An open letter to those overthinking our relationship.
- By Bethany Allen-EbrahimianBethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a Tea Leaf Nation Fellow at Foreign Policy. Before joining Foreign Policy, she lived and worked in China for more than four years, including one year studying at Peking University in Beijing. Allen-Ebrahimian holds an M.A. in East Asian studies from Yale University and a graduate certificate from the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.
Dear Chinese media,
We understand that recently, you’ve been especially sensitive about U.S. coverage of China. First, there were those investigative reports in Bloomberg and the New York Times in June and October 2012 revealing hidden financial assets of the relatives of important Chinese leaders; those news sites are now blocked in China. Then there was that secretive Communist Party directive, which declared in April 2013 that "hostile Western forces" were "infiltrating the ideological sphere." Since that document was leaked (by a Chinese journalist later jailed for the offense), China has seen a noted uptick in state media-led efforts fanning the flames of Chinese popular resentment towards the United States and other Western nations, with the state-run Global Times most recently accusing the New York Times, in a June 24 editorial, of being "biased" and "spreading the China threat theory."
Chinese state media fell yet further down the analytical rabbit hole in an August 6 report in party mouthpiece People’s Daily. In a dispatch from San Francisco, a Chinese reporter interviewed 20 Americans to see how much they knew about an unfolding Chinese food safety scandal, one in which Shanghai Husi, the American-owned supplier of McDonald’s, KFC, and other foreign-owned restaurants allegedly sold expired meat products to the fast food chains prolific in Chinese cities. Of the 20 people interviewed, according to the report, only three had heard of the Shanghai Husi food scandal. Of those three, the article added, not a single one knew that Shanghai Husi is actually owned by a U.S. company.
Somewhat incredibly, the article blamed selective U.S. reporting for this misunderstanding, accusing U.S. news outlets of purposefully hiding the fact that it was a U.S. company at the root of the trouble, and concluded that "this is yet another example of U.S. media misleading the American people…and it most certainly won’t be the last." Or, it could be because the company in question is called Shanghai Husi — it doesn’t exactly hit the ear like "Jimmy Dean."
Chinese media, we in the United States are sympathetic to the difficulty you may experience — coming from a country where the heavy hand of government exerts increasingly tight control of the media environment and where even posting a "rumor" on social media can get you arrested — in fully grasping the freewheeling nature of U.S. journalism and public discourse.
But please understand that U.S. media outlets aren’t engaged in a top-down conspiracy to smear you. Some Americans struggle even to locate your country on a map, much less appear well-versed in the nuances of a food scandal unfolding on the other side of the globe. At least we are, by and large, a self-aware bunch. The People’s Daily reporter who surveyed hapless San Franciscans is perhaps unfamiliar with American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s "man on the street" interviews, the most recent example of a televised bit that mocks this characteristic. Popular highlights from Kimmel include Americans offering sincere condolences upon being told that (long-dead) President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just passed away, and earnest attempts to analyze President Obama’s (apocryphal) nomination of TV land’s Judge Judy to serve on the Supreme Court. Yet American ignorance of our own history pales in comparison to our collective ignorance of the rest of the world, profound enough in some cases to border on disregard. Once on a domestic flight heading to Los Angeles for a layover to China, this author’s seatmate, an American, asked whether China or Japan were bigger. He wasn’t being metaphorical.
That doesn’t mean our media gets it right every time. In an October 2013 report about giant killer hornets in China, Atlanta-based CNN — cable news providers reaching 98 million American households — placed Hong Kong on the east coast of South America, somewhere around Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a widely circulated (and mirthfully ridiculed) April 2014 article called "The Ten Days in China That Shook Me," American Chris Matthews, host of New York-based MSNBC’s talk show "Hardball," breathlessly chronicled his first trip to the world’s most populous country. Matthews was shocked to find that China doesn’t resemble the boxy industrial monochrome of the Iron Curtain-era Soviet bloc, even though China’s economic rise and showy development were old news here by 2008, when Beijing’s gauzy splendor was televised to a global audience. Matthews also marveled that Guangzhou, "a city I had never heard of," has more people than New York City. (Guangzhou, one of China’s most prosperous cities, has been a major international trade hub for over 150 years.)
In conclusion, Chinese media, we ask that you not overthink this whole thing. American media has neither the inclination nor, frankly, the resources to engage in a coordinated, Machiavellian plot to besmirch you. And for better or worse, most Americans just don’t spend that much time thinking about your country. The next time you find yourself concerned over our reporting, just remember: Many Americans have a notoriously hazy grasp on the nuances of their own country’s affairs. Don’t be too alarmed when they don’t know much about yours.