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The Anglophone Media Narrative on China and Sources of Bias

Feb 29, 2016

On January 11th, 2015, Kaiser Kuo answered a question from a Quora user, “Why do many people feel that Chinese can’t possibly be basically ok with their government or society?Kaiser responds in three parts, setting up his third section on Anglophone media bias by way of explaining western liberalism as an unquestioned value underlying U.S. foreign policy. “Part III: The Anglophone Media Narrative on China and Sources of Bias,” has been published below.

If you’re a denizen of the Anglophone world, your impressions of China are almost certainly formed primarily by the media that you consume. There are of course exceptions: some 100,000 Americans have, in the last five years, spent time working or studying in China; there are several thousand enrolled in East Asian Studies graduate programs, or taking serious upper-division undergraduate coursework on China, or pursuing an academic discipline that focuses on China; and there are probably a few thousand more who, for personal reasons, have taken more than a passing interest in China and have read a good number of books on contemporary China or on modern Chinese history, have undertaken the study of Chinese, or have otherwise immersed themselves in trying to gain a deeper understanding of China. Taken together, though, these people represent a small percentage of the general media-consuming audience—the college-educated American who, say, reads a paper once in a while, watches cable or network news with fair regularity, listens to NPR on her drive to work, and occasionally clicks on a China-related tweet or on a friend’s Facebook page, or her counterpart elsewhere in the Anglophone world.  All told, that’s several tens of millions of people, I’m guessing, in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

It’s worth reflecting on that, for this majority of news-consumers, impressions of China are almost entirely dependent on the reporting produced, at least regularly and in the main, by probably fewer than a hundred individuals. I’m talking about the reporters for the major newswires like Reuters, Bloomberg, Dow Jones, and AP, whose stories appear not only in the major papers and on news portals online, but also in smaller metropolitan and even local markets; the journalists who write for the major newspapers and news magazines; television news reporters; and the foreign desk editors, subeditors, and producers working with the reporters. There are also the news assistants, unsung heroes without whom many of the China-based reporters who haven’t mastered enough Chinese to read local media or documents, or conduct interviews in the native tongue of their interviewees, would be unable to do their jobs. If we include them, the number perhaps doubles but it’s still no more than 200, perhaps 250 individuals whose contributions to the gathering, reporting, writing, and editing of news and the creation of news-related commentary actually matters.

What, though, do we really know about these people? If this is the lens through which so many Americans (once again, I’ll remind folks that “American” here is really shorthand for Anglophone westerners) view China, it seems to me very sensible that we should wish to understand something about the optical properties of that lens. Does it distort? Of course it does; it could not but distort, could not but offer only a partial and selective view—this mere few score of reporters trying to present a picture of the world’s most populous nation as it hurtles ahead with unprecedented force (in the f=ma sense).

This is not an indictment. These are people who I very much respect—indeed, the very people who these days comprise most of my personal circle of friends—and they are people who have my sympathy for what they must often endure in reporting from China. It’s not an easy place to report from, especially if you’re reporting on things that the Chinese government, or someone at least, doesn’t want reported—and what else, after all, really qualifies as news reporting? They are subjected to some pretty shabby treatment, everything from the talk-to-the-hand they’ll get from government ministries, to veiled and not-so-veiled threats related to visa renewals, to roughing-up by local thugs or plainclothes cops or even uniformed ones, to surveillance and harassment. I think if there’s a source of bias with which I’d start my list, it’s this. Seems only natural that this kind of treatment of a journalist anywhere would beget less than rosy coverage of the institutions doling it out. Negative coverage begets more of that nasty treatment, and so on in a most un-virtuous circle.

Should the journalists be faulted for focusing on the things that power, whether political or corporate, wants to hide? No, I don’t think so. Rightly or wrongly—and I’m unambivalent in my personal belief that it’s “rightly”— this is what gets the journo juices flowing. Journalism is not about the quotidian.

The historian Will Durant once wrote in The Age of Faith, “We must remind ourselves again that the historian, like the journalist, is forever tempted to sacrifice the normal to the dramatic, and never quite conveys an adequate picture of any age.” I would note that while the historian can write enormously lengthy monographs in which some of that normal can be restored and that picture made more adequate, the journalist just doesn’t have that leisure, and his sacrifice of the normal is more forgivable.

And yet it has an impact on perception; it’s still a source of distortion, of bias. This failure to focus on the more “normal” is, I would assert, one of the major reasons for the disconnect at the heart of the original question: the prevalence among Americans of “Why don’t you hate your government as much as I think you ought to?”

One of the more regrettable outcomes of this particular bias in the way China is reported reflects in the (notional, educated, mainstream-media-consuming) American public’s understanding of the Chinese intellectual. Reporters tend to focus not just on critical intellectuals but on the more outspokenly critical ones, on the full-blown dissidents, on the very vocal activists, on the writers who challenge the establishment on human rights issues, on freedom of speech, on rule of law, on religious policy, on minority nationality policy and so forth. Of course they focus on these people; they’re “the dramatic,” in Durant’s phrase. They set out to excite so no wonder that many of them are exciting. They play to the American love of the underdog. They flatter American values.

It’s right, I believe, to focus on intellectuals. One could make a very serious argument that China’s history is at some important levels driven by the dynamics of the relationship between intellectuals and state power, whether dynastic or Party. Dissidents and the more stridently critical intellectuals certainly are part of that dynamic. But I would submit that it’s actually more important to understand another type of intellectual, and another mode of relations between the intellectuals and state power, between, if you will, the pen and the sword: the “loyal opposition,” who during most times—including this time—comprise the real mainstream, and who see it as their role to remonstrate and to criticize but not to fully confront. It’s these voices, a kind of “silent majority,” to use an apt phrase whatever its connotations in the American polity, who go too often ignored in our reporting. Because “Noted Chinese scholar is basically okay with the government, though he thinks it could be improved in X, Y, and Z” is not a particularly grabby headline or a compelling read.

There’s also a kind of source bias that’s related to this and it’s regrettably caught in a bit of a feedback loop, too. The general impression is that Anglophone media is pro-dissident, and so dissidents will tend to go on record with or speak at greater length with Anglophone reporters; moderate or pro-Party intellectuals will tend to decline interviews and comment, and the impression that Anglophone media is biased in favor of the dissidents gets reinforced: the narrative that they want is buttressed while the other is marginalized or weakened.

Another almost ineradicable bias in Anglophone media reporting, so prevalent that it’s almost not worth pointing out, is bias in favor of democratic polities. Authoritarian states like China tend to get reported on unfavorably because they behave like authoritarian states. They don’t allow, by definition, rival political parties to freely form. They don’t allow a free press. They censor the Internet. And of course journalists in the Anglophone world are themselves on the front lines of these speech and press issues. It’s almost tautological that the press of the free world would want to free the press of the world.

Related to this, and implicit not just in a lot of media reporting but in general American discourse on China, is the imbalanced and frankly unfair comparison between Chinese realities and American intentions or ideals. Civil unrest in China is taken as a sure sign of the fundamental fragility of authoritarianism, of broken or non-existent institutions, of fundamental systemic flaws and of an underlying illegitimacy—while faced with civil unrest in the U.S., the tendency is to draw on a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of unexamined faith in the self-corrective mechanisms inherent in American democracy. (This one was articulated nicely recently by Ada Shen, a Chinese-American friend of mine in Beijing who, like me, sees herself as something of a bridge-builder and is very well-attuned to hidden sources of bias in the American media narrative).

One that I think probably warrants debate, and which I bring up without a particularly ardent belief that it’s a big factor, is bias resulting from perceived narrative preference of the home readership—basically, that reporters or editors are shaping new news stories out of China so that they’ll slot neatly into pre-existing narratives to which readers back home have grown accustomed or attached. I think, though, that it could be argued that many readers like a story that challenges conventional wisdom just as much as one that reinforces the ideas they’ve already formed, so as I say, I’m not convinced that this is a major source of bias.

Another that’s difficult to really do much about is the lack of historical context and historical knowledge by working reporters. It’s difficult to address, I would say, because the requisite body of knowledge to provide meaningful context in the case of China is fairly daunting, and so I tend not to get too worked up over this. But what does concern me is a tendency I’ve seen in some to dismiss as “exceptionalism” or “relativism” any arguments for more nuance and context rooted in history. I would hope that everyone would acknowledge at least that history, broadly construed, has a bearing on how much and how fast a polity (say, China) can change in a given span of time. It is of course difficult to calibrate just how much or how often history can be invoked before it becomes mere essentialist nonsense (“China’s Confucian political culture precludes the possibility of democracy”) or becomes just an excuse, a philosophical crutch.

Let me rattle off a few more that aren’t by any means common to all Anglophone media outlets or their reporters but which I’ve encountered enough that they deserve mention.

There’s bias that’s based on a tendency to view China as a monolith and to see decisions taken by local leaders or decision makers as having come from Beijing, from the Politburo Standing Committee or from Xi Jinping. I see this especially in headline writing where “China Prosecutes So-and-So” turns out to be about one small city’s judiciary or mayor’s office prosecuting so-and-so; think how silly it would be if, say, a story about Harlan County, Kentucky banning the teaching of evolution were headlined “US Bans Teaching of Evolution.”

There’s a bias arising from a tendency—encountered, thankfully, only rarely—to see the current leadership as continuous with the Mao era leadership because the ruling party is still called the Chinese Communist Party, when the fact is that Deng Xiaoping’s ascent represented a repudiation of the Cultural Revolution, even if it was never made explicit. It must be said that the Party doesn’t help people get past this conflation by displaying Mao’s face so ubiquitously.

And then, there’s bias that reveals itself in the use of certain words. The word “regime,” for instance, has I believe become pejorative in its ordinary use; it connotes illegitimacy. Similarly, “Hardliners” or “Neo-Marxists” are rarely accurate descriptors and are, subconsciously or otherwise, very value-laden words.

This isn’t a complete list. I’ve left off many that probably deserve mention, but I hope the point has been made.

I’ll leave off in this section with one more, which I think is quite pervasive and does prejudice Anglophone reporting on China —and thus the way that Americans and other people in the liberal democracies of the West tend to (mis)understand China—and that is the bias inherent in the cynical assumption that the ruling Party’s (and by inclusion, its top leadership’s) one and only goal is to sustain itself in power. I’m not suggesting that reporters seriously entertain the possibility that they’ve got them all wrong, and that the Party is all about altruistic service to the people, but surely there are some who take the mission statement seriously and do dedicate themselves to public service. And, without doubt, there are some for whom motivations include nativist or nationalist ends—perhaps to critics of the Party or to the state it rules no better than self-perpetuation, but not the same thing.

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