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Updated Jun 9, 2024, 7:07pm EDT
mediatechbusinesspoliticssecurity

Semaforum with Edward Wong: Journalism in Beijing and the Beltway

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Q&A

Few members of the Washington press corps have as much experience reporting on what the Pentagon calls the US’ “pacing challenge” — China — as Edward Wong, who covered the country for The New York Times from 2008 to 2016, before returning to the US to become its diplomatic correspondent.

He spoke with Semafor’s Prashant Rao about his new book, “At The Edge of Empire: A Family’s Reckoning with China,” the unexpected parallels between the US and China, the challenges of covering DC after being a foreign correspondent, and why the two countries’ relationship has deteriorated so drastically.

Prashant: In the introduction to your book, you talk about how there are these interesting parallels between the United States and China, how at the center of both of those countries is the belief that they’re innocent and only bad things happen to them, and about how they interact with the fringes of their empires. How did you reach that connection?

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Edward: That thought was something that I added in a fairly late version of the book. That idea is based on an essay by Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who has written on US foreign policy, and he wrote this essay about American innocence that I think captures a lot of the contradictions in American foreign policy.

My idea about that parallel between China and the US only came to fruition in my head because of the three main beats I covered since I turned 30, which is the Iraq War, China and its rise, and then US foreign policy writ large right now. I realized at some point recently that it was this important similarity between the Chinese self-conception and American self-conception, which is that these are these powers that seek to do good in the world. That’s how they each think of themselves — that they’re justified in that and that other countries should be gravitating towards what they have to give to the world, and that they can also, to a certain degree, impose what they want on the world, and they rationalize that, because they feel that what they’re giving to the world will benefit the world at large.

Because of that idea, they also believe that these countries, these nations, these powers are innocent — that they themselves are not doers of evil, that they don’t have this dark side to them. And they might make mistakes, but in the end if there is a retaliation or pushback to what they’re doing, then it’s because there is something wrong with the other party — that there is something inherently bad or malevolent or evil about other parties pushing back against them.

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Prashant: Journalism in China and journalism in DC are diametrically different. What you’re trying to accomplish is different when you’re a China correspondent versus a DC correspondent. How is committing an act of journalism different in a place like China versus a hypercompetitive place like DC?

Edward: It’s hugely different. And in fact, there was even a big difference between Iraq and China. There’s an interesting parallel or similarity between my reporting in Iraq during the height of the war and DC in that I was able to get in touch with government officials very easily, whether they were Iraqi officials in Iraq or American generals or officials in Iraq. And then here in DC, US officials, it’s very easy for me if I have their cell phone number or I have them on Signal or on email to get in touch with them. And they might not want to talk to you, but oftentimes they will want to talk to you because they’ll want to tell you their version of things. They also know that there’s value in speaking to the press because someone else out there’s putting out a competing narrative, whether it’s another government or a rival agency. So you use that to your advantage. It’s important for them to get their version of things out there.

I found that Iraqi officials were the same way. It was very easy to talk to them and there were often competing factions in Iraq.

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Now, China was the exact opposite. China, it’s almost impossible to get officials to talk to you, especially within the central government. So a lot of the reporting I did was going out and talking to ordinary citizens and writing about how they were affected by policies, but it was very difficult to get insight into the policymaking process itself, which is a main part of my job here in DC. So in many ways the type of reporting I did in China, I found more rewarding, because you’re talking with ordinary people and finding out the impact of the policies on them and then you’re reporting from the ground up. It’s sort of like more grassroots reporting, whereas in Washington, you’re reporting on the top down, you’re trying to figure out who’s making policy and it’s other reporters — reporters in Sudan, or Israel and Gaza, or Ukraine — who are reporting on the effects of US policy on those regions.

Prashant: Does that change how you approach source building?

Edward: It was a big transition. In China, I really didn’t have to place a lot of value on any linkages to the government. We had sources who were two or three steps removed — for example, businesspeople, think tank researchers, people who would meet with government officials and then tell you what they were hearing. So you were hearing things several steps removed.

Here, source cultivation is everything, in DC. I’m coming to this starting from 2018, so I had to learn basically what sources and officials value in Washington. How do you approach people? Some people are very transactional, others, you need to work them in different ways. And so it’s just figuring out why they want to talk to you. In many ways, I feel like it’s what intelligence agents do. I feel like our trade craft is very similar — except we don’t blackmail them and we don’t offer bribes.

Prashant: You’re probably unique among the diplomatic reporting corps in that you have China experience. Are you struck by how hawkish DC has become on China?

Edward: I was struck I think by how aggressive officials in both parties have become on China, but at the same time it wasn’t that surprising to me, because I felt that in some ways, we all talk about what Trump has done on China, or what Biden has done in China.

But I prefer to talk about what Xi has done, because I feel like a lot of the more aggressive direction that US officials have adopted is also a reaction to the direction that Xi has taken China. We tend to forget that a lot because we focus so much of our coverage on these US administrations. And so the much more nationalistic direction that Xi has taken China — the military expansion, the outward push by the PLA in the waters and the land borders around China, repression in Xinjiang — these are all things that I think have become important in the Washington conception of China. And Xi’s also made China a lot more closed to foreigners, whether it’s students or businesspeople. These were the things that in many ways provided a balancing force in US-China relations. Without that, the relationship becomes much less balanced and moves more towards hostility and less towards some form of amicable dialogue.

I do think that there are certain interesting trends that have taken place also in American politics that’s moved Washington towards a much more hostile attitude. One of them is the big backlash — which came as a big surprise to me coming back to the US — against neoliberal economics. The idea of free trade was a huge ballast in the relationship between the US and China. This is mostly due to Trump and the rhetoric that he adopted towards neoliberal economics, has really pushed the US away from that idea of embracing trade with China, even though trade numbers are still very robust. But rhetorically, in political circles, you win a lot of points by going against free trade, which is a central part of the relationship. And so I think that there’s these other greater trends I think within US politics and economics that really have led to a deterioration of the foundations of the relationship.

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