The Declining Market for Demonization

(Global Times via ChineseNewsNet)  Demonization is gradually losing its market: How will the western media write about China?  By Niu Yuchen (牛雨辰) and Li Yongqun (李永群).  June 30, 2006.

(in translation)

As more and more western reporters are sent to Beijing, their reports about China are becoming and more expansive and detailed.  There is an objective China in the world -- it is developing, it is becoming wealthier and it is improving its relationships with its neighbors.  There is another China that the rest of the world imagines, and that image is more complicated.  How this image is formed depends upon our actions, but also to a large degree on how the western media corporations narrate the transformation of this giant from the east.

For a long time, due the misunderstanding of China, political prejudices and the infiltration of national interests, China has been on the receiving end of sharp criticisms and sarcasms during its period of greatest development.  Many Chinese intellectuals who understand western media are very disappointed about the prejudice and obstinacy on the China issue, and they wonder how the western public can be made to understand the real China.  More recently, the situation seems to have undergone a subtle change.

At an international public relations conference held in China in late June, Chinese State Council Information Office deputy director Wang Gueqing published a set of numbers that reflected this subtle change.  A study of the Chinese national image in international communications media covered the reports by the New York Times, Washington Post and USA TODAY about China during 2005.  Wang Guoqing said that one can deduced the position of western mainstream media with respect to China from the data.

According to the State Council Information Office, the three American mainstream media carried 243 reports concerning the image of China.  The positions can be summarized as follows:

- economic image: rapid growth, good prospects, actively involved in international economic exchange;
- political image: important role in international affairs, but lousy in human rights and democracy;
- social image: allure of traditional culture, but public health and environmental conditions are bad;
- government image: mostly neutral or negative;
- corporate image: corporate images are not crisp and clear.

Professor Zhou Qingan of the Qinghua University Journalism and Communications School International Communications Research Center told this reporter that they have also conduced a similar research study of international media reporting.  They selected the New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal for 1995, 2000 and 2005 for their reports about China, and they drew some conclusions about how the western mainstream media have changed in their reporting about China.

They believe that it is more accurate to classify western media about China into 'objective,' 'balanced' and 'biased' as opposed to the over-simplification of 'positive,' 'negative' and 'neutral.'  "Balanced' reports covers both sides of the story, in which the official and non-official voices are both heard; 'objective' reports are purely factual reporting; 'biased' reports refer to those reports that distort or demonize China.

Zhou Qingan said that there has been an important change in the emphasis of western media reporting about China: economic topics have increased greatly, social and cultural reports have also increased while purely political reports have decreased significantly.  Using economic reports for illustration, the three listed newspapers have 20% more reporting in 2005 than 1995, or basically 1/3 of all reporting on China now.

Our reporters around the world examined a cross-section on June 26th and 27th and looked up the reports about China by a number of western newspapers.  On these two days, there were all types of reports about China.  Overall, there is still a big gap between their picture and the situation as the Chinese people know it.  So many American media covered the proposed news administration rule and attacked China for "oppressing the news media"; in page A3 of the New York Times, there were reports on China, but the report about the Hunan floods stood out; the Christian Science Monitor had a report about "civil rights warriors."

But there were others that were more objective, such as The Wall Street Journal reporting on the Chinese government's reorganization of the improper activities of the rural banks as well as its support of expanding insurance business and capital financing.  The UK Financial Times reported on June 27th about how the United States intend to tighten its control on high technology exports to China and they also reported on the illegal activities of the rural banks.  The German Die Welt Am Sonntag reported on the Confucius Institutes.  The Austrian Wiener Journal reported about the image issue with how the Chinese choose their clothes.  The Japanese media always have a lot of coverage of China, and the focus over these past two days were (1) about the impact of Koizumi's visit to the Yakusuni shrine on the Sino-Japanese relationship and (2) whether Koizuimi's American trip is meant to pin down China.  India's Hindu Times and Financial Express had headline reports about Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's speech on Sino-Indian relationship and also about the Chinese markets on steel/iron and stock equities.

Some experts believe that foreign media about China are usually restricted to the following "memes": (1) the "Chinese threat" meme; (2) the "Chinese collapse" meme; (3) the "Chinese development" meme; (4) the "Chinese demon" meme.  Presently, the "Chinese collapse" and "Chinese demon" memes are losing their market, and the "Chinese development" meme is growing.

The current affairs reporter Anderson of International Herald Tribune (New York Times) was interviewed by our reporter and he said that there are more and more reports in the American mainstream media about China.  In terms of content, they tend to deal with the conditions of the grassroots in Chinese society and the major social issues and trends.  His personal sense is that these media are becoming "more objective" in citing their materials.

Another anonymous international news editors of an American mainstream media organization said that with the rapid development of China and the shared strategic needs for Sino-American cooperation in the international war against terrorism, there is more attention being paid to social, economic, legal, scientific, educational and health issues in China, especially the suddenly breaking incidents.  Thus, the media are being required to report on the true conditions in China.  But he also admits that both reporters and editors will always be influenced by their own domestic conditions and political climate.

Our newspaper reporters interviewed several American mainstream reporters posted in Beijing.  They all spoke about how American media are paying more and more attention to China and their coverage of China have expanded.  At the same time, it is important to note that the foreign media have more stories about China, their case studies are more concrete and their interviews are more detailed.

An editor for the international news section for an American media organization said that there are two reasons why western media have changed their coverage of China: first, the overall power of China and the stable development of Sino-American relationship meant that American media must respect the influence of China and report on the active reasons for that relationship.  For example, the Washington Post unexpectedly featured the Chinese cultural festival in Washington DC last year on the front page.  Second, the newspapers now have a deeper understanding of China.  With the China fad, the newspapers have increased their efforts and professionalism on covering China.  At the present, this newspaper has expanded and reformed to the point where they have dozens of reporters and editors working on China.  Most of them have studied the Chinese language, visited China, are familiar with Chinese affairs and are more steady and objective in handling the reporting.

Anderson believes that, on one hand, China is getting to be more important day by day and, on the other hand, the Chinese government is becoming more open and self-assured.  Presently, the foreign media have more opportunity to come into contact with the Chinese inland.  They can not only see the prosperous aspects of China but also the impoverished parts of the country.  Thus, they can get a deeper understanding as to why the Chinese government seeks the policy of "stability and development."

Some Chinese experts believe that globalization and the rapid development of China is making China and the west become more dependent upon each other.  The western countries adjusted their strategic assessments of China and the definition of their relationship to China.  From the national interests of these western countries, the simplified and ideologically based demonization are obviously quite silly.  Zhou Qingan added that the public is learning more and more about China, and media reports about China can no longer be based upon irresponsible talk.

Of course, inaccurate and biased reports about China continue to assume a significant proportion within western media reports.  Zhou Qingan said that this position cannot be completely turned around.  Due to the ideological positions and the vast differences in political systems, the western media and the majority of their audience have some firm assumptions about China.  Even though the use of terms such as "Red China" are less frequent in reports about China, there are more and more talks about the "Chinese threat" with respect to China's development.  The Washington Post editor admits that American media including the mainstream media continue to hold misunderstandings about China.  Many American reporters are still motivated to chase after crises and they only worry that there is no chaos under the heavens.  Some individuals will therefore create sensationalistic effects, and so their reports on China will sometimes be partial.

American PR company Ketchum's CEO Ray Kotcher told reporters that China's actual image is vastly different from image that the outside world is getting.  Research shows that 80% of the major global media are concentrated in just a few western mainstream media.  Thus, the international image of China depends largely on the western mainstream media.  Traditionally, China has relatively few dealings with western media and lacks experience.  Many local and departmental leaders in China do not have specialized consultants on media and public image.

Kotcher suggested that China can do what Russia is going to do at the eight-country summit by hiring western public relations companies to deal with the western media.  The various senior Chinese officials can maintain communication with western media, elevate the positive exposures, articulate the voice of China on the detailed agenda early and continuously and let the western audience understand the Chinese viewpoints and positions.

He believes that China can also understand in detail just which people can influence the western public's attitudes towards China . He said that research has shown that in the United States, there are only a few hundred opinion leaders.  Through completely legal communications and methods, China can change their attitudes or weaken their influence.