Chinese Propagandists Tout NYT Columnist Thomas Friedman's Comments

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April 13, 2021

Chinese state media are trumpeting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's China-friendly comments, the latest example of the Gray Lady's ties to the Chinese propaganda apparatus.

When Friedman, a longtime columnist for the Times, participated in a March 29 "fireside chat" with the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think tank with close ties to the regime, the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) broadcast the entire 90-minute interview. Once the interview was over, the network disseminated the interview as an example of a Western intellectual calling for improved relations between the two superpowers. 

"Friedman said 1979-2019 was a golden era of global prosperity and peace with the US and China at the core, and the two countries need to find ways to work together for the sake of the world’s development," a writeup of the interview by the state-owned China Daily read.

Chinese propagandists touted the Friedman interview across the world, including in the United States. China Daily paid to run advertorials highlighting the interview on the website of Foreign Policy, a global affairs magazine read by American foreign policy elites. Foreign Policy did not respond to a request for comment. 

The March 29 interview is only the most recent example of Friedman appearing on Chinese propaganda outlets. CGTN has interviewed the Pulitzer Prize-winner on at least four separate occasions, one dating back to 2015. Friedman repeated pro-China talking points in these media appearances, such as criticizing the Trump administration's confrontational approach to China, which he said would do irreparable damage to the global order.

"I believe America and China are one country, two system," Friedman told CGTN in 2019. "We are one country in a sense that our fates are tied together. America cannot rise, I don't believe, without a healthy relationship with China."

Friedman's interview is the latest example of the links between the Times and the Chinese propaganda apparatus. During the 2010s, the Times sold hundreds of advertising spaces to China Daily, which in turn used the ad space to publish propaganda articles touting China's Tibet policies and economic development. While the paper quietly ended the ad sales in 2020, Friedman's participation in the panel discussion is a sign that the paper still allows its writers to support Chinese propaganda efforts. The Times did not respond to a request for comment.

Friedman has a history of writing columns that lavish praise on China, often at the expense of the United States. In March, Friedman wrote a column titled "China Doesn’t Respect Us Anymore—for Good Reason." In October 2020, he wrote another article criticizing the U.S. pandemic response titled "China Got Better. We Got Sicker. Thanks, Trump." 

While Friedman is happy to write polemics against the U.S. political system, he is much more hesitant to criticize the shortfalls of the Chinese state. During the March 29 interview, Friedman acknowledged the Chinese government's oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang but said that "Americans need to understand that a country of 1.4 billion people needs to maintain stability" before condemning Chinese human-rights abuses.

"China's central value is the stability of the collective," Friedman said. "And it values that more than Uyghur nationalism or Jack Ma getting rich."

Friedman added that while Americans might have legitimate criticisms about Xinjiang, the Chinese can lob equally valid criticisms about American policing issues. "I can say, 'How you're treating your Muslim population, that bothers me,'" Friedman said. "And China can say, 'Wait a minute, looking at what's going on in Minnesota, Minneapolis, how you have large numbers of poor people, maybe that bothers me too.'"

Friedman's comments tying Chinese human-rights atrocities to American political issues is in line with the strategy adopted by Chinese propagandists. Chinese propagandists have implied that the Chinese treat the Muslim Uyghurs much better than Americans did African Americans during the Jim Crow and antebellum era.