Walter Russell Mead is a leading foreign policy expert. He writes a regular column for the Wall Street Journal.
Recently, Mead published a WSJ column called “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” Much of the article pertained to the coronavirus and its economic impact. But Mead also argued that “China’s financial markets are probably more dangerous in the long run than China’s wildlife markets,” which are thought to be the source of the epidemic.
Given the accumulated costs of decades of state-driven lending, massive malfeasance by local officials in cahoots with local banks, a towering property bubble, and vast industrial overcapacity, China is as ripe as a country can be for a massive economic correction. Even a small initial shock could lead to a massive bonfire of the vanities as all the false values, inflated expectations and misallocated assets implode. If that comes, it is far from clear that China’s regulators and decision makers have the technical skills or the political authority to minimize the damage—especially since that would involve enormous losses to the wealth of the politically connected.
The Red Chinese weren’t pleased by this op-ed. There’s nothing exceptional about that. Why would they be?
But the government’s reaction to the op-ed was extraordinary. China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in retribution for Mead’s op-ed. Apparently, this marks the first time since 1998 that a foreign reporter has been kicked out of China.
The “sick man” theme harks back to the 19th century when Turkey was known as “the sick man of Europe.” It has often been applied to other nations that seem to be faltering.
Our friend Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institution applied it to Japan in a 2009 article for Foreign Policy. The article lamented Tokyo’s then-paralyzed political system and fading regional role (much of which, Auslin says, has since been turned around by current prime minister Shinzo Abe).
How did the Japanese government react to being called “the sick man” by an American scholar? It didn’t. Auslin recalls:
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.
The comparison illustrates Mead’s thesis about what ails China. Auslin puts it this way:
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. . . .
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.
Ossified, Japan may be. But it is a democracy that respects freedom of the press. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Japan overcame much of what ailed it ten years ago. China’s ailments are likely to get worse, and may not then get better.
NOTE: The original version of this post incorrectly attributed the “China is the real sick man of Asia” column to Auslin.