Tea Leaf Nation

The U.S. Media’s Unfortunate Obsession with One Beijing Rag

The U.S. Media’s Unfortunate Obsession with One Beijing Rag

On Jan. 11, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson raised eyebrows in Washington when he said, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that the island building stops” in the South China Sea and that “[Beijing’s] access to the islands is also not going to be allowed.” China is used to hearing the United States tell it (fruitlessly) to stop building, but the assertion that China would be blocked from accessing those islands was novel. Beijing was predictably perturbed; but was its state media “up in arms” about Tillerson’s comments, broadcasting to its masses rhetoric about an imminent conflict? Hardly. Unfortunately, that’s the misleading impression most U.S. media has created.

Over the past several years, China has laid down about 3,200 acres of new land in the South China Sea by bulking up small islands and reefs to which ownership is contested, then plunking down infrastructure ranging from satellite stations to landing strips to beer gardens — much of it with the potential for military use (beer gardens perhaps included, depending on the disposition of PLA Navy service members.) An international tribunal ruled that China’s claims of maritime entitlement flowing from that construction was illegal, although China has pledged to ignore the ruling and the original plaintiff, the Philippines, no longer seems interested in enforcing it. China’s island-building has tapered off, but its ships increasingly treat crucial, open trade routes as if they were Chinese waters, over U.S. objections.

A reader of some mainstream U.S. media outlets (like this one and this one), could be forgiven for thinking that Beijing had responded by shaking its saber, hard. The problem is that these and many other reports on “Chinese state media” reaction are premised on one particular trouble-maker, the Global Times. But Chinese state media is not monolithic, and the Times is not a mouthpiece for Beijing. That distinction belongs to the People’s Daily, a carefully manicured and largely joyless publication, albeit one that’s made a predictably awkward effort to break through on Twitter. By contrast, the Global Times is best thought of as Beijing’s unrestrained id, breathing a reliable stream of fire and invective in the United States’ direction, and, thus, providing nearly endless potential fodder for U.S. journalists.  

They need to stop taking the bait. China’s government, the state media it controls, and Chinese social media space have in fact been relatively muted in public response to Tillerson’s comments; Global Times is the exception. That’s because it speaks to, and often for, a segment of the Chinese population that feels the Chinese government needs to take a tougher line on defending its honor and would love to see the U.S. brought down a peg. Beijing knows it can’t let this group of people feel too ignored. But the Chinese government answers to a far larger population, one that would be ill-served by a conflict. Beijing’s task is to allow angry citizens to blow off steam while maintaining the type of stability that a serious clash with the United States could imperil. In this regard, the Times is useful to Chinese authorities. And it undoubtedly qualifies as state media, meaning that it receives some (not all) of its funding from the ruling Communist Party and that the Party could, if it wished, retroactively delete Times content it didn’t like. Beyond that, it does not provide insight into Beijing’s thinking.

In fact, the much-flogged Global Times editorial on Tillerson was, if anything, pushback against a muted response from central authorities. In a paragraph present only in the Chinese version of the article — that is, the one that must face Chinese reader scrutiny and is thus far more likely to provide outsiders with a valuable window into domestic sentiment — the Times sought to convince readers that Beijing’s silence just meant it was biding its time until Trump assumed office. “Chinese authorities have been controlled in their attitude toward extreme statements coming out of [Trump’s] team,” the article states. “Beijing traditionally waits to see what new [counterparties] say and do, and Beijing has fewer channels to express itself. America should not make the mistake of thinking China will actually fear their threats.”

In their defense, some U.S. media outlets citing heavily to the Global Times noted its role as spoiler. The problem is that since the Times was the only major outlet warning of war and retaliation, the caveats are large enough to swallow the premise of the stories that contain them. Put another way: An article that purports to analyze “Chinese state media” based entirely on an article from the Global Times, with no evidence of domestic impact or additional voices to back it up, is of little news value. It might get clicks, but it won’t give readers an accurate portrait of events.

It’s easy to throw stones at those who perform their work so publicly, and this author, who started an online outfit focused on Chinese media analysis, lives in a glass house. Media reads are inevitably selective — a journalist needs to discriminate and curate to be of any value, and it’s simply impossible to cull through every source in time to fashion a report that’s newsy and relevant.

But there lies a zone somewhere between plodding irrelevance and unmoored hot take, and it’s here that Chinese media analysis needs to lie. That’s especially important given the identity of the man about to be sworn in as U.S. President. Sober people in either party can fairly be counted on to take breathless reports of imminent war with a heap of salt, and follow up what they see online with further in-house research and, if needed, outreach to Beijing. But President-elect Trump has proven that he lives in the headline, and in the moment — should a piece of careless reporting on Chinese state media find its way into, say, a CNN television segment, it’s not hard to imagine Trump mistaking the latest Global Times scuttlebutt for an intolerable affront by the Chinese state.

None of this is to say Tillerson’s comments aren’t important, particularly if they actually presage a change in policy; no one yet knows for sure, maybe not even Tillerson’s soon-to-be boss. But most players in China’s state media landscape have, if anything, played down the significance of the comments. Chinese social media has mostly responded with a shrug.

Reports that treat a single, rabble-rousing publication as an avatar of Chinese state media or a mouthpiece for Beijing are far more likely to disrupt diplomatic reality than to describe it with fealty. The U.S. media needs to cure its dangerous addiction to the Global Times’  trolling.

Leah Liu contributed research.

Clarification, Jan. 18: An international tribunal ruled on some of China’s claims in the South China Sea; it was is not a UN tribunal, as previously stated.

Wang Zhao/Getty Images