: He’s killing me, Buck. We didn’t steal all your intellectual property, you know. We have a lot of bright, innovative, hard-working people here — and that was true for thousands of years before the U.S. existed.

BUCK: Funny, Lei, I saw a Wall Street Journal story about how Elon Musk and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey are in a race to create a new “Super App” — looking to follow China’s lead.

LEI: Oh, which app?

BUCK: WeChat, launched in 2011 by Tencent, is considered the model super app, starting with messaging and social media, then expanding to booking rides, doing e-commerce and even providing access to government services.

LEI: Friedman can rest easy about our culture of innovation and something else.

BUCK: What’s that?

LEI: Elon and Jack are probably also looking to hire some of China’s top graduate students. According to a Forbes article last year, China’s Ph.D. graduates in STEM fields (77,179) are expected to almost double those in the United States (39,959) by 2025.

BUCK: Huh, what else bothered you about Friedman’s mea culpa?

LEI: He opens with wishful thinking about trying to unilaterally Americanize China into something China is fundamentally not. It’s like he married a woman he hoped to change, then was shocked by a 50% divorce rate.

BUCK: What did he say exactly?

LEI: “Among the most important questions that I’ve wrestled with since becoming a columnist in 1995 are if, when and how fast China will open up its information ecosystem to allow a much freer flow of uncensored news — from both Chinese and foreign sources. I confess that I’ve been too optimistic. I plead guilty.”

BUCK: Gee, he’s talking about the last 27 years. That covers three different leaders in China and five U.S. presidents. What’s he so worried about?

LEI: He says uncensored news is necessary “if China is intent on growing a high-tech economy.”

BUCK: Wait, I thought you had one.

LEI: We do, Buck. Take a look back at the world’s GDP picture in 2001.

BUCK: Why then?

LEI: That’s when we joined the World Trade Organization. Your president was Bill Clinton and China’s leader was Jiang Zemin.

BUCK: OK, here’s what I found in trillions: the U.S. at $10.6, Japan $4.3, Germany $1.9, UK $1.6, France $1.4, China $1.3.

LEI: Right, Buck. The latest figures show the U.S. is No. 1 with $20.9 and China is No. 2 with $14.7.

BUCK: And Friedman worries about censorship holding China back.

LEI: That was Trump’s job, being a bull in a China shop. He woke up America to what’s happened under Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Joe Biden.

BUCK: So you think Friedman is blinded by his own Western bias about the power of the press?

LEI: Right, and not just him. All the Friedmans out there need to deal with the realization that China is not Japan or another Soviet Union. It’s not America’s way or the highway.

BUCK: It sounds like there might be an ancient Chinese expression coming.

LEI: Yes, Buck, here it is: “A knave thinks of others in terms of his own desires.”

BUCK: What else irked you?

LEI: How about this line from 2009: “If Beijing refused to permit a decent level of free-flowing information on the internet and in public speech — if for no other reason than to drive entrepreneurship and innovation — China would never be able to overtake the American economy in dynamism in the 21st century.”

BUCK: What’s the problem?

LEI: To directly connect a free press to innovation and entrepreneurship is like trying to run a car without an engine.

BUCK: What’s the engine of business, Lei?

LEI: Greed, need and financial capital — whether you’re in the U.S. or China. If a free press was the key to business success, why then would U.S. newspapers be dying at a rate of two each week?

BUCK: Touché, Lei.

LEI: Look, Buck, I don’t like censorship — who does? We know information in China gets censored for political or moral reasons. But my daughter can read a book at school like “To Kill a Mockingbird” without worrying about political correctness.

BUCK: Are you seeing censorship in your work?

LEI: Yes. We’re being asked to pull references and visuals, especially anything that suggests the red-white-and-blue, from our English textbook. Our U.S.-China relations are that bad.

BUCK: Lei, as A.J. Liebling famously wrote in The New Yorker, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

LEI: Ha! Honestly, Buck, we would all benefit from more humility and less hubris and arrogance.

BUCK: So did you complete your search for Cal Thomas?

LEI: Yes, I found his book “America’s Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers … and the Future of the United States.”

BUCK: That’s a good one. Cal was inspired by a British diplomat, Sir John Glubb, who found an interesting pattern for empires in human history.

LEI: What pattern?

BUCK: Superpowers last only 250 years with a few exceptions.

LEI: Hmm, then at 246 years old, the United States is approaching its “expiration date.” I get it. It looks like a fun read this summer at the beach.

BUCK: Fun?

LEI: If I was wrong, I’ll let you know.

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. You can read their last article (“Kissinger’s new book raises Nixon’s ghost and rattles skeletons. In China, on Mao’s 70/30 scale, they’re still revered.”) here: