Leadership Rumour “Too Extraordinary to be Believed”

At JimRomenesko.com, Jason Feifer pointed out a 1694 report on developments in the Chinese court, in light of mistakes made in the rush to cover episodes like the Newtown shooting. “As we look at what went wrong,” he wrote, “we often blame technology like Twitter, and reporting protocols that haven’t caught up to our instant news cycle. And yet, the Account reminds us that there has long been an instinct to report before confirmation.” From Account Of The Publick Transactions in Christendom:

We had Yeſterday another Holland Mail , which brings no conſiderable News, except that the Emperor of China, his Court, and a great Part of his Kingdom have embraced the Chriſtian Religion; but this is too extraordinary to be believed without farther Confirmation. Whatever I hear more certain, I’ll acqaint you with in my next.

TIME’s Austin Ramzy saw another contemporary parallel:

Talk of China’s leadership this year has frequently matched that description, with rumours frothing intensely around episodes such as the Bo Xilai affair and the fatal Ferrari crash involving Ling Jihua’s son. “Farther Confirmation” is often hard to obtain, more now because of official opacity and obstruction than distance. The Economist lamented this enduring difficulty in September, after ’s unexplained disappearance just weeks before his anticipated appointment as Party General Secretary:

With no hard facts, rumours flourish, even more so today with the rise of social media and a huge global China-watching profession. In the case of Mr Xi’s disappearance, explanations have ranged widely and wildly from a back injury to a heart attack to, most implausibly, an assassination attempt by means of a traffic accident, though the source of this last tale, Boxun, a Chinese-language website hosted in America, quickly deleted it.

All of this reminds China-watchers how little has changed in the four decades since Mr MacFarquhar admitted the tools of his trade were blunt and unreliable. They might recall one of their early manuals, “The Art of China-Watching”, an in-house article produced by the CIA in 1975, containing the best wisdom that American spymasters could offer. The author summed up years of exasperation in one subheading: “Does Logic Help?”

Since that forlorn cry, China has undergone a dramatic social and economic transformation. But its elite politics remains an intricate and frustrating puzzle to be tackled with crude techniques and unreliable sources. Genuine knowledge of the handful of men who rule the country, including whom they will choose to rule after them and what policies they will favour, is as rare as the Chinese unicorn. Even their health is a state secret.

See also Gady Epstein’s survey of The Economist’s 170 years of China reporting, which marked the launch of its Analects blog in February.

Spoof site China Daily Show also addressed the issue last month in a piece shared by a number China-based foreign correspondents on Twitter:

BEIJING (China Daily Show) – The chief correspondent for a top US newspaper has admitted that he has pretty much no idea what is currently going on in China.

“Nope – I’ve got nothing, to be honest with you. Not a goddamn clue,” said 44-year-old Peter Whitman, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who was previously a correspondent in Syria and Egypt. “And neither does anyone else. Your next guess is probably just as good as mine.”

[…] Observing somewhat bitterly that even the most well-researched bit of Pekingology might as well be pulled out of his own behind, Whitman pointed out that most of the sources available to well-placed journalists regarding the Party’s inner dynamics are likely to be in some way flawed, compromised or subject to bias.

[…] “I mean, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this but it’s all pointless, in a way. I don’t know why I bother sometimes,” Whitman shrugged. “I really don’t [….]”

While secrecy is particularly dense around China’s leaders, it extends much further afield. This has posed particular problems for coverage of self-immolations in Tibetan areas, where restrictions on foreign journalists obstruct independent verification of reports leaked by activist networks. In an interview with Global Times last week, Barbara Demick of The Los Angeles Times suggested that this kind of opacity has backfired in the past:

As a Western reporter in China, Demick finds ordinary people are happy to talk to her. By contrast, the government can be unnecessarily elusive at times, she said, noting as a journalist she has to find ways to persevere to carry out her watchdog role.

“Tibetan rioters really did a lot of bad things,” Demick said, referring to the 2008 incident in Lhasa, capital of the Autonomous Region. “But when the riots started, we weren’t allowed to go to , and [the government] wasn’t giving us any information,” she said. “At the beginning, much of the information [reported by the Western media] came from Tibetan exile groups in Dharamsala.”

Demick based her stories on the incident on conversations she had with a colleague in Tibet, although this was hindered when communications were cut. She also visited an ethnic Tibetan township in Qinghai Province to seek deeper perspective.

“If [the government] had let the story be told, it would have been more critical of the rioters,” she said.

As for the Account Of The Publick Transactions in Christendom, the rumour in queſtion presumably had roots in the successes of Jesuit missionaries established as scientific and military advisors in the court of the Emperor. Their efforts led to the 1692 Edict of Tolerance, which for almost thirty years allowed the preaching and practice of Catholicism in China. From S. Neill’s A History of Christian Missions, quoted at Fordham University’s Internet Modern History Sourcebook:

“The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes, and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition … We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord of heaven, in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies practised according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.”

The Emperor later changed his mind after a papal decree ordered Chinese Christians to abandon “pagan” ancestor worship and Confucian rituals. The IMHS’s editor, Paul Halsall, describes this as the loss of “a very good opportunity to convert a significant part of the Chinese elite to Catholicism.” From the Emperor’s 1721 decree:

“Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.”