Let’s Whip Us Up a Mob: No One Reads the Original Source

Bill Gertz, the classic “dragon-slayer” reporter for the Washington Times, has made a successful career out of emphasizing Chinese defensive buildups since the early 1990s.  Gertz has a big audience and, as an individual, has more influence over how China appears on, say CNN and FOX News than your average reporter.  Because his stuff tends to be sensational, he’s far, far more explosive with his headlines than the New York Times reporters Edward Wong or Andrew Jacobs.

But sometimes he just doesn’t read the original sources which he himself quotes.

On February 10, I found myself reading this article by Gertz in the Washington Times.

(Along with scanning the Times every so often, I also make an effort to follow what is being said about China on Fox News.  Did you know Sarah Palin works for Fox, and, according to this fabulous left-wing French newspaper article , is both “sexy and teflon” and has engaged in a “calculated seduction” of the U.S. electorate?  These are the things one can learn by watching Fox while reading newspapers founded by French communists — you can’t do this in China, people!)

Gertz asserts the following [bracketed caveats by me]:

China’s military stepped up pressure on the United States on Monday by calling for [consideration of] a government sell-off of U.S. debt securities in retaliation for recent arms sales to Taiwan.

A group of senior Chinese military officers also said in state-controlled media interviews that Beijing’s leaders should boost defense spending and expand force deployments in the wake of the Pentagon’s announcement last month of a new $6.4 million arms package for the island state claimed by Beijing.

Senior officers from the Chinese National Defense University and Academy of Military Sciences made what some view as an economic warfare threat, something outlined in past military writings.

The comments by Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu and Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan and Senior Col. Ke Chunqiao appeared in the state-run Outlook Weekly [Liaowang /瞭望]  magazine, part of the Xinhua News Agency, published in Beijing on Monday.

Gen. Luo warned that China could attack the U.S. “by oblique means and stealthy feints,” and he called for retaliation for the arms sale.

“For example, we could sanction them using economic means, such as dumping some U.S. government bonds,” Gen. Luo said.

“Our retaliation should not be restricted to merely military matters, and we should adopt a strategic package of counterpunches covering politics, military affairs, diplomacy and economics to treat both the symptoms and root cause of this disease,” said Gen. Luo, a researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences.

“Wow”, you think, “this is provocative stuff,” until you realize that Gertz is just taking the quotes directly from this Reuters dispatch by Chris Buckley entitled “PLA Officers Urge Economic Punch Against U.S.”

So then you read the Reuters dispatch, and spend about 15 minutes digging up a Chinese version of the article upon which the Reuters article is based in its entirety, and you find long passages in the original article, entitled 《瞭望》:以战略组合拳反制美对台军售, like this:


“美国选择在此时对台军售,其出牌的时机和牌力都是经过计算的。”罗援认为,从时机上说,美国避开了奥巴马访华、哥本哈根会议召开等时间节点,选择了现在这样一个相对的空档期,以力避中方对其指责;而从美国售台武器清单来看,虽然 64亿美元的总额不变,但台湾方面求购的F-16战斗机和柴电潜艇都没有纳入。这说明,美国的行动仍有节制,对中方反应仍有顾忌。

Take a look at the original article and you will realize that the entire Reuters story, which was then picked up by Bill Gertz and goes directly to Fox and CNN,  is hatched out of one man’s reading  — Chris Buckley’s very brief reading, to be precise — of what is Liaowang’s magazine’s very, very long article.  Of which the interview with PLA officers is but a part, and which has got a ton or two of context highlighting the need for a solid U.S.-China relationship.   And Bill Gertz didn’t seem to take any effort to read the thing.  As you can see for yourself (using a Google translator if you so choose), the article itself takes great pains to cover all kinds of ground about the need for Sino-U.S. cooperation, why Obama can partially be forgiven for the arms sales to Taiwan because he’s just trying to save 8,000 jobs with Lockheed Martin and Ratheon, etc.  But we don’t get that: we just get the money quotes and that’s all we need to know: China considers blowing up US financial system!  PLA officers get belligerent!  And Bill Gertz keeps his cash flow intact, and why shouldn’t he?  Everyone’s got a right to whip up fear of China; the problem comes when there is absolutely no factual backstop against that fear and the “facts” peddled by Gertz and the Washington Times stand unchallenged.  Did anyone read a single story about the Taiwan arms sales in the Western press that had anything not to do with China’s unreasonable ire?

When is the CIA or the Defense Department going to open up their own translations of this and other articles for the general public to read so that schmucks like me don’t have spend hours slogging through the sources that the reporters allegedly read, yet give no evidence of having read?  Ridiculous.  But perhaps the lack of transparency is precisely the point.    You can have your mob, Bill Gertz, I just need to get me an army of translators…

哎呀!  No sooner is this rapped into the keyboard than one mean linguistically-capable and blessedly-eclectic army of six arrives on the Western flank: Sinoglot, which I recommend to anyone interested in the many wonderful forks in the Chinese tongue.  Gertz, your exertions shall soon be matched…

Panda Smackdown


  1. Bravo, just bravo Adam!

    That Chris Buckley dispatch even had me fooled when I first read it. I thought the generals did say those very things he quoted as one of the three, Major. Gen. Zhu Chenghu has developed the reputation for shooting off his mouth casually (like Joe Biden?). I didn’t bother to look for the source material either! Thank you Adam!

    Yes, this is one big problem in western coverage of Chinese affairs. Does Chris Buckley speak Chinese I wonder? If he does he should not be forgiven for basically fabricating such an alarmist story. If he doesn’t then perhaps the Reuters and other western news agencies should consider sending some competent folks there. I am sure Chris Buckley was either being lazy or intentionally being sensational (does writing a piece like that bring them extra bonuses you think?), a piece like that will only feed into the already deeply entrenched perception that “China the evil empire is out to screw us” that people like Gertz, Steven Mosher, Ross Munro, Peter Morici and our very own Joshua Stanton happily propagate on a daily basis. Not only does this kind of useless BS hinder creating better understandings between the two countries it also runs the risk of setting dangerous and ill-informed foreign policies which might have dire consequences.

    Seriously I wonder if these “journalists” and “scholars” speak Chinese (I know most of the Korea scholars do speak Korean). Of those aforementioned dragon-slayers, Steven Mosher seems to be the only one who does. It would be unthinkable for countries like China, South Korea or Russia to send reporters who do not speak English to cover the US.

  2. Also, Japan seems to own more in U.S. bonds now than China, making China as U.S. biggest lender a now moot point.

  3. “Because his stuff tends to be sensational, he’s far, far more explosive with his headlines than the New York Times reporters Edward Wong or Andrew Jacobs.”

    Reporters do not write headlines; that is the job of editors.

    If the commenter above knew Chris Buckley, s/he would not ask such a stupid question. Of course, Buckley speaks Chinese, and many other reporters do, too.

    As with many other posters, the problem is usually that the poster would like to be a reporter but is stuck being a blogger.

    1. Thanks for the critique; rather than “his headlines” I suppose “his content” would be more accurate. And while it’s quite accurate to note that I am not an actual journalist (my own headlines having last been written for me by editors of college newspapers in the 1990s), just as a point of courtesy I’d rather be considered a “history professor” (which I am) than “a [frustrated] blogger,” in spite of the fact that I do maintain a blog. My main scholarly interest for the day isn’t Reuters at all, it’s a reporter for Dagongbao in the 1940s named Wang Yunsheng 王芸生, a person who frustrates and intrigues me much more than Chris Buckley.

      Is Reuters hiring or something?

      I’m simply looking for accurate and helpful information and I find that by whatever combination of factors (considerations of space, the role played by editors which you mention, and the apparently voracious need of the English-reading public to find out how China is going to bring “us” down), in general the information served up in English is, generally speaking, highly, highly deficient in volume and often deficient in quality. I don’t think you would disagree with me that guts of the the Liaowang article are basically left aside in the Reuters piece (in fact we don’t even know it’s called Liaowang, one has to figure it out from “Outlook Weekly”). I think it’s a travesty that there isn’t more fact-checking going on of English-language reportage on China, and I suppose that the role of blogs and professor/bloggers like myself (who after all don’t get paid to blog) in the meantime will be to direct people as possible to the original sources.

      But I very much doubt that the CIA or DoD, even under the allegedly open Obama administration, is going to open up its translations of such Liaowang articles (which it is certainly, or hopefully, doing) for the rest of us.

  4. Adam
    I think you’re being a little disingenuous here.
    First, if Maj Gen Zhu and Maj Gen Luo only wanted their overall message of the need for a solid US-China relationship to be conveyed to the wider world, they wouldn’t have said what they did about selling US Treasuries. They’re far more media-savvy than you make them out to be with your suggestion that their words have been completely twisted out of context. In fact, the Chinese Generals knew the precise impact that their carefully chosen words would have: I would even go so far as to say that this was their core interest in granting that interview, but of course they had to sugar-coat it so as not to sound like they were resorting to economic war-mongering ( or as you would say, “whipping us up a mob”).

    Second, one of the first principles of journalism is that “good news” isn’t by its very definition news at all. Every day, 50 buses depart from their home station and reach their destinations safely. But only the bus that has an accident will make it to the 9 o clock local news. Likewise, when military generals hold forth on “peaceful Sino-US relations” it isn’t news at all (except if you’ve completely been indoctrinated by the Xinhua School of Journalism). The “money quotes” here – of a veiled threat of economic warfare – are one of the few “newsworthy elements” in this interview. Particularly because, as I’ve noted above, the Generals in all likelihood wanted that core message disseminated.

    For you to accuse journalists of “whipping up a mob” – without acknowledging that if the Generals did not want the belligerent message to go out, they wouldn’t have said what they did about dumping US treasuries – is, as I say, more than a little disingenuous.

    1. Thanks for the comment and critique, 世界人. I’ll admit the headline of this post is an overreaction but I threw it up and now it has stuck via various links, leaving me to wait a couple of weeks before I can revise it without losing readers, I suppose. I think that with the headline, I was trying to evoke a rapid dissemination of a half-fact (and one that no one seemed to be checking; I still can’t find anything approaching an English-language translation of the Liaowang article, so appear to be doomed to doing it myself on the side, which I really don’t have time for…)

      I like your second point in particular and I get it — what’s notable, after all, about China upholding the Shanghai Communique or reiterating basic principles to the 1979 normalization accords, etc.? And General Zhu is an august personage who is worth hearing from.

      I suppose I was simply surprised when I read the original source and found the stuff about, for instance, the magazine’s uncomfortable analysis that Obama made the decision to placate U.S. defense contractors (in whose backyard I frequently trod in Seattle and L.A.), that it was about jobs, etc. I just haven’t read that elsewhere. Now I don’t expect Bill Gertz to buy that, and Buckley is probably working under serious constraints of both time and space, but don’t we English-speakers deserve even the slightest summary of the article’s contents apart from the serious money shot that the provocative quote represents?

      This probably gets to the point about context: how much of that article is just roughage meant to conceal “the real message”, and how much of it is genuine analysis of the US-China or US-Taiwan relationship which is worth parsing out? I would like to (and I emphasize the sentiment aspect here, the _desire_) imagine that the Chinese press, particularly as involves foreign affairs, is not 100% about propaganda, and that “the Chinese perspective” (sic, as there are necessarily millions of Chinese perspectives on any one issue) is one that’s worth figuring out even if (or especially if!) it has been inflected by propaganda.

      But you have a great point about reading Chinese news generally — what in fact is “newsworthy” therein”? It’s certainly something to think about and I appreciate the sharp analysis, and hope to incorporate it into future work when I read Huanqiu Shibao or anything else that’s been vetted by the folks at Xinhua.

      And I wonder if, analyzing my own headline again, any story, once it makes it to Fox, counts as whipping up a mob? I suppose that is a bit unfair…thinking of the syntax, we could see “flash mob”, “bum rush”, or “mob psychology” as close adjuncts, when in fact at least Fox covers the stories. I wonder what appreciation those media-saavy generals have for their pipeline to Bill Gertz? If only Gertz had a red phone in his office at the Times. Again, I’ll take the hit on the headline and thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      1. Shijie Ren, I should just add very quickly here that I don’t think Chris Buckley is out to “whip up a mob” in any sense, it’s more a matter of denoting the kind of snowball effect which may, as you note, have its origins in the mouths and minds of the PLA generals. Perhaps they got precisely what they wanted after all! I think they can see quite clearly how Washington Times, etc. work and are more than able to game the system. Thanks again.

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