Tea Leaf Nation

How China Won the War Against Western Media

The one-two punch of censorship plus propaganda has discredited Western journalism in the eyes of many Chinese.

A Chinese police stops foreign journalists at a gate of the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing, where blind activist Chen Guangcheng is believed to be getting a check up, in Beijing on May 2, 2012. Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has left the US embassy to seek medical care and join his family, officials said Wednesday, as Beijing demanded a US apology on the eve of key talks between the two powers. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON        (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages)
A Chinese police stops foreign journalists at a gate of the Chaoyang hospital in Beijing, where blind activist Chen Guangcheng is believed to be getting a check up, in Beijing on May 2, 2012. Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has left the US embassy to seek medical care and join his family, officials said Wednesday, as Beijing demanded a US apology on the eve of key talks between the two powers. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages)

Just how biased do Chinese think Western media is against China? Wang Qiu, a member of China’s legislature and head of state-owned broadcaster China National Radio, claimed he had an answer: Sixty percent of all mainstream Western media reports smear China. Wang did not say where he found the absurd statistic, but he did use it to argue that criticism harmed China. “During economic development, it’s normal for a few problems to appear,” he remarked in March 2015 during China’s annual legislative meeting. “If these problems are magnified, China will no longer be able to move forward.”

Many Chinese share the idea that Western media outlets don’t cover China fairly. Chinese state media outlets and Chinese government spokespeople regularly claim that Western media plays up China’s weaknesses, exaggerates its potential as a regional threat, and ignores its successes. “Why is Western media biased against China?” was a question posed to me dozens of times during the four years I resided there — from street vendors in Beijing to students in Nanjing to taxi drivers in the ancient capital of Xi’an.

Yet it’s odd that, in a country which ranks a dismal 176 out of 180 for media freedoms, comes in last in an 88-country ranking for Internet freedom, and which operates the largest state propaganda apparatus in the world, the conversation regularly centers around perceived media bias elsewhere. The ubiquity of this idea is the result of what has been one of Chinese state media’s most successful propaganda campaigns — so effective that the term “Western media” in Chinese often has a negative connotation. Even foreign media commentators themselves sometimes echo it. Consider, for example, this 2010 podcast from Sinica, a popular series run by Beijing expats; the arguments presented in this widely read 2015 post by Kaiser Kuo, the director for international communications at Chinese search giant Baidu; and the questions posed in this January question-and-answer with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Barboza.

But while U.S. news tends to slant towards the negative and the sensational — making its critical coverage of China a normal feature of the media landscape, rather than an outlier — Chinese news is characterized by intrusive, state-mandated ideological and political bias. Articles presenting Chinese policies in a positive light are published by Communist Party fiat, overly critical articles are often removed, and the offending journalists sometimes punished. Even so, basic assumptions about an ill-defined “Western media” often go unchallenged. Media bias against China is not a foregone conclusion, but rather a rhetorical tool that Chinese authorities use alongside censorship to fight for control of the national narrative.

Chinese state media outlets or government spokespeople frequently claim that Western media purposely and systematically misrepresents China. The number of Chinese state media articles on this subject is astronomical — but here is a recent sampling. A popular November 2015 article posted on the state-run website China.com had the headline, “After the Paris terror attack, Western media is actually smearing China?” The state-run and reliably nationalist Global Times frequently features articles on its homepage criticizing U.S. and foreign media coverage of China. On Feb. 23, the headline featured at the top of the site was “U.S. Media Again Hypes South China Sea Facilities.” After a rundown of the latest development in the disputed maritime territory, the article declared that “respective Western media hype is simply a rehash of the ‘China threat theory’” – the idea that China’s rise could destabilize the regional or global order. 21CN, a news portal operated by state-owned communications giant China Telecom, even has an entire microsite, called “How China Has Provoked Western Media,” dedicated to documenting what it calls Western media’s “misconceptions” of China. “There are truly too many examples of China being maliciously misconstrued,” reads the microsite’s introduction. “China’s development of its western provinces is purposefully ‘misconstrued’ as having impure intent,” referring the resource-rich regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, where policies that marginalize ethnic minorities have fueled ethnic and religious tensions. “Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is declared to be China’s responsibility… It seems like every single thing we do could be a reason for Western media to ‘misrepresent China.’”

Chinese government spokespeople employ similar rhetoric. When asked in a Feb. 24 press briefing about China’s deployment of fighter jets to the Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying replied that foreign media “should neither selectively exaggerate what they want to report nor neglect what they do not want to report.” Hua concluded, “It is hoped that friends from the press would stay sensible and cool-headed and write objective and impartial reports.”

The term “Western media” itself deserves scrutiny. It’s vague and monolithic, making it convenient as a pejorative label but difficult to pin down for analysis. There are more than a dozen countries that qualify for the “Western” label, and more than 10,000 news media outlets in the United States alone. Among these, there are local and national newspapers, television and radio broadcasters, wire services, satire sites, magazines, blogs, and trade publications. To refer to all these as “Western media” is an especially broad brush.

U.S. media, for its part, is indeed more likely to run certain kinds of articles — those covering the new, the sensational, and especially in recent decades, the negative. Thomas Patterson, a professor of government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, wrote in 2005 that while 75 percent of election coverage during the 1960 presidential race had a positive tone, in the 2000 election 63 percent of articles about George W. Bush were negative; for every media claim that Al Gore was truthful, there were 17 opposite claims. Patterson said the trend could be explained in part by the “poisonous effect of Vietnam and Watergate on the relationship between the journalist and the politician.” In the 2012 election season, 72 percent of reports covering Barack Obama were negative, while 71 percent of reports about Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, were negative. News consumers themselves are partially to blame for the trend; a 2014 study conducted at McGill University in Canada showed that study participants were more likely to read negative articles than positive articles.

It’s not just politicians who get all the flack; U.S. news is infamously gloomy in its coverage of, well, everything. Satirical news site The Onion has leveraged the phenomenon for comical effect. “Depraved Masochist Enjoys Following the News,” proclaimed one popular September 2013 article. It’s especially true during election seasons, when even the slightest faux pas — a stray comment, a missed showing – can get a presidential candidate skewered for days.

A judgment of U.S. media coverage of China is inadequate without also considering how U.S. media covers the United States. Reviewing headlines from the past several years, it’s easy to cobble together a near-apocalyptic vision of life in the world’s wealthiest nation – that U.S infrastructure, U.S. politics, the health care system, society, and capitalism itself are irreparably broken. It’s hardly surprising when such a critical, sensational eye is turned on China (and Russia, and Kenya, and Sweden, and the Philippines, and Paris, and even Indonesian toddlers.) Scathing indictments and dire predictions are daily bread for anyone who follows domestic U.S. news. With a media environment like this, it’s little wonder that Chinese officials and media workers can find what they present as evidence of “Western media” bias against China on any given day of the year.

But Chinese news consumers aren’t used to the barrage of negativity. They’re accustomed to Chinese domestic coverage of China, which is overwhelmingly supportive of government policies. The party exerts tight control over news outlets, insisting on “positive energy” and often requiring the removal of coverage perceived as overly negative. As gloomy data on the state of the Chinese economy was released, a directive issued in September 2015 by the Central Propaganda Department, the party’s media censorship division, stated that media outlets were required to “[take] the next step in promoting the discourse on China’s bright economic future and the superiority of China’s system, as well as stabilizing expectations and inspiring confidence” – in other words, write nice things about the economy.

The effects of such top-down directives are readily apparent. On Mar. 1, for example, the latest of troubling economic indicators coming out of China showed that its slowing manufacturing sector and even its more vibrant services sector had reached their weakest levels in at least seven years. On Mar. 3, party newspaper Guangming Daily ran a widely syndicated article titled, “China’s Economic Development Prospects Are Entirely Bright,” and state-owned Legal Daily quoted government spokesperson Wang Guoqing in an article titled “Full of Confidence in the Chinese Economy.” Top featured items in major Chinese media outlets are often not news, but peppy government press releases. The Mar. 2 cover of party mouthpiece People’s Daily featured as its top headline “Xi Jinping Offers Congratulations to the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 ‘U.S.-China Tourism Year.’” News outlets even massage coverage of natural disasters to prevent criticism of authorities.

Conversely, Chinese state media provides detailed coverage of certain U.S. domestic issues, such as gun violence and racial strife, portraying democracy as a form of government inherently prone to chaos. While domestic Chinese protests and ethnic conflict are usually highly censored in Chinese media and social media, some Chinese news sites featured articles about the 2014 Ferguson protests in top slots on their homepages. In November 2014, for example, state news agency Xinhua ran an editorial titled “A Shameful Scar in U.S. Human Rights History.” That’s a criticism that Chinese outlets would never be allowed to say directly about China’s own unrest, such as the 2009 riots in the western regional capital of Urumqi, when fighting between ethnic Han and members of the Uyghur ethnic minority killed almost 200. During the riots, the government cut off Internet access for the entire region, with most websites remaining inaccessible for months. Chinese outlets were not permitted to run original reports but only to repost stories from official sources such as Xinhua.

But for many Chinese, tightly scripted domestic media is the only kind of news available. Chinese government regulators have blocked, in whole or in part, the websites and Chinese language editions of many major media outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Le Monde. Only those who regularly surf the Internet using software designed to circumvent online controls are able to access blocked sites — meaning most Chinese hear about such foreign news coverage through the lens of domestic Chinese news, which dominates the airwaves, online news, and social media. When a Chinese person, who has lived for years in a media environment that consciously portrays U.S. media outlets as biased, then reads regular negative coverage of China in these outlets, the belief may be confirmed.

That’s the one-two punch of censorship plus propaganda. Kneejerk accusations of Western media bias aren’t just nationalist bluster; they’re a vital aspect of information control. In the digital age, it’s essentially impossible to fully seal off a population without dismantling the Internet entirely. As President Bill Clinton famously said in 2000, Chinese attempts to censor the Internet are like attempting to “nail Jell-O to the wall.” But censorship is only one side of the coin; discrediting contradictory sources of information is the other. Internalizing the notion that Western media reports about China are inaccurate, exaggerated, and purposely distorted inoculates the reader against ideas presented in media outside the scope of China’s control – criticism of the party and its leaders, information that shows liberal ideas such as democracy in a positive light — that Chinese authorities view as dangerous.

Of course, China is far more than the sum of its propaganda, and many there recognize that domestic news is often one-sided. Though limited by tight censorship, more nuanced discussion does occur on the Internet. “I’ve heard that Western media likes to report China’s negative aspects. Is that true?” asked one July 2010 post on a Baidu question-and-answer forum. “It’s true that Western media likes to report on China’s negative aspects,” went the most up-voted response, “but they also like to report on the negative aspects of their own countries….When it comes to reporting on the world’s follies, most Western outlets do so without regard to country or region.”

Still, the approach has been remarkably effective. If Chinese do read what sound like otherwise cogent articles critical of China, either by travelling outside of China or by using a virtual private network or other software that allows users to access news sites blocked in China, they will be less vulnerable to these arguments. Helen Gao, a Beijing native and a contributor for the New York Times, describes this phenomenon as it applies to patriotic education in Chinese schools. “While many students would readily admit the political motivations behind Chinese history education,” wrote Gao in an August 2015 article, “when challenged by unfamiliar viewpoints, they instinctively fall back onto the statements we chanted as mantras since childhood. The tendency can be heightened by a sense of national pride when the perceived challenge comes from foreigners.” The popularity of the belief that Western media is biased against China demonstrates a truth that authoritarian regimes know well: propaganda works.

AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr