How New York Times Journalists Took the Measure of China’s Rising Power

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

The New York Times conceived of China Rules, a special project, as a way to answer a deceptively simple question: How did China do it? The nation has defied Western norms, and expectations, to become the world’s second-largest economy and the newest superpower. Almost a year in the making, and with collaboration from nearly all corners of the newsroom and correspondents around the world, the project explores how and why China achieved its stature. Max Fisher, who writes The Times’s Interpreter column with Amanda Taub, recently spoke with The Times’s managing editor, Joe Kahn, a former Beijing bureau chief. A lightly edited and condensed excerpt from their conversation follows.

Q. How did this project come together?

A. In the beginning of each year, we have a series of enterprise meetings and brainstorming sessions. Tech people were talking about doing something on the competition between Silicon Valley and the Chinese tech giants. International was talking about Belt and Road and the projection of Chinese power and clashes in the South China Sea. Business was talking about some of the long-term threads. At the same time, we were in this environment where Trump was sounding the alarm on China.

Out of all that came some discussion that we should really try to do something that is set apart. Not a series of typical newspaper stories about this or that about China, but something that made more of a statement that we’re in a different world now.

We’ve all, in the past generation, grown up with a sense that there is a single superpower in the world, the United States, and most of the issues have been defined as for or against American interests around the world, like radical Islamist terrorism. That’s changing, and it’s time to just pause and make a statement that it’s changing.

We spent a big part of the initial effort just gathering data, looking for some of the harder metrics on very broad issues like social mobility or export power or the size of the Chinese internet, to see whether that could help us make some broader statements. It was an attempt, rather than looking for the usual newsy development that allows us to say something broader in the middle of the story, to broaden from the start and tell this in a more explanatory way. So we really set out to put some bigger conclusions and data-driven analysis first, and then figure out the story.

The tricky part is that, when you take on a big project like that early in 2018 and try to land it late in 2018, you don’t know what the macro news environment is going to be. For all we knew at that time, we could be at war in the South China Sea, or on the Korean Peninsula, or Trump and Xi could become best friends and resolve the trade war. It kind of worked out, timing-wise, but we couldn’t have known that.

Is there anything surprising we’ve learned about what kinds of China stories will pull people in? We tried something similar to this when I was an editor at The Atlantic seven or eight years ago, but it was hard to get people into it.

It’s still hard to get people into it. We have a giant investment in a really high-quality China staff, we translate a lot of things into Chinese, we have everyone from the science desk to Washington paying attention to it.

The audience we have for this project is really a testament of the drawing power of The New York Times when we frame something well, present it well and promote it heavily — as opposed to there having been some unarticulated, deep desire for more China reporting that we’d suddenly tapped into.

It speaks to the role of the institution to pick a moment when people might not be pining for China coverage to say, “Actually, you should be paying attention to this.” And it seems like they are.

I hope so. I think that is a role that, ideally, from time to time, The New York Times can play. I think we play it pretty regularly on our big investigative efforts.

It’s not like people were saying, “Where’s your story on Trump’s family taxes?” But when we deliver the story on Trump’s family taxes, we create a moment around that and conversation around it. I think this is similar. You can’t do it all the time, but when we pick our spots well, I think we can help focus the conversation.

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