Accuracy in Media

Op-ed pages of newspapers are reserved for differing opinions. But when a paper like the New York Times allows a columnist to belittle the Chinese struggle for freedom and democracy, that crosses over the line. In this case, the Times permitted a columnist, an American, to actually say in print that China today is better off because the pro-freedom movement was crushed in Tiananmen Square back in 1989. The implication was that it is better that hundreds of people died back then. This columnist, Robert D. Kaplan, who writes regularly for The Atlantic Monthly, ought to be ashamed of himself. And the Times should be feel guilty for publishing it.

Here’s what he said: “Were China to have suddenly become a parliamentary democracy in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising, the average Chinese citizen would likely be worse off today, and dramatically so. Back then, with more poverty, a smaller middle class and far more ignorance about the outside world, parliamentary democracy in China would probably have ignited turmoil, particularly in areas with ethnic and regional divides.”

Basically, he was saying that the Chinese people couldn’t handle freedom and democracy. He is saying they were too dumb to understand how to take care of themselves and that they needed a dictatorship to take care of them. His column ran under the headline, “Sometimes, Autocracy Breeds Freedom.” The word “autocracy” attempts to soft-pedal what is the reality in China—a Communist dictatorship. Of course, if the Times had run the column under the headline, “Dictatorship Breeds Freedom,” such a headline would have made no sense at all.

At another point in his column, to buttress his viewpoint, Kaplan asks the question: “Since 1989, which system has improved the lives of its citizens more, China’s one-party dictatorship or Russia’s multiparty democracy?” But this is a false choice. Democracy in Russia is not related to the deteriorating economic situation there. It has more to do with the fact that some of the old state industries were privatized and taken over by members of the old communist ruling class who looted them and sent a lot of their money abroad. Another factor is that economic reforms in Russia, including legal protections for private property, did not keep up with democratic reforms.

Nevertheless, Kaplan went on to say, “The recent experiences of China and Russia show that the American definition of freedom has become narrow and abstract.” He claimed that the majority of people everywhere “do not see freedom solely in terms of the right to vote periodically and to demonstrate and to express political views publicly. Rather, they worry about such things as finding a job and a decent place to live…”

The implication is that a government should find jobs and housing for people and that having these needs met will satisfy them. History shows that what people really want is economic freedom and political freedom. That is not narrow. That is the American view as expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The political freedom which Robert Kaplan plays down includes the freedom of the press that he enjoys.

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