MEMO to: China’s President Xi Jinping.
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Josh Haner/The New York Times
Thomas L. Friedman
From: A Friend of Your Country.
Dear President Xi, in recent years there’s been a tug of war inside the global investment community between those who think China is a bubble about to burst and therefore a “screaming short” and those who believe that China has big problems — but also big tools and smart leaders — and will find a way forward, even if at a more normal growth rate. I lean toward the second camp, but looking at some of China’s recent behavior I’m beginning to wonder: Maybe your system is more frail than I thought?
I say that as someone who wants to see China succeed in empowering its people to realize their full potential so they can better participate in shaping China’s future and integrate with the world. Anyone who is telling you that American policy makers want to see China fail doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Our two economies and fates are totally intertwined today.
So, I wish China’s people well. Many Americans do. That is why I am writing you today. I believe you’re about to make a terrible, terrible mistake.
The Chinese-language websites of The Wall Street Journal and Reuters were recently blocked, and those of Bloomberg News and The New York Times have both been blocked for months. More important, The Times and Bloomberg together have more than 20 journalists in China whose visas are up for renewal by the end of December and, so far, your government is refusing to act on them — in apparent retaliation for both organizations exposing the enormous wealth amassed by relatives of senior Chinese leaders, including yours. The rumor is that you intend to deny both organizations the right to report from China.
China experts tell me that this unprecedented crackdown is prompted by your feeling that we’ve crossed a red line. You apparently thought the rules of the game were that the foreign press, local media and social media could write anything they wanted about corruption and social protests at the local and provincial level — indeed, it was a way for the central government to track and curb corruption — but that such focus should never be brought to the financial dealings of the top leaders of the Communist Party.
Sir, if a red line has been crossed, it has been by your officials and by technology. How so? There have been enough small stories in your own media — tips of icebergs — that suggest a widespread amassing of assets by family members of the most senior Communist Party officials. This kind of asset grab may not be illegal in all cases, but it surely could not happen at this scale without people taking advantage of their positions and the lack of transparency at the top.
Just last March, Chinese authorities quickly deleted from the blogosphere photos of a fatal Beijing car crash, believed to involve the son of a close ally of then-President Hu Jintao. The car was a Ferrari. The driver was killed and two young women with him badly injured. How could such a young man afford a Ferrari?
There was no way the foreign press was going to permanently ignore such stories that so many Chinese were talking about online. And that became even more true with the financialization of your economy and the emergence of a shareholding culture that required your companies and markets to comply with international norms for public filings of corporate structures and shareholders.
It was inevitable that once those filings were in place reporters in China would, as we did, hire accountants and lawyers to scrutinize these public records and discover things — like the fact that former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s 90-year-old mother, a retired schoolteacher, had in her name an investment in a large Chinese financial services company valued around $100 million and Wen’s son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law had all also become extraordinarily wealthy.
Who crossed the red line here? We’d argue that it was some of your colleagues and their kids in opting for industrial-scale greed — combined with the new technology to expose it. That technology is not going away, so the excesses and corruption better. The Times and Bloomberg did your leadership a huge service in exposing this. It was a warning heart attack. The No. 1 cause of death of Chinese regimes in history is greed and corruption.f you throw all our correspondents out of China, I can tell you exactly what will happen: They will set up offices in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea and do nothing other than comb through financial records from afar, without the balancing alternative to travel in China, meet and hear from Chinese people face to face, and write with nuance about other issues. Also, it will force us to evict your journalists. We will not let you enjoy our openness while you blind us.
President Xi, you are right that exposure of huge, high-level asset grabs poses an existential threat to your party’s rule. But you’re wrong if you blame those exposing these excesses rather than those perpetrating them.
When China was taking off in the 1980s and 1990s, it could get away with maintaining open markets with a closed political system. I don’t believe that will be possible in this century, certainly not to the degree of the past. Over the last 10 years, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected. The net effect is that in more and more countries — including China — wealth is getting concentrated at the top, but, at the same time, more power to speak and organize is being distributed at the bottom and more power to see — transparency — is being injected everywhere.
CHINA has more than 300 million micro-bloggers on your Twitter equivalent, Weibo, half of China is now on the Internet and China has 1 billion cellphones in use, many with cameras. There is no way in such a world that the focus on corruption and financial excesses can just stay localized. See dictionary for: Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square and Edward Snowden. They are all stories of what happens when wealth gets concentrated at the top, power gets distributed at the bottom and transparency gets injected everywhere.
Beijing ought to be concerned about what the general public will do if the secretive, back-room dealing that has enriched some elites — which every day more Chinese can see and discuss among themselves — remains a forbidden topic for public discussion and reform, and therefore mass protest becomes the only option to address it.
President Xi, for your sake and the sake of stability in China, please don’t make the mistake of blaming the messengers. The Great Chinese Firewall you need to construct can’t be against the truth. It has to be against corruption.