The Debate | Opinion

What America Can Learn From Chinese Society’s Media Skepticism

Many Americans have almost blind faith in their preferred media sources. Most Chinese have learned not to believe everything they read.

By Jasmine Chia and Cengiz Cemaloglu for
What America Can Learn From Chinese Society’s Media Skepticism
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Russ Allison Loar

Images and videos of America’s anti-lockdown protests had a chilling quality. They bore a resemblance to Trump rallies but, given the ever-increasing death toll in the United States, appeared much crueler. A small minority of Americans were participating, to be clear – ranging from some dozens to several thousands. But they have been cheered on by President Donald Trump and a larger minority of Americans on the internet, with the triumphant revolutionary slogan: “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.”

News outlets around the world covered this with varying degrees of shock and horror – how could this happen? Not just in First World America, but in any country? In turn, American commentators have stepped in to explain this as the result of an inflammatory right-leaning media. The New York Times wrote that the protests are a result of conservative pressure groups that have, among other things, paid for polling and research to undercut concerns over reopening of the economy.

But what is more noteworthy is that this small minority of Americans believe these select sources of information – be they right-wing media or biased polls – to such an extent that, against all other evidence, they are willing to risk their lives.

Anti-lockdown protesters in America are not the only population in a siloed, low-information environment where alternative realities are written into being. Many living under authoritarian regimes with heavy government censorship, like in China, are thrust into similar situations frequently. But what distinguishes this group of Americans in their response to COVID-19 seems to be the deep trust in the media they consume.

By contrast, in many respects, the “Great Firewall” forced many Chinese people to be more skeptical about the news they read. They have adapted to low information environments in important ways – using group chats to share possibly censored information and as a form of communal fact-checking; making veiled comments on social media to express frustration and fear.

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, these practices, developed over time, have actually saved lives.

Back in early February, CNN wrote: “As the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread around China and the world, many are questioning how much the country’s colossal censorship apparatus played a role in withholding vital information about the epidemic until it was too late.”

Nowhere was this skepticism and anger more apparent than in China itself. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has struggled to control the narrative, Chinese web users took to social media to castigate the government response, “not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship,” says Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times.

News of the virus first spread through informal WeChat groups. Ai Fen, a doctor heading the emergency department at a Wuhan hospital, shared a medical report of a patient with a new SARS-type illness on December 30. It was subsequently shared by other doctors, including Dr. Li Wenliang. Some were silenced by the Wuhan police for “spreading rumors.” But when Dr. Li died of the virus on February 7, simmering tensions burst into national fury. Messages in private WeChat groups expressed immense anger at CCP censorship, while the topic of his death received over 1.5 billion views on Weibo. A poem allegedly penned by the martyr doctor spread across Chinese social media, crystallizing the collective grief. It read: “My epitaph only needs one phrase: He spoke up once for the people.”

Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been continued resistance to censored information from behind the Great Firewall. Videos and comments of frustration under lockdown have been continually scrubbed from the Chinese internet, but a small army of everyday citizens were saving and reposting them. As records were destroyed or falsified, they were reclaimed and rewritten – unlike George Orwell’s 1984, history had not stopped. The Party was not always right.

Nothing exemplified the transient yet influential rewriting of history more than Fang Fang’s “Wuhan Diary.” Throughout the Wuhan lockdown, Fang Fang, a published writer living in Hubei, shared her diaries on social media; each entry would be reposted thousands of times before being taken down. The diary itself evinced constant skepticism toward the news in Wuhan, constantly questioning the government’s numbers and supplementing them with information received through group chats. “Twenty days of delay, twenty days of concealment,” read one diary entry, emblematic of the mistrust and anger that has come to characterize everyday citizens’ experience of the pandemic.

This is not to say that the CCP doesn’t have its supporters. Chinese nationalists, supported by the government’s 50-cent army, condemned critics for detracting from the government’s efforts to stem the outbreak. On platforms like Facebook and Twitter – banned in China – keyboard warriors were deployed by the CCP to defend national pride abroad.

But the existence of the Great Firewall, and the CCP’s blatant attempts to stop history, have made some citizens much, much smarter about trusting news sites backed by money and power. It is this skepticism that is thoroughly missing from the American right’s relationship with its media. While many in China are equipped with the necessary toolkits to distill the right from the wrong and to fact-check the validity of reportage, and the United States is yet to develop such a toolkit – due to a long-standing conviction that it would never need to and that its media is almost always unbiased and fair.

The narrative of the despotic East and the rationalist West has long dominated academia, literature, and mainstream media. It has only intensified under COVID-19 coverage, as the notion of “China” – both as a nation and an imagined community – became increasingly politicized. Asian Americans have had to pay the price for the CCP’s mistakes, showing us only too clearly how many read “China” solely through the CCP’s image. But the situation in China, as in any other country, is much more complex than the CCP’s story, and there is ample resistance to the Party’s “truth” from within.

It is in China that the lessons of 1984 have been brutally learned. There exists a mutual understanding that the truth is often much more complicated, more subjective, and more precious than it is presented to be. The individual has the duty to figure out the validity of a claim before being entirely convinced.

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But this skepticism has not been cultivated among a large minority in America. There is a concern about fake news, mind you, but it is a concern about “fake news” sources rather than a legitimate vetting of the information received. Even less so is it a process of sharing news with those who might tell you something different.

The danger is not, as the New York Times alleges, the result of paid polling, or as other commentators write, the result of biased media. It is the result of blind trust in an imperfect media — something that, as China may teach us, is avoidable.

Jasmine Chia is an MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, a journalist for the Thai Enquirer and former journalist for the Bangkok Post.

Cengiz Cemaloglu is a consultant at ReD Associates and completed his BA at Harvard University in Social Anthropology and Government.