The Debate | Opinion

China-US Media Relations Are Cratering. That’s a Serious Problem.

Amid the tensions, media on both sides have been casualties. That bodes very poorly for the future of U.S.-China relations.

China-US Media Relations Are Cratering. That’s a Serious Problem.
Credit: Pixabay

A few days ago, I saw the speech by John Pomfret, former Beijing bureau chief at the Washington Post, at a June hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission to evaluate China’s view on the competition with the United States. Hearing Pomfret talk about China reminded me of the interviews and exchanges I had with him about 20 years ago. At the time, he was working in Beijing; my team and I were studying China’s image in foreign media.

Back then, he was optimistic about China’s development. Based on his recent speech, it seems his impression of the changes in China has considerably worsened.

If so, he’s not alone. Many foreigners probably also have similar views. It shows a serious problem: In the past 20 years, the foreign media’s view of China – and, correspondingly, China’s image in the foreign public’s eyes — may have become worse.

It is necessary to analyze the reasons, especially in the context of the increasing impact of the China-U.S. tensions on the media.

Why have foreign impressions of China deteriorated? I suggest two main reasons: One is from the Chinese government; the other is from the U.S. government.

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To illustrate my first point, I would like raise an example. About five years ago, as a news director, I was arranging coverage on Sino-U.S. relations. I asked a reporter to interview a well-known American scholar on China issues, Bonnie Glaser. Later she replied via email, but instead of accepting the interview outright, she first asked us: Can you publish all of what I say in your media?

This is a difficult question to answer. It implied that she would definitely talk about some sensitive issues, and would probably criticize the Chinese government. In the end, the interview didn’t happen.

I always say that China should be more confident. There is no need to assume that every criticism is designed to overthrow the government, or to deny the Chinese Communist Party. Even two friends may have different opinions from each other – can friends only give compliments and never point out any shortcomings?

Using a decades-old playbook to manage media in the era of social media obviously will not work.

In addition to the Chinese government’s problems, the U.S. government has demonized China, which is also deteriorating China’s image. One aspect of this is a new paranoia about the Chinese media. The U.S. government has threatened not to issue visas to Chinese journalists, and China is taking the same countermeasures.

This has caught my attention. I am a reporter and think that even if the relationship between our two nations is poor, media exchanges between China and the U.S. should continue.

Media reports are very important for the two peoples to understand each other objectively. Most Americans and Chinese people can’t travel to see each other, and they have to learn about what happens through the media.

I find that many U.S. media reports paid too much attention to Chinese politics and diplomacy, and too little attention to the real situation of Chinese people’s lives.

Let me illustrate using data from China’s number two leader, Premier Li Keqiang. A few months ago he publicly stated that China has 600 million people with a monthly income of just about a little more than 1,000 Chinese renminbi — that is to say, almost half of China’s people have a monthly income of about $150. Do ordinary Americans know this?

Obviously most U.S. media has not focused on this point, nor have U.S. officials. But this information is very important for Americans to understand China.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that China has a dark ambition to replace the United States in international status. If he said as much to these 600 million Chinese, they certainly would have a different view. What they want is not some grand geopolitical gambit, but to change their daily life.

So the most important issue for Chinese government now is economic development, which will boost support for the regime. That is the most urgent task for the CCP. What are the development goals for China that top leader Xi Jinping put forward a few years ago? Not to surpass the United States, not to replace Western powers, but to lift all Chinese people out of poverty.

That is part of the truth about China’s development that U.S. media has been unable to tell Americans.

Of course, Chinese media has its own problems. I really don’t like way some Chinese media peers speak just like officials making statements. That only raises questions from the outside world and even deliberately causes confusion.

That’s why many Americans, including the U.S. government believe there is no independent thought among those in the Chinese media. That perception harms media exchanges between the two sides. It also blurs the line between media voices and official policy, which is potentially dangerous.

For example, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, recently said that China should develop 1,000 nuclear weapons. Many in the U.S. military took this as the voice of the Chinese government. In fact, this is a misunderstanding.

Hu’s identity is too in line with official rhetoric — but his comments do not represent the official attitude of the Chinese government. After he said this, he was criticized and questioned. Some nuclear weapons experts from the Chinese military posted articles in the media criticizing him, saying the size of China’s nuclear force is a professional military issue and should not be discussed by media people like Hu.

In fact, there have been more and more cases where the attitudes of some Chinese media people come to influence international relations. Another example involves the relations between China and Israel.

A month ago, a columnist from China Daily publicly criticized Israel on Twitter for not using 5G equipment from Chinese companies under U.S. pressure. The columnist attacked Israel as the “U.S. poodle,” and even called Israel ungrateful, drawing a line between the 5G decision and the fact that Shanghai provided safe haven for 30,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during World War II. Such comments angered Israelis. The Jerusalem Post rebuked him in the editorial page, saying Israel does not owe China.

Obviously, the Israelis took the private thinking of a China Daily columnist as the attitude of the Chinese government. Perhaps in their view, because China Daily is an official English-language media organization, there is government instigation behind the columnist’s article. But the fact is that the Chinese government is much smarter than that.

This is the embarrassment of Chinese media and media people — they are always considered to represent the voice of the government, but in fact most of the time they only represent themselves. Although some media outlets are official, journalists can have their own ideas.

Americans need to understand the complexity of Chinese media and society. And the United States should not refuse to interact with the Chinese media. Otherwise, this will make China more closed and Chinese people will obtain less international information.

China and the United States are two countries with different political systems, as well as different media systems. But being different does not mean we are enemies. Both sides, especially in the media are sure to find the possibility of cooperation.

Of course, cooperation is always affected by politics.

I think the White House is hyper-alert to every Chinese movement in the United States, including to the actions of Chinese media people. It’s just like a cat staring at every sound. It would be if funny, if the consequences for individuals and both societies weren’t so sad.

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There are many stories that the U.S. government and media seldom focus on, but are necessary for general Americans to know China more comprehensively and better. Of course, nowadays, in most Chinese media outlets it’s hard to get a full picture of the United States either. You can hardly see any articles about positive U.S. news, which is also a pity. As a journalist, I am very worried about the media environment between our two countries.

I think if this situation is to be changed, in addition to improving Sino-U.S. relations, more media people need to look at each other more objectively.