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Why isn’t the Chinese press all over the AP phone-record scandal?

Why isn’t the Chinese press all over the AP phone-record scandal?

It seems like a story cooked up by a columnist for China’s patriotic tabloid Global Times hoping to write about the problems with American democracy and press freedom: The U.S. Justice Department snoops on the Associated Press, and, without informing the news agency, obtains two months of reporters’ and editors’ phone records.

The AP called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," while the British newspaper the Guardian wrote that "the Obama administration has opened up a new front in its battle against media freedom."

And yet the response from the Chinese press has been surprisingly muted. An article entitled "The White House’s Explanation for ‘Eavesdropping’ on the Associated Press Gets Refuted" on People’s Online, a website affiliated with the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Dailycovers the revelations as a news story, writing that the U.S. media is "abuzz" and then explaining the facts of the case. China’s state news agency Xinhua described the developments in a similar way to how Western news outlets are approaching the story (the IRS scandal has also received desultory coverage). The Global Times, a popular tabloid known for its nationalistic views and the most likely home for a strongly worded editorial deriding American press freedoms, instead published an uncharacteristically measured take on the debate between what is "allowed by law vs infringing upon press freedoms." 

So why is the Chinese media not jumping on this story to score points against a liberal press? (After all, a Russian Foreign Ministry official seized on the opportunity to express concern about U.S. officials attacking press freedom.) One reason is that it’s such a damaging example of government encroachment on the media that the facts literally speak for themselves, and little embellishing or editorializing is needed.

But the Chinese public is also paying far more attention to developments in the contested waters near China than to U.S. scandals. On Thursday, for instance, the Philippine Coast Guard shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters 170 miles south of Taiwan. The killing and the Coast Guard’s response — "if somebody died, they deserve our sympathy but not an apology" — infuriated Taiwanese and Chinese alike, and protests erupted in Taiwan. For the last few days, the Global Times has been running heavily promoted stories about the Philippines needing to apologize for the shooting as well as several features about Taiwan, which mostly functions independently as a nation but which China claims.

For much of the last two decades, relations between Taiwan and China were frosty at best. But since the signing of a landmark trade agreement in June 2010, the relationship has been warmer and more stable, and both sides seem to have tacitly agreed to shelve the sovereignty dispute for now. This has freed China to focus on its other island claims — with Taiwan as an unlikely ally. China and Taiwan, for example, both agree that the Diaoyu Islands (which the Japanese, who call them the Senkakus, claim as well) belong to Taiwan."We have 99 percent the same view," but we don’t agree on whether or not Taiwan is part of China, a Taiwanese diplomat told me.

One lesson from all of this: The Chinese media has more pressing concerns than taking potshots at the United States.