NYT Cowboys telling Indians stories

A friend highlighted a link to an Indian newspaper article which was highly critical of China’s Covid response. She suggested I look at the article[1] because the commentary seemed to be very different from my experiences.

On opening the Indian Express, I realised I was reading a New York Times article which, in my opinion, rather rudely doesn’t credit the author, I needed to go to the NYT main headline, find the link[2] and check it before the paywall locked me out. Nevertheless, both the NYT and The Indian Express seem to be the same story and how disappointing it was to realise this was a Chinese American writer Li Yuan who seems to be so disdainful of her ethnic peers that she’d rather see them dead than see them free of Covid-19.

The article uses one of the three commonly used headlines seen in US media: “at all costs”.

If it wasn’t this one it would have been “…but at what cost” or, “In a move certain to anger Beijing”. The article starts with a series of allegations of mistreatment. A man dying of a heart attack, a woman who lost her baby and another who was beaten up by security guards. Indeed, these are tragic events, mistreatment and worthy of note but it doesn’t mention if anyone was punished for them until the 19th paragraph, notwithstanding that these allegations were placed in the opening paragraphs. The fact that the heart attack victim died inside the hospital, the woman with the miscarriage has received an apology and will be compensated, all conveniently either ignored or vanquished to a part of the article that few people will have the patience to read.

Words like “authoritarian, emboldened, iron-fisted” litter the content but in fact disregard the willingness of the people who are affected by this — I’ve personally been locked down, it wasn’t so bad, I’ve done two weeks in quarantine, I was checked-on every day with a smile and asked if there was anything I needed, there wasn’t, everything was provided. Also, for a period of several weeks in early 2020, my city was in full lockdown. One of us in the apartment was allowed out every second day for shopping. By comparison with other cities, this was quite “authoritarian” but everyone knew what we were avoiding and went along with it. To this date, I’m probably the one who complained but only on my social media and I’ve left it there to remind myself how wrong I was. At the time the number of deaths was small, it looked, to me, like a flu. To the Chinese government, it looked like something far more serious. They were right and I was wrong, we know this from the number of excess deaths in the USA, sure to top 1 million soon, with India around half-a-million and increasing. Chinese citizens aren’t stupid, they know these numbers inside China would skyrocket — they are not just willing, they expect and accept guidance because the government has now proven that they know what they’re doing.

An unwholesome comparison to the Jewish Holocaust is made, using an anonymous Chinese social media source called @IWillNotResistIt, referring to the Hannah Arendt quotation of the “banality of evil” with the NYT writer stating it’s often evoked in situations such as the Xi’an lockdown. I can assure the Indian Express readers and her NYT readers that the phrase is not, and has never been commonly evoked in fact, over 17 years of living in China, I’ve never heard it — except in the NYT!

Quite the opposite is true, the “banality of evil” refers to ordinary people doing extraordinarily evil things and, for sure, China definitely has many ordinary people doing extraordinary things during times of crisis but always, in my experience, for the good of their community.

Recently, in my home city in Guangdong, there were two cases of Covid. Some minor restrictions were implemented: masks to enter shopping centres, markets or public transport; some meeting places were closed and restaurants were limited to 50% capacity so customers could be spaced. It was hardly draconian, businesses carried on. The city block where the cases lived was indeed locked down and no one was allowed to travel in or out of the region. We weren’t allowed to travel out of the city unless we had a negative test in the preceding 2 days but life went on and China did an extraordinary thing. It carried out over 5 million tests, twice in a week.

Some extraordinary people did do some extraordinary things. When I went for a test, the first person I saw was a good friend in his wheelchair, he and his disabled friends had volunteered themselves to help get people through the process. Students who spoke English had volunteered to help foreign residents, who may struggle with the process. There were a lot of smiles, a lot of friendly faces and not a single complaint. The article writer seems to forget one thing when she writes of the “hordes of online nationalists” and the “vast army of community workers” it’s that these people come from within the community they are helping, because they want to and yes, hordes does mean there are a lot of them.

One final point the article makes that really indicates both a cognitive dissonance between the author and her story and a complete lack of awareness of how China’s governance works, it tells the readers how “no dissent or criticism is tolerated”. She forgets, she mentioned in paragraph 19 how the complaints of the lady who miscarried, the family of the heart attack victim have been addressed. If what this writer purports to be true were actually true, those complaints would have been ignored and the apologies, compensation and punishments would not have been made. Furthermore, a very quick look at Weibo, Douyin or WeChat, China’s most popular social media apps will prove that’s not true, they are full of criticisms. There’s even a telephone number: 12345 in any city will put you through to the city’s complaints department.

This really is an example of cowboys telling the Indians stories.

[1] https://indianexpress.com/article/world/china-zero-covid-policy-army-of-workers-7720988/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/12/business/china-zero-covid-policy-xian.html

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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences