An Old Lesson on Openness

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A footnote in a 60+ year old book got me thinking about an important question for today’s China: what are the benefits of being open to criticism and inspection? It was something that former TIME correspondents Teddy White and Annalee Jacoby considered in Thunder Out of China, a study of the country during World War II:

Nonpartisan opinion, both Chinese and foreign, usually favored the Communists in their great debates with the Kuomintang. The reason for this was simple. The Central Government until 1944 forbade any journalist or observer to travel into Communist territory; it insisted that its own version of the Communist problem be fully accepted. It denounced the Communists with its every resource of vituperation. The standing Communist reply to government charges was an invitation to all journalists to come and visit their areas of operation and see for themselves whether the charges were true or false. With one party to a dispute refusing permission for independent investigation of its charges and the other party inviting it, public opinion almost invariably sides with the group inviting investigation.

Half a century later it’s now clear that there was a lot that the reports on the Communists missed. But from the Party’s perspective, being more open was an advantage. As White and Jacoby wrote, it helped cultivate good will. In the years to follow China become extremely closed to the outside. That’s all changed since the late 1970s, but now the party seems to be questioning how much it wants to invite investigation. For every instance of opening, like relaxing reporting rules for the Olympics, there’s an example of the old tendency to close up, like shuttering the China Development Brief. Nowhere is this more obvious than the official responses to the questions over food and product safety. Almost daily the government issues reports about the steps it is taking to clean up the problem. Just as frequent are the denials that there is a problem. If history is any judge, the world will be a lot more forgiving of a country that says it’s doing its best than a country that says “Go away, there’s nothing to see here.”