ERIC XUN LI has the answer to the problem of the relentlessly negative press that China is getting.
And it’s simpler than one might expect.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says.
The popular Berkeley-educated entrepreneur smiles. “There is no solution,” he adds. “Because there is no problem.”
Eric X. Li (李世默) has become a folk-hero in China and a figure of fascination in the West because of his ability to deliver sophisticated, thought-provoking answers to complex geopolitical questions. His obvious intelligence and east-west background gives him insights most commentators on either side lack.
MIRED IN HUBRIS
Li doesn’t deny that China gets extremely bad press from the international media, which means, in practice, the media of the United States and Western Europe.
“Obviously I think the Western media is highly biased, I think we can all agree on that,” he says. But its self-righteousness is mired in “hubris”, he said – a term referring to a harmful level of pride.
This ultimately does more damage to itself and to Western society than it does to China, he believes.
“The Western media with its hubris has probably done more damage to Western power than any other institution in the last 30, 40 years,” he said.
An obvious example is the way the Western media worked hard to garner support for the US-led war against Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” – a tragic error that caused untold numbers of deaths in war crimes that have simply gone unpunished, as the world can see, but the press itself apparently cannot.
The media’s dramatic misrepresentation of modern China is simply the latest example of media decisions made that ultimately sap the Western press’s own credibility. “For 20 or 30 years, they’ve been telling the public that China would fail, that there’s no way the Communist Party will succeed,” he said.
For decades, the media led Westerners to believe that “history was on their side” and China was in danger of imminent collapse. Americans felt they didn’t need to worry at all. But what happened?
“Whoops! One morning they wake up and find China is so big and so successful,” he says.
Eric X. Li: From Shanghai to California and back again: Picture: Friday media
THE ART OF WAR
The present situation, he found, is actually covered in the Chinese classic The Art of War by Sun Tzu. To win a battle you have to “know thyself and know thine enemy”, he quotes.
The Western media presents China as a very dark place, an evil prison-like dystopia that is unrecognizable to anyone who has actually visited the country.
“They are misleading their own public and their own political elite,” he said.
The result is that the West doesn’t know itself or its rival. “And that’s going to make them lose, according to The Art of War,” Li says. But he quickly adds: “I’m not saying that China and the West are enemies; I’m just using that as an analogy.”
Shanghai-born Li is usually described as a Chinese venture capitalist or a media boss, which is accurate enough, as he is the founder of Chengwei Capital, a finance firm, and Guancha.cn, a popular Chinese media outlet.
Yet it is his articulateness and his insights that have made him a popular speaker around the world.
“The world needs new ideas,” Li says. “We need to offer alternatives to challenge predetermined Western concepts.”
China is basically a peaceful place focused on development: picture by Ling Tang/ Unsplash
WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY
Li has developed a hypothesis about why the Western narrative has become so harsh about China in recent years.
The subtext of Western reporting on China was always that the world’s most populous country “at a crossroads” and would eventually choose Western liberal democracy for itself.
“And from 2012 on, China said: ‘No, no, no, we’re not getting on this path that you want us to get on.’ Yet they continue to succeed. Now to make matters worse for the West, Western liberal societies began to fail around the same time.”
The implication was impossible to miss: by stubbornly failing to collapse on schedule, China had sent a powerful message to the world that they weren’t the ones “on the wrong side of history”.
This discomforted the West. “So their narrative is in trouble. They can’t deal with it,” Li says.
China is painted as a sci-fi dystopian police state in the Western press
FAR FROM REALITY
Instead of responding to the unexpected situation with introspection, and learning from it, the West has instead embarked on a mission to paint China as a dark murderous dystopia.
“I think that the bad press is going to hurt the West more than it hurts China because it is blinding the Western public to what’s wrong with their own societies. And it’s portraying a China that’s so far from reality,” he continues.
Studies back him up, with surveys showing growing skepticism around the world about the Western media (see graphic below).
People everywhere are becoming skeptical of the media: graphic by Friday media
LOSS OF CREDIBILITY
But the self-centeredness of the international media has meant that it misses so much. So, for example, while plenty of surveys show how the Western media has lost credibility in the West, few people have noticed changing attitudes within China itself.
Chinese people used to admire so much about the Western world. “They were sympathetic to some of the Western criticism about corruption, about the environment, about society’s ills, and even about some human rights issues,” he says.
But in recent years, the international media’s misrepresentation of their country has been so dramatically different from what they experience every day of their lives that they are re-thinking things.
The result is that “the Western media and elite have lost credibility inside China”. This is irreversible, he believes.
WHAT’S NEXT WILL BE INTERESTING
The interesting thing is to speculate how this difficult situation will progress.
“In the short term there’s no need for a solution,” Li says. “But longer term, I think Chinese intellectuals need to come up with conceptual frameworks that could carry us forward and carry the world forward for the good of the world.”
He looks to academics to find a way forwards. Education is always a positive thing.
ONE FORM OF DEMOCRACY
When it comes to politics, humanity needs to move beyond the simplistic idea that there’s only one type of democracy and everybody in the world must have it.
“What they really mean when they say ‘democracy’, is ‘liberal democracy’. What they really mean is that there is only one form of democracy,” Li points out.
There’s growing awareness worldwide that this is not how things really are.
“Liberalism, of course, is about values, but on the ground, in practice, liberalism is about procedures. There is a set of procedures, and if you follow those procedures, liberal procedures, then by definition you are democratic – even if you’re starving to death.”
And what if one society dares to think differently? “Even if your people are prosperous, your people’s lives are improving, your people have great expectations about the future – you are not democratic.”
So what would be a better measure of how well a society is run?
“I would say that democracy ought to be measured by outcome not procedure,” Li says. “I don’t care how many times you vote, if you can’t deliver a better life to your people, if you can’t protect them from a virus, you’re not democratic.”
It’s a powerful message for our times — and strongly backed by the pandemic statistics in the media around the world.
Including in the Western press.
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Eric X. Li was talking to Nury Vittachi at a recent forum co-organized by Friday Culture, the parent company of fridayeveryday.com