What newspapers and people say about China
What newspapers and people say about China
News discourse and framing through social media
Zhen Troy Chen
News discourse plays an important role in shaping the image of a country. In a social media age, news comes from and goes to different platforms and terminals such as, websites, applications, tablets and more immersive and ambient news equipped with augmented/virtual reality technologies. Are the sources of news still relevant in shaping a “national image” when cosmopolitism and globalization are being celebrated, or rather, being performed as desirable on social media? The answer is positive and almost self-evident: “National image is the product of a complex historical process” (Peng, 2004, p. 53), influenced by many factors, such as diplomatic relations, changes in the domestic and international political and economic spheres, and symbolic representation in the mass media. Amid these complex factors, official news outlets play a significant role in portraying the national image of a particular country, and in constructing public conception of “us” and “them” (Hall, 1992). Recent research has also confirmed that the stance of official media is largely in line with national policy especially foreign policy, even in democratic countries (Bennett, 2016).
China, as a “geographically distant and culturally pagan” country (Martínez-Robles, 2008), has long been deemed different from the West. As a conceptually tricky term, “the West” is a constructed discourse and identity that is extended from its geographical register to the cultural, ideological and ontological (sometimes essentialist) underpinnings. This chapter also uses such a dichotomy of East and West, which does not aim to continue such a conceptual or cognitive bias but to present data available from Chinese and English sources for a critical assessment. Since most tech giants and social media platforms are from the West, the news, associated events, and figures in this chapter have a close focus on the Sino–US relationship, which “carries with it paramount implications for international order and stability” (Chen & Garcia, 2016, p. 79). However, this chapter does not limit analysis to the Sino–US relationship but extends its focus on portrayals of China in a wider Sino–western context, given the fact that discourse on de- and post-Americanization is on the increase (Thussu, de Burgh, & Shi, 2018). The news from Chinese sources will also be used to form a comparative assessment on the report of China’s 70th Anniversary. In the following sections, I will first contextualize this project in relevant literature, introduce how data were collected, and present my relevant findings, followed by a conclusion.
Encounters with and representation of China across history
Amid diversified and interdisciplinary literature with regards to portrayal of China in western media, China studies and sinology have a lot to offer. Influenced by post-colonial and subaltern studies, portrayal of China or sinology more broadly faces a challenge from the “historical paradigm” where historiography is critically examined to make clear whose history, written by whom for whom and to what effect (see more in Martínez-Robles, 2008). Therefore, it seems the representation of China has to always be contextualized in a specific historical background, in a specific culture, by and for a particular audience. This is somewhat problematic in the sense that authorship comes at play when national identities are becoming salient in an ever (de-)globalized world and academia. To invoke Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, it is best to leave the authorship out for the time being, in order to dive deep into the critical assessment of news discourses based on clearly documented methods and sources. This project starts with a premise to let the news speak for themselves.
To set the potential bias aside, portrayal of China in the western media has a long history even though the producers and/or audience might be within quite a small and closed circle – as ordinary American citizens tend to not be interested in news that is not related to the US (Pew Research Centre cited in Wang & Hallquist, 2011) while it is the elites who produce flagship programs that depicts foreign countries or cultures (Wang & Hallquist, 2011). Sinologist and historian Johnathon Spence might disagree and would argue that the interest and fascination with China in the West has been phenomenal (1998). According to Martínez-Robles (2008), China’s encounters with the West has a history of more than eight centuries, contributed by both Sinophilia and Sinophobia. It started from trade and religious missionaries when first encounters were made and recorded by the Europeans. Early contact between China and Europe began with the accounts of William of Rubruck and Marco Polo, who visited the Chinese region in the late Yuan Dynasty (Wood, 1996). The scale and exotic luxuries of China fired the imagination of early Sinophiles who admired China’s social hierarchy, stability and its reliance on a set of pre-modern values that had a lot in common with the then reformers and cultural elites in the West. China was used as a symbolic device, an imagined ideal model, to boost and advance reform within these religious regimes. Following the fall of the Yuan, China’s expansive territory shrank under the Ming Dynasty and, combined with various other factors in Europe, led to a gap in contact between the two regions (Spence, 1998).
The re-establishment of contact in the late sixteenth century through the Spanish and Portuguese naval expansion had brought exchanges of knowledge between China and Europe, mainly through the work of the Catholic missionaries (Wood, 2009). This knowledge exchange gave rise to a fascination in Europe with the philosophy, art, literature, politics and science of China. Yet Europe was developing and also changing rapidly through the advance of the Enlightenment and, later, through both the political and industrial revolutions. Religion had also changed dramatically, especially in western Europe, with the new protestant powers of Holland and Great Britain beginning to challenge the dominant Catholic powers of Spain and Portugal, and to exert their dominance through greater control of the seas and, consequently, of trade (Spence, 1998).
These geopolitical jolts in Europe were also keenly felt in shifting attitudes towards China, with a general consensus amongst historians that the mid-eighteenth century witnessed a transformation that would have significant consequences for China and Asia in the centuries to follow (Spence, 1998). During these historical periods, Chinese culture and goods were well received and even highly desired by the West, such as porcelain and ceramics as the “white gold” (Z. T. Chen, 2018b). Orientalism also emerged from such fascination and admiration of China but quickly turned into a pretext for colonization and imperial conquest. Such orientalist presentations of China serve as prologue for conquest in the sense that they are “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1978, p. 3). The positive associations of China’s Philosopher King quickly vanished and were replaced by brutal despotism to prepare justification for the dismemberment of the imperial Qing (Ji, 2017). Martínez-Robles (2008) did an excellent historical review of the culturalist, racist, and imperialist approaches and discourses used by the West when depicting China. It is safe to say that the image of China before the foundation of the PRC has been one-dimensional within the binary opposition to the image of the West, which is backward, pagan (non-Christian), weak, feminine, mysterious, dangerous and unchanging, if not, unable to change.
Recent portrayals of the new China and news framing
Fast forward to contemporary China (after 1949), recent research on news mediating China also confirmed the stereotypical portrayal of China. In order to study specific portrayals and the strategy and approach employed, news framing needs some explanation, which has developed as one of many key themes of journalism studies (Kuang & Wei, 2018). It is a cognitive structure or mental schema that helps people understand socially constructed reality (see review and application in Kuang & Wang, 2020; N. X. Liu, 2017). It is achieved by prioritizing salience when selected aspects of news are presented to audience, in order to distinguish an object or its attributes from one another. Therefore, “citizens learn to construe and evaluate an issue by focusing on certain “frames” – i.e. certain features and implications of the issue – rather than others” (Chong & Druckman, 2007). It is worth pointing out that frame, both generic and (issue-) specific, does not necessarily present an objective aspect of attribute, rather it is a representation of perceived reality. As an early scholar who defined the concept, Entman (1993) regards framing as a process to “select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient[ly] noticeable, meaningful or memorable to audiences” (pp. 52–53). In short, framing is the central organizing idea in meaning construction and has been widely used in news analysis.
At the outset, recent portrayals of China in western news contain a number of repetitive frames that are fundamentally ethnocentric. Such media bias has been widely criticized in mainstream media and academia (Willnat & Luo, 2011). While the culturalist and orientalist discourses1 on an old China were used when the Jesuits aimed to convert China, the new China falls into several different typologies. According to Peng (2004), the Red China (1949–1979), the Green China (1979–1989), the Dark China (1989–1992), the Grey China (1992–Present) fuelled the imagination of western audiences by leading western media. Such typology coincides with the transformation of China from the communist and Maoist China, to the post-socialist China after the opening up and reform taken place from 1980 onwards. Prominent frames used were political, ideological, moral/cultural and economic frames, while human interest frame is lacking. Rather, human interest related stories were overtly political, which connects to human rights issues.
From late 1990s to early 2000s, economics and trade became the dominant frame used by American media (Page & Bouton, 2006). Page and Xie (2010) demonstrated that Americans see the benefits of China that provides cheap imports, however, not as a fair player in trade. For military coverage, a slim majority of Americans think it is necessary to take a firm stance towards and contain Chinese military power (Page & Bouton, 2006). However, only a minority would like to see the US mobilize forces against China’s magnificent military base if force was used against Taiwan (Page & Xin, 2010). Even academic papers in the West would use “contain” “control” and “the Chinese regime” when such issues are discussed. However, British media is less politically charged as its American counterparts, with some limited exceptions such as Hong Kong and Tibet (Scotto & Reifler, 2017; Willnat & Luo, 2011). Sparks (2010) also contends that the social composition of a paper’s readership plays a crucial role in shaping the sharp differences, leaning towards a reception rather than production approach.
Extending the image of a grey and uncertain China, 70 years of prosperous development despite some social problems that are commonly shared among even developed countries, the Chinese government seems to still lack legitimacy in the West to some extent. The intention to “control and contain” China, for the most part, appears to be stimulated by a fear that the transforming China may go back to the Red China. However, if looking closely at the national and official discourses of both countries, “making America great again” in the US sounds exactly the same as “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in China. Following the culturalist otherization of China in an attempt to convert the pagan China to Christianity (see more in Ji, 2017), whereas China was once regarded as having the potential to be “like us” (the West), the West now views China’s rise and rejuvenation as threatening even when China takes a self-orientalist approach in making its national discourse for better development and integrating more with the world/US. Such discourses are manifest in national strategies, such as to build a harmonious world of lasting peace and common prosperity (推动建设持久和平、共同繁荣的和谐世界) based on multiculturalism or cultural pluralism in the Hu-Wen Administration (People.com, 2005), and to build a new international relationship and a “community with a shared future for mankind” (人类命运共同体) under Xi Jinping’s leadership (Xi, 2016). Cao (2007) argued that the culturalist bias toward China will resurface as China is tolerating, if not prompting, Chinese pragmatic nationalism, which “underpins an accommodationist foreign policy, contextualized within the ruling Communist Party’s comprehensive revamping of itself on a new culturalist basis (neo-Confucianism)” (pp. 431–432).
At a parallel level, researchers taking a comparative approach have found evident differences on news framing of (political) events and issues in Chinese and US media, sometimes involving a third country in comparison such as South Korea (Kobland, Du, & Kwon, 1992) and Vietnam (Huang & Leung, 2005). However, such differences are consistent with stereotypical images of China in the past (see Table 5.1 for details). These include United Nations Conference on Women and the NGO Forum (Akhavan-Majid & Ramaprasad, 1998), the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia by the US military (Parsons & Xu, 2001), and North Korea’s nuclear test (Dai & Hyun, 2010). Similarly, comparative studies have demonstrated evident differences in Chinese and US news framing of public health issues such as SARS (Tian & Stewart, 2005) and HIV/AIDS (M. Wu, 2006).
Table 5.1 A review of salient frames used in portrayals of China Issue/events
UN Conference on Women and NGO
Pro-global feminist movement
Akhavan-Majid & Ramaprasad, 1998
US military bombing Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia
Genuine apology not given
US media bombs
Apology not accepted
Parsons & Xu, 2001, p. 63
North Korea’s nuclear test
Threat and geopolitics
National interest frame (globalizing vs. domesticating)
Threat and geopolitics
War on Terror (US)
Cold war frame (Korean media) National interest frame (globalizing vs. domesticating)
Dai & Hyun, 2010
SARS – China vs Vietnam
Vietnam praised for its open communication and cooperation with WHO
No anti-communist frame
China blamed for trying to cover up the epidemic at early stage
Huang & Leung, 2005
SARS across media
Leadership frame: defend leaders who try to prevent negative economic consequences
Conflict frame: highlight negative economic consequences; blame Chinese leaders
Luther & Zhou, 2004
Student protests South Korea vs China
Korean government’s actions against the demonstrators as an understandable response to the threat of a “rebellious insurrection”
Anti-communist media frames and bias against China – China’s response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests was framed as cruel and repressive actions against demonstrators with legitimate goals
Kobland et al., 1992
Positive: “open attitude” and “concrete actions” by Xinhua
“dishonest” and “oppressive” government by AP
M. Wu, 2006
Foreign TV News
Central focus: human rights, political containment and economic trade
A stable and safe place to live
Good for international business rather than as a threat
Willnat & Luo, 2011
Little political news, among which the BBC most critical on Taiwan and Tibet
Belt and Road Initiative
Peace-loving nation, an international co-operator, and an emerging global economic and responsible power
Mixed and conflicting – global economy impact, authoritarian state, militant and obstructive force, and a geopolitical threat
L. Zhang & Wu, 2018
To reiterate the “China threat” discourse in Peng (2004), I find amazing but not entirely surprising intertextualities between Chinese and western scholars’ assessment of the future of China and its relationship with the world (see review in K. Liu & Chu, 2015; Yang & Liu, 2012). Following China’s ascent in the new millennium, western audiences are also expecting a tough stance their countries will take towards China (Scotto & Reifler, 2017), on top of the usual focus on “dysfunctional social events and activities of political leaders” (Willnat & Luo, 2011, p. 257). Despite the fact that some researchers presented mixed evaluations in terms of how ordinary citizens view the rising China in English-speaking social media (Xiang, 2013), it is still predictable that China’s image will continue to evolve along the stereotypical line. It is already evident that the frames used in covering SARS and the recent COVID-19 are almost reproductive. Even though the findings of the analyses show a more neutral and diverse China in international English-language social media with regards to economy, culture and technology than that in mainstream media, the “Fascinating China” and “Innovative China” depicted by international social media also uncritically reproduces stereotyped Chinese social, political, religious and ethnic images derived from and continuously produced by western mainstream media (Scotto & Reifler, 2017).
In addressing what shapes such portrayals from a public relations perspective, X. Wang and Shoemaker (2011) argue over the past 30 years, US media’s coverage of China has strong correlation with China’s political freedom, political and economic development ties and public relations efforts commissioned via American companies. This is problematic in the sense that while political freedom is hard to measure and thus has a heavy reliance on media portrayals, the article seems to suggest that buying positive exposure or cultivate “long-term” positive commitment appears to be a possible way to go (p. 16), even though this is only indicated in its findings. While Wang and Shoemaker (2011) suggest that the political system of China, especially political freedom plays, an important role in shaping China’s image in American public opinions, Xie and Page (2013) suggest otherwise. By examining 35 countries’ views on the image of China, they refuted the common wisdom and received opinions on this issue. The authors find no significant measurable impact in terms of the extent of strategic ties between China and a given country; the political system of that country; the extent of Chinese investment in the country; and the number of Confucius institutes and classrooms in that country, despite such well-tested projects in China’s public diplomacy literature (Thussu et al., 2018). The only macro-level factor they find to affect China’s image in a country is that country’s level of economic and social development. When other factors are controlled, publics from poor or developing countries are much more likely to have a favourable image of China than that in economically advanced countries (Xie & Page, 2013, p. 850). On top of news reports, portrayal of other genres, such as films, novels, fashion and design, comics and American comedy are also found to reproduce an orientalist image of China (Greene, 2014; Porter, 1999), further contributing to the stereotype that “China being mysterious, authoritarian and posing as a serious threat” (Wang & Hallquist, p. 232).
Data collection for news discourse comparison
As discussed in the previous section, literature using comparative and/or historical approaches often focused on influential and legacy media outlets such as China Daily, Peoples’ Daily, Xinhua News Agency, Associated Press, Financial Times, New York Times (Feng, Brewer, & Ley, 2012; Liss, 2003; Parsons & Xu, 2001; Yang & Liu, 2012; L. Zhang & Wu, 2018; W. Zhang, 2018) and more recently on online and social media (X. Chen & Garcia, 2016; Tian & Stewart, 2005; Xiang, 2013). However, this chapter is event-oriented thus thematic. Therefore, I collected news and discussions from different sources across mainstream and social media. Both English and Chinese sources were included. The research design is underpinned by the rise of citizen journalism and social media as a new way to engage with a young, tech savvy and culturally aware generation, both in the West and China (Z. T. Chen, 2018a). The online or digital outlets of Xinhua News Agency, Global Times, People’s Daily, CGTN, and their western counterparts the New York Times, Washington Post, the BBC, and CNN, among other Wemedia platforms were selected given their national and international influence and their diversified ownership, partisanship and readership (Thussu, de Burgh, & Shi, 2018). Relevant twitter feeds on this event were collected and analysed to provide a twofold comparison, namely East vs West and traditional media vs social media.
As for social media, I used Twitter data for international mediation of China’s 70th Anniversary given the fact that Twitter is an influential social media platform for news mediation and discussion and the methodology developed for data analysis is relatively sophisticated (Bruns & Burgess, 2012). I used the open application programming interface (API) supported by Twitter, i.e. tweepy, to search for relevant keywords and hashtags, namely #China70. However, this API only supports search results within the past seven days. Therefore, I used Python to get data from Twitter web API. The time range for data collection was from 1 January 2019 to 1 April 2020. In total, it generated 2,525 results.
As for legacy news media, I tried different databases to collect relevant news articles, which include Duxiu (读秀), EBSCOhost, CaixinGlobal, WiserSearch and Google News. For Chinese media, Duxiu’s News Database is the main source. “70th Anniversary” (七十周年) were used as the sole keyword to find relevant news reports in 2019. The database returned with 44,123 results within 0.004 seconds. The top sources are state-owned and partisan papers such as People’s Daily, Guangming Daily and other 36 provincial and municipal dailies.
As for news in English, I primarily relied on the database of WiseSearch. Using keywords such as, “China 70th Anniversary”, “birthday”, “celebrates”, “70th”, and “anniversary”, I was able to find 11,064 news articles in both English (88.27%) and Chinese (10.87% simplified Chinese; 0.86% in traditional Chinese). The news about the 70th Anniversary peaked around 1 October (see Figure 5.1). A small portion of the news are associated with negative keywords, while the majority are associated with non-negative keywords (632: 30,872, see Figure 5.2).
Figure 5.1Articles volume across time
Figure 5.2Articles with negative keywords
Top media outlets are Xinhua News Agency, South China Morning Post, China Daily Global, Asia Times, Global Times, People’s Daily, China.org.cn, China Daily in Print, WeChat and Bloomberg, a mixture of both legacy media and social media. As can be seen from the sentiment analysis provided by Wiser (Figure 5.3), it seems that the coverage of China’s 70th Anniversary are largely positive given the fact that sources from China are normally partisan papers or state news agencies. This also demonstrates that Chinese public diplomacy initiatives, such as “telling Chinese stories into good effect” are on the increase.
Figure 5.3Top media and their distribution destinations
Through an initial open coding of the news articles, the public diplomacy endeavours by Chinese domestic media are evident. The English news with overseas distribution clearly are targeting an international audience based in and beyond (mainland) China. That is why news in English did address issues and topics that are traditionally deemed “sensitive”. However, sensitive topics are discussed with the baseline clarified from the government’s perspective. Therefore, such news from Chinese mainstream media appear unanimous and trans-printed, a common practice in Chinese journalism. As compared to the coverage of #China70 in the Chinese sources, the unanimous positive coverage seems to have been hijacked by the coverage of the Hong Kong incident, which later became riots and vandalism. Notable examples listed in Table 5.2 will be examined in comparison with the Chinese sources in the data analysis section.
Table 5.2 Themes and frame emerging from the coverage of #China70 Topics
Associated keywords and/or themes
Senior military official stresses China’s adherence to peace, justice
China’s central banker says yuan level “appropriate”, trade tensions risk to global economy
China bashing; China threat
Prejudice, arrogance toward China harms world
China Daily; CGTN
Navy escort; Indo-Pak tension mediation
Bilateral ties or international (business) relations
Russia, Mongolia, ROK, BRI initiative, Sino-Africa; Vietnam, India, UN, North Korea/DPRK, Portugal (Macao’s One Country Two systems), China–UAE, China–US–Russia Triangle, Indonesia, Finland, Brussels, Romania, Toronto, Singapore, Japan, Bulgaria, Asian Development Bank (ADB), Burma, Philippines, NATO–China
Trump, China threat
The Washington Post
In China, library officials burn books that diverge from Communist Party ideology
Looking through prism: one China and its many faces
In the following section, I will provide a more detailed and qualitative analysis of western news from major international outlets, which fall into the stereotypical, if not perpetually so, portrayal of China with regards to its 70th Anniversary. However, before that, themes and frames that emerged from the domestic Chinese sources are worth exploring.
From the database of Duxiu, 44,301 pieces of news were found within the year 2019. Domestic news in Chinese is predominately positive and festive in tone, and covered anniversary campaigns, celebrations, gatherings and poetry among other festive events. These include different stakeholders such as government bodies, the army, judicial system and also ordinary citizen’s contributions to local newspapers. Notable events are flag-raising ceremonies, constitution law publicity campaigns, celebration galas and also city-level historical review of the liberation and founding of the People’s Republic of China 70 years ago. This year’s celebration also coincided with NATO’s 70th Anniversary, where comparison was drawn between celebrations organized by two different entities. Among this abundant news, only 4,272 (9.6%) were about the military parade in Chang’an Avenue in Beijing.
As for sensitive issues on the three Ts (now four) identified in the Twitter feeds, namely, Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen Square and Trump, domestic news also gave considerable coverage of these topics as indicated in the Duxiu database. Crosschecked with the term “70th Anniversary”, “Hong Kong”, “Taiwan”, “Macau”, “Tibet”, “Xinjiang” and “Tiananmen Square” all returned considerable results.
In total, 286 new articles concentrated on Taiwan’s liberation (台湾光复) from Japan 70 years ago and relevant exhibitions were on display with ordinary citizens’ testimony to call for peaceful unification back in 2015. Some also covered such anti-imperialist events organized by “Taiwan authorities” (台湾当局) and the subtitle “urged the Japanese government to be reflective on history”. In addition to the “unifying and inclusive frame”, there was also the leadership frame where the speeches of important Party and government leaders were either summarized or print verbatim. For example, the speeches from Yu Zhengsheng, the committee member of the political bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the president of the Chinese people’s political consultative conference, and Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for Taiwan Affairs in The State Council, where the 1992 consensus, the political base of the opposition to “Taiwan independence”, “identity mainland and Taiwan belong to One China” were emphasized. However, in 2019, only two news articles were found based on keyword search, which were contributed by Shenzhen Daily and Xiamen Daily where celebration and exhibition were reported.
In total, 250 articles were about Hong Kong. Compared to the coverage of Taiwan, Hong Kong’s coverage were more diversified, ranging from celebrations, performances, tourism, food, business organizations and chamber of commerce, anniversary stamp circulation, etc. The Hong Kong demonstrations and their later escalation into riots were not mentioned in the news titles; however, vandalism was condemned via quotation from local Hong Kong elites such as business leaders and academics. The original news was from Xinhua Agency and got trans-printed by many dailies across the country.
A total of 126, 341 and 214 articles reported how Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang celebrated the 70th Anniversary in a similar light. The keyword Tiananmen Square featured in 439 pieces, which were largely about celebration and parade. The primary frames used were leadership frame, human interest frames, such as stories of and testimonies from ordinary citizens, flag-raising ceremonies and arts projects such as paper cutting. Six articles associated with 70th Anniversary and Trump merely directed to NATO, instead of China. Trump’s Twitter congratulations were left unengaged by domestic newspapers. The amount of coverage about regional and international stakeholders was surprisingly small, targeting primarily a domestic audience. Among the small amount of coverage of correspondence between heads of state, Reuters (translated back into Chinese) reported the video congratulations from Shizo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan; however, no discussion was triggered by this on Twitter as that of Trump. This will be in turn discussed in the next section.
Repeating themes, different frames
As for news in English, one important theme is with the US, and in particular, its head of state, Donald Trump. Within the data collected with a cross-search between “China 70” and “Trump”, many pieces focused on Trump’s tweets congratulating “Xi and Chinese people” for the achievement made in the past 70 years amid the demonstration and riots in Hong Kong. Trump as an unusual figure has attracted considerable media and academic attention (Boczkowski & Papacharissi, 2018). Google Trend has shown that the keyword US peaked during the 2016 presidential campaign (top five related queries), while the search of China is relatively stable from 2004 to 2020 (Figure 5.4). The peaks have to do with Trump (“China+Trump” as related queries) since September 2015 onwards when the trade war was kicked off. The only recent and significant peak of China-related search is coronavirus (based on Google Trend search, 2020). The breakdown by regions showing interest for the US is Japan, Russia, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, while China did not make the top list. This may be due to the fact that the majority of Chinese citizens read news about the US in Chinese. On the contrary, the interests in China is mostly from the domestic regions (Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai) and Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. One possible reason for Chinese to search for news about China in Google might be because Google is not available in mainland China and some Chinese elites in metropolitan cities wanted to stay informed through reading news from different sources and perspectives.
Figure 5.4China and US in Google trend: 2004–2020
Conflict frame and China threat: your glory, my threat
With this background in mind, let’s compare similar themes with very different frames that emerged in western media’s coverage of #China70. The Washington Post, Dailymail.co.uk, Newsweek, the BBC, USA Today, all used political, ideological, leadership and conflict frames in reporting Trump’s message to China on Twitter, with substantial, if not entire, reports about Hong Kong. Lexical choices are very obvious on this front, such as “dictatorship”, “authoritarian rule”, “tighten control”, “iron grip”, “non-toleration of political expression”, “crackdown on free speech and political dissent demonstrations”. This is all discussed in connection with the “China threat” theorem. While Trump was ridiculed as usual and scorned for his inappropriate “tone deaf” message, Daily Mail framed a calculative Trump who made a choice to have “refrained from criticizing on human rights issues” vs “negotiating a bilateral trade deal” with China.
Some accusations or criticisms of China were made via quotations, thus indirect. On one occasion, “brutality against the Chinese people” was used so as to frame the Hong Kong issue as a domestic one. Human rights were modified by “God-given” (at least two western pieces), which also directs to the “pagan” cultural roots of Chinese society that is non-Christian. On another occasion, the central focus was on the “odd” Trump for him siding with or cheerleading (where such lexical choice was especially favoured in social media) the “deadliest regime”, combining the leadership and conflict frames.
At this stage, the anti-communist frame is the most salient where organizational entities such Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VCMF) were mentioned with “communist rule” in the titles or leads. In addition, “killing and expending its power” and “iron grip is strangling the people of HK” are used to publicly condemn sometimes the CCP, while other times, the Chinese government and the Hong Kong police are used. Therefore, the entity who is responsible for the issue was very vague and lacking details. Some pieces defended Trump as “rational” since the “hard-line politics towards China” is in line with the “eleva[tion] of China to a strategic competitor in the US National Security Strategy”.
When it comes to China’s military firepower, the frame of “Cold War-style nuclear might” was stressed. Associations made within the leadership frame are with North Korea, with Kim, while in other pieces with Mao. In Daily Mail’s exceptionally lengthy piece, text, images and videos were used to cover the “military might” (“to hit anywhere within the US territory in 30 minutes” repeated three times in this single piece). In addition, the gun shot incident was reported with significant details, which is different from other coverage from western media. Compared to its other British and western counterparts, Daily Mail’s piece specifically reported in both text and slow-motion video that the “anti-government” “‘rioter’ beat the officer with a baton” before being shot in the chest “at close range”.
By comparison, Hong Kong was not the main focus of the BBC prior to 1 October but the BBC did predict that Hong Kong will “pull the focus” during the day. Tiananmen Square was only connected to travel chaos and rebookings, while it was used as a symbol for festive celebration and pride in Chinese media. Again, lexical choices are “tight control”, “lockdown”, “tightly watched”, “inspection”, “censorship” and “totalitarianism”. This depiction is “typical” in British media as indicated by Scotto and Reifler (2017, pp. 269–270), where they observed that compared to American media “the British public’s attitudes toward China rarely appear as a topic of conversation in media or academic journals” with one exception – Hong Kong, as one of its former colonies.
As a matter of fact, the attitude towards China in western media has been well documented in literature. In terms of media presentation and portrayals, sinologist and also historian Spence has used the analogy of “sighting” when China was first explored by westerners, by the people from afar who came from the sea. It is like looking at China from a distance using a telescope where different sightings and range were used (Spence, 1998). Film scholar Naomi Greene also observed that Hollywood films were never consistent with the image of China throughout history. She drew an analogy of a pendulum where the attitude towards China moves between two different poles. For Greene, this was largely due to the historical context, particularly the bilateral relationship between two countries, in particular, China and the USA.
It is strategic and calculative in nature especially when such images and representations of China can yield beneficial results in domestic politics in the West and vice versa. When the prospect of international relations is not entirely clear for the countries involved, international public opinions tend to swing between “China Threat” and “China Opportunity” (Pavlićević, 2018). Therefore, it is understandable to see the one-sided news depiction or “fixed sighting” of China amid the US–China trade war. In addition, the one-sided China is well-rounded in a variety of aspects, situated in one of the most problematic moments in a particular historical juncture. The 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was marked on 1 October 2019. It is also a grand celebration (every five years) in terms of the military parade on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue. For western media, the problematic aspects of China have been put together coinciding with the Hong Kong issue developing as early as April when the expedition bill was promulgated and later withdrawn by the local SAR government.
Twitter: a neglected conflict zone
Twitter as a social media platform offers a slightly different picture in terms of the image of China. According to Bruns and Burgess (2012), hashtags work as a low hanging fruit for researchers to query and collect data. There is a hidden premise that hashtag or keyword search tend to generate the most relevant data. However, this is not always the case. This techno-function prioritizes themes and frames and make them pre-constructed. That is, the Twitter feeds I collected have been orchestrated, performed and broadcasted for a particular audience, while daily and conversational discussions about certain topics are outside the scope, which may render itself as a significant opinion pool.
Figure 5.5Word cloud generated based on Twitter feeds: #China70
With that in mind, it is probably understandable to see a smaller sample size compared to other relevant studies, to be analysed qualitatively (Xiao & Yi, 2017). Further processed via Wordcloud.com, I generated the most salient keywords in connection with #China70 (Figure 5.5). Hashtags identified are overtly political and anti-China, anti-CCP, calling China “chinazi”. There were considerable positive comments from well-wishers, such as “happy birthday” posts, some of which were used sarcastically, trending with “#goodmourningchina”. Another salient and relevant theme is Hong Kong, as indicated in hashtags such as “FreeHK”, “HKPoliceState”, “hkpoliceterrorism”, “hkpolicebrutality” and “carrielamstepdown”. The third salient theme is Tibet, which was posted by dedicated accounts identified as “Tibetpeople” or “Hongkongers” who are likening HK to Tibet. This is also a well-documented topic mediated in American media over the years (Cao & Xu, 2015). One common feature of such posts is that they are posted by bot-like accounts, generating more than 87 posts per hour. Such accounts have little engagement with established followers (sometimes no followers) but tend to mention a number of mainstream media outlets. Based on a qualitative assessment of the Twitter feeds, it heavily relies on the conflict frame, criticizing China, the CCP and Hong Kong Police for their handlings in the Hong Kong issue. It almost turned itself into a one-sided battle ground, regenerating and redirecting the attention towards their own posts, by and large for an international audience, since Twitter is inaccessible in mainland China.
Looking into the future: a more complex and transforming China?
As the PRC turned 70, we see overtly positive coverage of China and CCP’s achievements within domestic media including their international wing, while significantly a one-sided, negative and sometimes hostile portrayal of China features in the western media. What is lacking is perhaps the many faces of China, which is evident in the coverage by more liberal and pro-market media outlets in China, such as Caixin Global. It has two detailed features about China’s economic and social transformation in the past 70 years. Overall, the reports are balanced, listing facts of both the achievements and the challenges China faces in the new historical juncture side by side. In the piece entitled “China in Charts: A 70-Year Journey to Economic Prominence”, Caixin particularly looked at the livelihood of the Chinese people and healthcare system, pointing out that “[F]rom 1978 to 2018, Chinese people’s disposable income grew 165-fold while their average medical spending surged 330-fold”. A relevant op-ed by Economist Wu Jinglian looks at the “Soul Searching on China’s 70-Year Economic Evolution”, which framed the reforms that took place in China as a transforming and becoming process. As one of the most influential pro-market economists, Wu stressed the importance of continuous marketization and rule of law began in 1978. Deepening the reforms is again called for, which referred to Xi’s 1,600 plans stipulated in the new reform era.
The reform document made clear that the core issue of economic system reform is to properly handle the relationship between government and markets and allow markets to play the decisive role in resource allocation. The statement set the key principle for China’s following reform efforts.
(J. Wu, 2019)
This is a signal targeted for business elites in and outside China and also for “the west” to reassure a constructive and peaceful environment suitable for continuous trade and business development and cooperation.
However, this complex and transforming China also fuels the problematic “self-orientalism” where teleology plays a central role. Teleology has been claimed as “western”, which views history as progressive and is bound to be become better (Martínez-Robles, 2008). It fits the humiliation education of a calamitous China through modern history when China was weak and backward and shall continuously modernize itself according to the western standard. This discourse is a double-edged sword since it is becoming unacceptable for the nationalist sentiments within China (Qiu, 2015) while fitting into the western portrayal of China, making “alternative modernities” almost impossible or intolerable for the West. However, the silver lining of such a “faithful” depiction of China according to the western standard, where China will continue developing as a developing country and opening up to the outside world, perhaps serves as a tactic to respond to the paranoia of the “China threat”, which must be further tested in news discourse and international relations in the years to come.