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Dealing with the Scourge of “Schadenfreude” in Foreign Reporting on China

Nov 03 , 2014

Why are we so often disturbed by Western media reporting and analysis of China? Why does reading commentary of China’s economy, foreign relations, politics, and society leave us feeling emotionally abused, injured, or even angry and resentful?

I believe our reactions are a response to the pervasive, ugly, and malevolent, but largely unnoticed element of schadenfreude in this commentary. It is our natural revulsion to writing and thinking that is anti-humanistic, hostile, and harmful.

Schadenfreude is a German-origin term defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as “a feeling of pleasure at the bad things that happen to other people.” Schadenfreude is rarely expressed plainly, or in relation to a specific event or situation. Rather, it is an attitude and bias that disparages achievements, discredits sincerity, and hopes for failure.

We see this vile sentiment often in Western media coverage of news events, in reporting on Chinese business, and particularly in analysis and commentary on policies, plans, and initiatives of the government and the Communist Party.

It is not just reporting mainly “bad news,” like tainted milk powder or cooking oil scandals, although this feature is common too, particularly in blogs and the popular press. Rather, it is reporting only of the facts that support a narrative of endemic amorality or immorality and government social irresponsibility, with a subliminal message that the Chinese people or system are immoral, corrupt, and will or should fail.

The commentator most identified with schadenfreude in writing on China is Gordon G. Chang. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, released in 2001, has turned apocalyptic predictions and ill-wishing into a best-selling “brand.”

On cue, writing on Forbes.com after Alibaba’s world-beating IPO in New York, Chang was quick to predict, and seemingly to hope, that the company’s ambition to surpass Walmart as the world’s largest retailer would be unrealized.

Indeed, at every major juncture on economic and social China’s development path, from WTO accession, to coping with the global financial crisis, to economic and financial system reform, to the current anti-corruption campaign, Chang has been predicting, and seemingly hoping for, massive failure and systematic collapse.

Chang has been consistently wrong on matters large and small. Instead of failure and collapse China was achieved successes, advancing to a new, higher level of development and prosperity. Chang’s errors reflect a fundamental incapacity, and psychological unwillingness, to understand China and its people, their feelings, aspirations, and loyalties.

Chang’s brand is emblematic of the negative bias toward China, tinged with schadenfreude,that is more common than uncommon in the Western press.

Today this bias informs reporting and commentary on China’s top leadership’s two towering visions and initiatives: realizing a “China Dream” and rooting out endemic corruption. Both visions, and the actions being pursued toward their realization, typically receive cynical, unsympathetic, skeptical, or derisive treatment in the Western media.

The success of the anti–corruption campaign is of existential importance to China’s future, which is to say to the safety, security, and prosperity of the Chinese people. So is the vision of the “China Dream.” Yet in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal, the sincerity, or even the moral authority, of China’s leaders in pursuing these visions is regularly impugned or denied. Some reporting has seemingly aimed to undermine the authority of leaders, so as to complicate or derail related initiatives.

The government of China has felt obliged to protect the people’s vital interests by blocking publications like The New York Times that had acted as though its purpose was to sabotage those interests. This point was made by former Shanghai mayor, and now deputy head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Xu Kuangdi, in answering a member of the America Chamber of Commerce after the speech by former president Jimmy Carter in Shanghai on September 9.

That the government of China should take measures is understandable. That China has blocked such internet search portals as Google (while affording open internet access to its citizens through portals like Sohu.com) is also understandable and justifiable from the standpoint of the interests of the Chinese people.

China’s citizens nevertheless enjoy essential access to a range of domestic and foreign media that has not adopted an anti-China bias. Such unbalanced reporting is itself a expression of a biased, schadenfreude media mindset.

A pervasively biased Western media unfortunately plays into the hands of persons seeking to characterize China as posing a security “threat” to its neighbors or to the United States. Possessing an attitude of schadenfreude, the media not only dismiss, but would seek to impugn and deny China’s leaders’ sincerity when they express the Chinese people’s vital need for and yearning for peace and harmony with their Asian neighbors and with the United States.

China’s actions, often in reaction to provocations of other countries (notably with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea) are described as “aggressive”–therefore requiring counterforce–when in fact they are defensive. The reality of China’s long-standing policy of patience, restraint, and dispute resolution through bi-lateral negotiations is never mentioned.

What to do about foreign media schadenfreude toward China? It is too serious, malevolent, and potentially harmful a problem to ignore.

The most important counter-measure is to shine a light on this vile attitude, to sharpen readers’ and listeners’ perception of its presence. The second is to call out and condemn instances (and their authors) that are clearly malevolent in intent or effect.

The third is to join with and to support, through loyalty and goodwill, the efforts of persons in China and the United States, within and without government, working to further peace, harmony, mutual respect between our countries, and better lives for both our citizens.

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