Published: 00:38, May 27, 2021 | Updated: 11:02, May 27, 2021
PDF View
Western media coverage pushes Sinophobic story
By Richard Cullen

Do you recall seeing Western global headlines in mid-2020 saying that “The Three Gorges Dam Adeptly Handles Super-Flood”? No — neither do I. And I have looked. What I did find, however, were many sky-may-be-falling headlines contemplating the Three Gorges Dam failing in some catastrophic fashion, as the Yangtze floodwaters were still rising. Cracks were allegedly spotted. The immense damage following a dam breach was vividly imagined. The most agitated stories were all but cheering on the floodwaters.

Alas, for the feverish China doomsayers, the Three Gorges Dam coped exceptionally well under extreme stress. Once this outcome was clear, virtually all mention of the dam vanished from Western media coverage. Nothing to see here: Time to get back to reporting on “sinister doings” related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, COVID-19 and so on.

This tilted reporting has become increasingly prominent since the Trump era began, though it was well underway before then. But why is this so?

When John Rawls published his highly influential book, A Theory of Justice, in 1971, the world was a place where Western views and thinking remained as globally dominant (not least in politics, philosophy, economics and science) as they had been for the previous 200 years. Although all those deep influences, which trace back to the Enlightenment, continue to shape life globally, today’s world is simply no longer the same. The rise of China and the comparative decline of the United States and Europe are now geopolitical facts on the ground.

The British analyst Tom Fowdy aptly noted recently that many in the West accept emphatically skewed coverage of China as normal because the West is deemed the source of truth and enlightenment with a responsibility to save the backward non-West. The extraordinary development of China has shaken the foundations on which this hegemonic assumption rests, however. This is alarming not just for Western governments glaring at China, but also for the clear majority of their dominant media outlets. A material geopolitical phase-shift is underway. The turbulent pushback from an unnerved Western media is one response that continues to intensify.

How this cosmic increase in publicly funded media denunciation of China is going to assist with the terrible problem of rapidly advancing anti-Chinese and anti-Asian hate crimes in America is left unexplained. Indeed, it could not be explained

The examples are countless. A very recent report from CNN reflects on events at Yuen Long in July 2019. It devoutly describes “democracy protesters” on the one side, confronting “gangs”, “mobs” and “thugs” on the other side. It notes that the sanctified “protesters” had just returned from “pro-democracy demonstrations” on Hong Kong Island. I watched that “demonstration” live on television. It was yet another manifestly extensive, violent riot. Slogans and graffiti urging Hong Kong independence were far more evident than any advocacy for increased democracy.

This report was published over three months after CNN, along with virtually all media outlets, aptly labeled the lethal violence at the Capitol on a single day in January as an “insurrection”. Yet the intensely destructive, multi-month period which brought Hong Kong to its knees cannot be so labeled: According to this report, Hong Kong has simply experienced esteemed pro-democracy demonstrations. This sort of perverse reporting is unambiguously designed to sanitize vehement political rioting to suit a pre-set agenda.

The Economist, meanwhile, has provided bright coverage of US President Joe Biden’s essentially still-unfunded, immensely expensive Build Back Better program, to be applied within a highly polarized America, whilst calling up dark clouds to cast gloom over work so far on China’s digital currency plans. In this latter case, Beijing is, maddeningly, once again making progress more effectively and swiftly than the US and its allies.

The most intemperate examples of these warped newspaper rebukes are barely fit to wrap the rubbish in.

Sidestepping adverse comments about certain others is an ancillary aspect of how China-disparaging team members operate. Imagine the official global outcry about incandescent authoritarianism if Beijing proclaimed a law which banned all Chinese citizens in COVID-dangerous countries from returning home under pain of five years’ jail and/or a fine of up to 300,000 yuan (US$46,800) if those citizens failed to stay put. This is, in essence, the law which Australia has recently applied to its citizens stranded in India. The local (and some offshore) media have begun to round on Canberra over this decision. But formal censure at the government level from the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union and G-7, for example, is conspicuous by its absence. This may be because fortunately, as a good friend wryly noted, Australia is not an authoritarian country.

Extraordinary as it may seem, it transpires that Washington now feels that this hugely dominant, American-led, anti-China media discourse is still insufficiently Sinophobic!

A veteran US international relations commentator, Tom Plate, recently observed, as he considered US relations with China and India, that, when comparing the treatment of Muslims in each country, the US sees evil afoot in China — but India “is a democracy, right”. He then noted that: “The argument that Beijing’s Uygur policy amounts to genocide strikes me as more propagandistic in intent than objective in purpose.” It could be that the mounting, cogent interrogation of the current, consciously xenophobic Sino-narrative has convinced Washington it must buy a bigger amplifier and turn up the volume.

The US Senate has just passed a huge anti-China bill called the Strategic Competition Act of 2021. Passage through the lower House of Representatives and the signature of the president are both expected soon. Fowdy notes that the bumper bill pledges hundreds of millions of dollars for media-focused initiatives against China, including US$300 million to spread negative news about the Belt and Road Initiative; to run anti-Chinese influence programs; to train journalists to counter Beijing; and to expand the Chinese-language operation of US media arm Radio Free Asia.

How this cosmic increase in publicly funded media denunciation of China is going to assist with the terrible problem of rapidly advancing anti-Chinese and anti-Asian hate crimes in America is left unexplained. Indeed, it could not be explained. There is scant doubt that this major taxpayer-funded amplification of Sino-scolding will, in fact, augment the malign proximate context within which the impulse for these attacks obtains traction. Moreover, apart from some enhanced training and task force establishment, the White House-announced program to counter the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes contains negligible funding compared to this massive, new Sinophobia marketing budget.

Despite intense containment work by the US and allied governments — combined with reliably devoted media advocacy — the world is changing conspicuously without seeking America’s consent. This is not acceptable. The US sees the Strategic Competition Act as a significant part of the solution to this challenge. The difficulty is that this new law helps confirm how the US is, more than ever, the fundamental, glowering problem.

The author is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.