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Daniel A. Bell Headshot

Freedom Over Truth?

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Western societies rightly take pride in commitment to freedom of the press. In China, journalists are subject to tight political controls and I look forward to the day that Chinese journalists can report freely on political controversies. To my mind, a free press is an essential means for dealing with political corruption and exposing mistaken or immoral governmental policies.

However, there are some advantages to the Chinese way of reporting news. When Chinese journalists interview their subjects, they try to put forward a balanced account of what the interviewees have to say, with emphasis on what can be learned and communicated as something new and interesting. They rarely engage in muckraking, public character assassination, or put on a smiling face then betray their interviewees in print.

Another advantage is that Chinese journalists often discuss the choice of headlines with the writers. The aim is to come up with a headline that best reflects the general theme of the article. In the Western press, by contrast, the aim is often to come up with provocative headlines that catch the attention of the reader. The only bad headline, I'm told, is a boring headline. Subjects of interviews, or writers of op-ed comments, are almost never consulted about the choice of headlines. Many readers blame the authors or the interviewees for the headlines because they do not know that headlines are not chosen by them.

Most important, perhaps, Chinese journalists usually send drafts of their articles before they are published to check for factually incorrect information. Reporters tend to check facts before the publish them. I've given several interviews with the Chinese media, and they usually send me drafts of what they write so as to catch and correct errors of fact. Of course, I do not comment on critical points put forward by journalists who hold different moral and political values.

I've also given some interviews with the Western media, and the journalists almost never send drafts of their articles before they are published. I understand the worry that journalists think preserving a distance from the subjects they cover is a way of allowing for more critical coverage. But there is a risk that false information will be published in a way that's very damaging to the subjects discussed in the articles.


Mark MacKinnon's recent article in the Globe and Mail is a case study of what can go wrong with the "Western" approach to media interviews. The lengthy article, titled "A Canadian iconoclast praises China's one-party system," makes me out to be an apologist for the political status quo in China who is blinded by class interest.

In fact, I defend a model of political rule -- meritocracy on top, democracy on the bottom, with room for experimentation in between -- that I hold as a standard for evaluating political progress (and regress) in China. I have repeatedly used this model to criticize China's political problems.

The article is full of factual mistakes and misleading innuendos, and the reader is led to believe I'm a political hack for the Chinese Communist Party. MacKinnon does mention I'm (part) owner of a restaurant owner in Beijing, but he doesn't mention that I'm the author and editor of many academic books on East Asian politics and philosophy published by leading university presses such as Princeton University Press and Cambridge University Press.

I understand that selection of information needs to be made, especially in an article that does not aim for balance. But factual mistakes that have the aim of undermining the reputation of the person being interviewed are inexcusable. Let me note some examples.

MacKinnon writes: "Tsinghua later told the official People's Daily that Prof. Bell was hired because he understood China better than other foreign academics." This point implies I was hired because of my political views rather than my academic credentials. In fact, MacKinnon refers to an article that was picked up by an English website of the People's Daily. The article itself was published in the China Youth Daily and here's what my head of department said: "Bell was hired, Wan said, in part because of his "compassion and understanding of Chinese culture and education." Note that MacKinnon leaves out the words "in part." When I was hired by Tsinghua over eight years ago, I had not written anything about Chinese politics, and I hope I'm not so too self-deluded if to think I was hired at least partly because of my academic contributions.

Rather than mention any arguments developed in my books, MacKinnon chose to report some views on the internet implying that I write what I write because I'm an agent for the Chinese government: "Some Chinese Internet users, meanwhile, noted Prof. Bell used some of the same arguments and terminology as state media, raising suspicions that his ideas weren't entirely his own."

No evidence is supplied. For the record, I have never collaborated with government officials for the purpose of writing articles.

To be honest, I can live with all these mistakes and misleading innuendos. It won't be the first time interviewees have been victimized by muckraking journalists. What really hurts me, however, is that MacKinnon chose to implicate my wife (he has not met her). Before the article was published, I had forwarded an email from my wife asking that her name be left out of the article, but he chose to ignore that email.

MacKinnon writes that "Prof. Bell's well-kept house as well as his background suggest his family is of the class he thinks should rule China." The implication is that I defend rule by the rich because it's in my class interest to do so. In fact, I do not think that rich people should rule China. An important advantage of a well-functioning political meritocracy is that it allows for upward (and downward) mobility based on ability and morality, not class background.

But to press his vulgar Marxist argument, MacKinnon writes: "He met his wife, Song Bing, at Oxford University in 1989, a time when only top students with impeccable Communist credentials were allowed to leave China to study." In fact, my wife is not a party member, and she left China in 1988 because she was awarded a merit-based scholarship by the Hong Kong based Swire Corporation. At the time, my wife was an undergraduate at Peking University's law faculy, and she was admitted to that university as a result of having scored highly on the national university examinations in her home province of Hunan. Perhaps MacKinnon was led to think that "impeccable Communist credentials" played a role in helping my wife go abroad because my wife's 86 year old father was a local level communist cadre. Such "guilt by family association" was typical in the Cultural Revolution and maybe MacKinnon chose to borrow tactics from those days. In fact, the connection exists only in MacKinnon's mind. Again, he could have checked this information, but he chose not to.

Why does any of this matter? OK, I confess, I'm glad to have this kind of blog forum so that I can defend myself and my family against character assassination. But I'd also like to press a more important point. Newspapers are in trouble now and most have not yet found a viable model to compete against free news on the internet. The best case for newspapers is that they exercise a kind of quality control that is lacking on the free-wheeling internet: the articles are more well-researched, more analytical, more balanced, more thoughtful. In short, they do a better job of furthering the truth compared to opinionated nonsense on the internet. But it's hard to defend newspapers if journalists only care about the freedom to write what they want to write, similar to what people do online.

So, yes, let's defend freedom of the press, in the West and in China. But let's not forget that truth matters too.

Update: The online version of MacKinnon's article has been revised. The headline was revised to make it less sensationalist (or perhaps "Canadian iconoclast" sounded too much like an oxymoron?). I sent a list of five mistakes to the Globe asking for corrections and an apology. There was no apology, but they acted on four of the mistakes: they deleted two factual mistakes from the online version of the article (but without noting that the lines had been deleted; the Globe has a policy of not repeating inaccurate information on the grounds that this perpetuates the inaccuracy), added a correct line about my wife's background (and added a note), and published (or will soon publish) a letter of mine stating two inaccuracies along with my response. Ideally, of course, a quality paper would do more fact-checking before the article is published, but overall I'm impressed with the professional and courteous way the Globe has dealt with the aftermath of the article.