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China’s Thin Skin Bruised Yet Again

President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Despite the potential of a pandemic that could crater the global economy, it’s a relief to know that China’s Communist rulers are focusing on the important things. The latest brouhaha between China and the United States unfolded last week when Beijing expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in retribution for an opinion column entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” It was the first time since 1998 that a foreign reporter has been kicked out of China.

As a regular contributor to both National Review and the Wall Street Journal, I can only dream of causing such an international incident — speaking engagements by the dozens would await me. Alas, unlike at NR (occasionally), headlines at most newspapers are not written by the authors, as it was in this case. And my own WSJ piece later that week, on how Wuhan’s coronavirus could cause a second revolution to emerge from that city (the first being in 1911, causing the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty), was given a suitably non-offensive title.

The title struck a bell with me. Of course, the phrase “sick man of Europe” was first applied to the faltering Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, having everything to do with assessing Turkey’s weak internal politics, and nothing to do with racism. It’s a pithy moniker, so it’s been applied to other countries, including apparently China itself, during the 19th and 20th centuries, as the Qing disintegrated and the country plunged into warlordism and civil war until Mao Zedong’s sanguinary victory in 1949. I haven’t gone back to any contemporary sources to find just how common it was, if at all, to refer to China as the sick man of the Far East (as they would have put it back then).

And yet, history aside, I felt the phrase was somehow connected with something I had written long ago. Sure enough, Google instantly picked out an essay I wrote in 2009 for Foreign Policy, entitled “The Sick Man of Asia.” I was over a decade ahead of the times. I racked my brains, trying to remember the names of the American journalists who had been expelled due to my callousness, of how many times I had been denied a visa, and of the diplomatic strategy the U.S. government adopted in response to the crisis I had caused.

Oh, wait, silly me. My “The Sick Man of Asia” article wasn’t about China at all. It was about Japan. Subtitled “We’ll Miss Japan When It’s Gone,” the piece lamented Tokyo’s then-paralyzed political system and fading regional role (much of which has been turned around by current prime minister Shinzo Abe, by the way).

Sadly, my excoriation of Japan’s weaknesses caused no vapors amongst the leadership in Tokyo. No Foreign Policy reporters were kicked out of Japan, no diplomatic demarches followed, nor was I declared persona non grata by the Foreign Ministry. There was no online backlash, no calls for my head nor for me to be thrown off Twitter. Indeed, not much of a reaction at all.

How different when it comes to the world’s most populous, and some say strongest, nation. How pathetic the spectacle of a government, imposed by force on more than one billion people with an extraordinary millennia-old culture, whining like a petulant child over an eight-word headline. Or over a Batman comic book cover, or a tweet by an NBA manager.

As hundreds of millions Chinese hide from the coronavirus, as over a million Muslim Uyghurs are kept in concentration camps, as Beijing directs cyber and human espionage operations to strip the world of its industrial secrets and personal information, China’s Communist leaders going into conniption fits over a newspaper headline says it all, revealing just how little legitimacy they have, and how less capable they are in dealing with the world than the supposedly conservative and ossified Japanese.

But maybe that’s because Japan is a democracy and largely respectful of press freedom, unlike China’s thin-skinned, authoritarian dictators. Perhaps they, even more than the WSJ headline writers, know just how weak — dare I say sick — their system is.

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