#45 event report – China in the Western Media: examining the lens

June 16th, 2015 Bridge Cafe (Wudaokou)


Kaiser Kuo, Host of Sinica Podcast, Director for International Communications at Baidu.



A foreigner in China always finds himself in a complex informational and cultural environment. “Why do Chinese people not hate their government as much as I thought they would do?” is the most common question arising from such complexity. To be sure, the material accomplishments of technocratic and perhaps meritocratic political elites have created a narrative that increases China’s soft power, particularly in the economic dimension, where a majority of Americans now erroneously believes that China has surpassed the US in its economic power and global commercial influence. Yet how exactly has the puzzled foreigner formed his a priori beliefs about a massive and diverse country like China?


The Shapers of the Lens: a Minority of 1000 

Aiming at understanding the lens through which the “West” is looking at China, one needs to examine the shapers of Chinese image who are in effect a tiny minority of reporters, freelancers and intellectuals that has been living and working in and out of China for years. All the remaining pundits of the usually self proclaimed “China experts” have a China opinion shaped by the “Anglophone” experts – the 1000 people whose articles, reports, video analyses and podcasts are the constituent parts of China’s image in the West.


The Mindset of the 1000 Opinion Shapers 

Moving to the next level of understanding the “Western lens”, one must examine the cognitive code, the mindset of the top 1000 China experts. It is crucial to realize that these experts bear serious ideological, epistemic, historical and political beliefs that many times unconsciously distort the real image of China.

Hence, if the journalists and experts in the Anglo-world are biased, then how can we realistically understand China? The sole and perhaps most pragmatic solution is to analyze the very perceptions, ideology, epistemic views and beliefs of those intellectuals. In essence we must examine the structural elements of their cognitive system that are irreducible to further inquiry.

Before proceeding however to the “mindset analysis”, it should be underlined that the aim of today’s discussion is not to simplistically criticize Western / English reporting on China. The majority of news reports and analysis have merits. There is arguably a lot to admire about the norms of Western reporting and the ethics of Western journalism. The essence of the presentation today in front of such a diverse crowd is to provide a constructive and didactic critique and look for an advice on how can media tame misperceptions between China and the West.

The general feeling after years of reading and monitoring Western press about China is that Anglophone media coverage of China is realistic and often accurate. Reputable media like the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and the Washington Post follow very rigorous standards and their reporters are people with tremendous professional integrity. Yet accuracy is not a sufficient condition for realism. A small number of reporters cannot cover such a vast landscape of news coming from all over China – the world’s most populous nation.


American conceptions of Journalism are anti-state

The “invisible hand” that greatly influences the US and Anglophone media ethics is the American conception of Journalism that puts journalists naturally at odds with government and corporations, with the rich and powerful. In the words of George Orwell, “News is printing something that no one else wants to print; everything else is public relations”.

So American journalists, who as mentioned earlier see their role as balancers of big state power, are naturally in conflict with a powerful state like China. In addition, the way the Chinese government is treating journalists doesn’t help journalism at all. Journalists in China are monitored, harassed, and threatened with visa restrictions. This contributes towards a vicious cycle. Bad treatment of journalists leads to bad and distorted coverage; bad coverage leads to heavier monitoring and even worse treatment and so on. It is thus understandable that the stories that tend to dominate the US media are human rights violations. Yet, there are also stories of creative Chinese entrepreneurs, and decisive state intervention in the economy. Most of the time these stories reflect sincere admiration yet some times they aim at magnifying Chinese power and scaring US public on China’s rise.

Nonetheless, overall, Western media are not inherently biased and negative about China. It is more an issue of misunderstanding and here are the reasons.

The US cannot understand China because the country remains very opaque while at the same time China cannot understand the US because of the overwhelming plurality of ideas. China cannot fully grasp the way US media work and erroneously sees US media as serving “state interests” whereas a sometimes better critique would be that some media could be indeed aligned with commercial interest.

To be more “scientific”, a very important point is that the ideological identity of Western anti-authoritarianism is the outcome of the European Enlightenment, which goes back to Spinoza, Diderot, Montesquieu and for the US, John Locke and the founding fathers. Dominant strands of journalism have a proud heritage and a pantheon of heroes from the Anti-McCarthy era to Watergate scandal and beyond. In the US we have a high regard of journalists who serve jail penalties because they want to protect their sources, thus this obsession of US society against censorship should not be seen as a surprise or a conspiracy to weaken China.


TiC#45 The image of China in Western media. Speaker: Kaiser Kuo.

TiC#45 The image of China in Western media. Speaker: Kaiser Kuo.


The context is that there is no context?

There is also a very significant question over the revered “exceptionalism” of those values and how those values can be a model for non-western media to follow, and this is a legitimate and realistic question.

Individual observers can understand the context, average speakers cannot. Media bias is deeply natural and it will not really change radically. The Media will always promote the dramatic over the normal.

Another problem that has been occurring recently: the principle that “the context is that there is no context” when we are dealing with news and stories that describe only the main fact, without exploring what’s behind, the context where the fact takes place. The attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo could work as an example here: sure we all condemn the violence, the atrocity of the fact, the direct attack against freedom of the press. But we cannot avoid to consider also the context in which this tragedy happened, we cannot just forget about French colonialism, about immigration issues, about the journal itself, the boundaries of satire when dealing with religion. There is always a context, that should not be used to justify anything, but the give a more complete background for the readership to understand what happens.

A similar case is found in a recent Chris Beam’s article on the New Yorker about the presence of Chinese authors at the BookExpo America and the demonstration organized by American writers to denounce censorship in China. Beam cites his conversation with Jonathan Franzen, that after visiting China has come to understand that for a government in some cases – like  for maintaing social stability –  there are reasons for censorship. When this piece came out, many US Twitter users disagreed attesting to the idea that the context is that there is simply no context when one calls for freedom of press and speech. But still, reducing everything to black or white does not help us understanding the complexity of China.


Bias From Source Selection 

It must also be noted that Chinese intellectuals who write in Western press on issues concerning China are very skeptical of China; usually they are among those called “dissidents”. Reports tend to focus on the intellectuals who criticize China, the authors who challenge the establishment on rule of law, human rights and usually those who flatter American values.

In contrast to the vocal minority of overwhelmingly critical intellectuals, the loyal and less vocal opposition is another category. These are people who want reform but they do not support a revolution but an evolution. This is a silent majority of Chinese intellectuals and they are completely ignored in the American media establishment. “A mainstream Chinese social scientist working at CASS is supportive of Chinese government’s actions” would not be a title that could attract readership.

So it is well understood that there is a feedback loop: media are pro dissent, so dissidents will speak to Western media, thus the middle category of those seeking harmonious reform within the system will not risk their reputation and will not talk to Western media anyway.


Bias from viewing China as a monolith 

Of course, perhaps the most established bias is the failure to understand the diversity of China and the complexity of its governance system. This leads to oversimplification and sometimes to serious reporting errors. For instance an article titled “China is forcing Muslims to sell alcohol in an effort to weaken Islam” can be very misleading. When the author was contacted and was analytically presented with the reasons why his title was deceiving – for it was not China but a single county within China – the author accepted his mistake but declined to alter the title.

The bias continues to the political regime of China with the majority of journalists regarding the CPC as a continuous entity from 1949 till present even though there have been many cycles of reform and the process is still on going. This bias is also reflected in the term  “regime” that Western media constantly use to describe the illegitimacy of CPC. Terms like “hardliners”, Neomaoists are also feeding in the oversimplified and monolithic representation of China.


Advice: Informed Empathy  

The most effective advice must address the readers. “Pick your fight! Temper your criticism with praise and share examples of positive stories from your friends and life in China”.  Always nudge people toward informed empathy. There was once an interview of the British physicist Stephen Hawking who was asked “what Human shortcoming would you like to change and what to enhance?”

Hawking replied that he would like to change aggression and enhance empathy. We really need to see the world from the eyes of others. China does not need sympathy; that is, unconditional affection and trust but it does need empathy. And for empathy to be useful and effective one needs context, values, sources, so what is really needed is informed empathy.  An understanding of history and a comprehensive examination of the processes that propel nations to success, define ideologies and shape political systems is essential to achieve informed empathy. Only then will one be able to clean the lenses and see lucidly the world around himself.



Where should we draw the line on media vs. readers responsibility?


There is a line but it should not be realistically expected that every single reader can indeed achieve high standard of critique. Maybe the educational curriculum should include more world history and enhance critical thought. The American general public who criticizes China does not even know where its own American intellectual tradition has come from. The enlightenment did not come Deus ex machina. It came from a serious clash of ideas, historical processes and serious societal conflict. If somebody has no understanding of these structural historical processes then he or she cannot achieve high level of critical reasoning. So more history in the curriculum and more critical thought building exercises.



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