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Bad News: The China edition

Bad News: The China edition

Want to hear some bad news? No, we don't either. But if you're leading a government, you need accurate information about what's happening inside your country and what people think of you—especially if it's not what you want to hear. You also need good advice about how to respond to what you hear.


Case in point: After Yuri Andropov became Soviet leader in 1982, he admitted publicly that Soviet economic decision-making had fallen prey in previous years to "elements of separation from reality." His predecessors had spent much more time on propaganda than on rational economic policy. Andropov, and eventual successor Mikhail Gorbachev, also knew that the Kremlin had no idea what Soviet citizens thought about anything.

That's one reason that Russia's Vladimir Putin allows his government to publish credible economic statistics, good or bad. It's why he's allowed the Levada Center, a public polling organization based in Moscow, to publish credible opinion surveys with only occasional political pressure. At least, so far.

Unwillingness to hear bad news and dissenting views made headlines again this month when Donald Trump seemed surprised by the furious response from within his own party following his announcement of a US troop pullback from northern Syria—as if no one had warned him this reaction was inevitable. He also provoked anger and disbelief with a (since aborted) plan to host next year's G7 Summit at a Trump-owned hotel. He faces fresh accusations that he's rid himself of advisors willing to speak truth to power.

At least as worrying is the question of whether China's President Xi Jinping is hearing warnings of trouble inside his country. Tom Mitchell wrote in Monday's Financial Times that China's heavily centralized system "may be great at building infrastructure, repressing dissent and censoring the internet, but it is often hopeless when it comes to passing bad news up the chain." We've written before that a future economic or financial crisis inside China will leave investors wondering whether the statistics Beijing publishes are reliable.

Take for example the introduction of a law in Hong Kong earlier this year that would have permitted residents of the territory to be extradited into mainland China's highly politicized court system. If senior Chinese officials knew of this proposal in advance, they were naïve to believe it would be easily accepted. If they didn't know in advance, then the center isn't effectively connected to local administrators, even on crucial questions. Either way, that law sparked protests that have convulsed Hong Kong for three months now.

For now, there are no economic or political problems that Beijing can't manage. But what about the future?

President Xi has repeatedly promised a "new era" in which China will "take center stage in the world." Is there anyone within China's leadership willing to tell him that this expansionist rhetoric might needlessly provoke pushback from foreign leaders, particularly in the United States and Europe? Is there anyone to take aside a man – whose "thought" has been written into the constitution – to offer a frank appraisal of why so many Hong Kongers are so angry?

Even if someone is willing to speak the truth, is Xi Jinping listening?

Carbon has a bad rep, but did you know it's a building block of life? As atoms evolved, carbon trapped in CO2 was freed, giving way to the creation of complex molecules that use photosynthesis to convert carbon to food. Soon after, plants, herbivores, and carnivores began populating the earth and the cycle of life began.

Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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62: In a referendum over the weekend, nearly 62 percent of Swiss voters said they wanted to preserve freedom of movement between the European Union and Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU. The right-wing Swiss People's Party had proposed imposing migration quotas at the border, saying that the current frontier is basically a... (okay, they didn't actually say it's a "Swiss cheese" but still).

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on the Navalny poisoning on Europe In 60 Seconds:

Can Europe get to the bottom of Russian opposition leader Navalny's poisoning? And if so, would it change anything?

One has got to the bottom of it, to certain extent. The evidence, there was a German laboratory confirming nerve agent, Novichok. They sent it to a French laboratory and the Swedish independent laboratory, they came to the exact same conclusions. I mean, it's dead certain. He was poisoned with an extremely poisonous nerve agent coming from the Russian state laboratories. Now, there is a discussion underway of what to do. I mean, the Russians are refusing any sort of serious discussions about it. Surprise, surprise. And we'll see what actions will be taken. There might be some sort of international investigation within the context of the OPCW, the international organization that is there, to safeguard the integrity of the international treaties to prevent chemical weapons. But we haven't seen the end of this story yet.

Watch as Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, explains what's going on in technology news:

Would Facebook actually leave Europe? What's the deal?

The deal is that Europe has told Facebook it can no longer transfer data back and forth between the United States and Europe, because it's not secure from US Intelligence agencies. Facebook has said, "If we can't transfer data back and forth, we can't operate in Europe." My instinct, this will get resolved. There's too much at stake for both sides and there are all kinds of possible compromises.

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