Media coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak has been the latest episode in the ongoing propaganda war between China and the west, after the Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues. It is also another dimension of the wrestle between the United States and China (the world’s current no. 1 power vs the world’s future no. 1 power as Kishore Mahbubani puts it) that is both economic and ideological. This tussle will the defining theme of the next few decades, and potentially the rest of our lives.
Having majored in communications in university, I was exposed to Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’, which is a mind-blowing work that helped me to really understand the world. Simply put, the media is (intentionally or not) influenced by its ownership (I would add to that its ideology), which subtly shapes the narrative and hence public opinion by deciding what to cover (and as importantly what to omit), the language it uses and the sources it cite.
The most recent case called out by Chinese media was the New York Time’s coverage of the lockdowns in Wuhan and Italy – the former ‘comes at great cost to people’s livelihoods and personal liberties’, while in the latter Italy is ‘risking its economy’. One is an authoritarian regime causing suffering and misery to its people, the other skips any mention of impact on people’s lives.
Facts are facts, but how they are reported makes a difference. And this is often based on the entrenched worldview of the media. Often times, we would read media with values and worldviews that we agree with, which just creates ‘echo chambers’ further reinforcing our perceptions.
China bashing has become an increasingly popular sport among many western media. I guess they can’t accept the fact that another political model and values system could be successful.
The Hong Kong protests was another stunning example. Whether you call those people in masks ‘pro-democracy protestors’ or just ‘rioters’ makes a subtle but important difference in influencing public opinion. I remember the incident where a protestor was shot by the police – was just reported as ‘police shot protestor’, while the horrific case of the man being set on fire was reported as ‘ALLEGED protestor set man on fire’. Coverage on the former also outweighed the latter, even though the latter was obviously much more horrifying and newsworthy. There was a study that examined CNN’s and New York Times’ coverage of HK and compared it to that of other protests happening around the world. Its conclusions were telling.
And not forgetting Xinjiang, which is a very contentious topic. It’s not a bad thing that western media is interested in investigating the issue, but you get the sense that they did so with a hidden agenda and preconceived conclusions in mind. Are they ‘concentration camps’ or ‘reeducation camps’? I don’t think the 1 million Uyghur statistic was ever verified (it is quite an unbelievable figure given their population is only 10 million). It’s also a gross and irresponsible oversimplification to label the Chinese government’s actions as anti-Islam or anti-religion. There are millions of Muslims all over China, especially in the northwestern provinces of Gansu, Qinghai etc.
To the neutral observer, it’s easy to conclude that the measures taken in Xinjiang were to counter terrorism. You may debate whether it’s too heavy handed, but you can’t just call it persecution of the Uyghurs. Remember – this is a country that implemented the one child policy on the majority Han population for decades. The Chinese government doesn’t do things halfway. George Yeo also gave a great analogy (not sure if I am phrasing it correctly) – the western world believes in surgery to remove the tumor (attacks onTaliban and Al Qaeda), while China takes a more systemic approach to address the root cause and nurse the body back to health just like in traditional Chinese medicine.
It’s particularly tiring and frustrating to see so much China bashing in the western media for someone living and working in China, who loves the country and marvels at the amazing progress it has made over the past decades. There are those who look at me with questioning eyes and more than a hint of condescendence when I say people in China are pretty happy with the government, their approval ratings are probably much higher than governments in other countries.
Many smart alecs would think that people in China are indoctrinated and brainwashed, they can’t access Google and Facebook etc, but VPN is more common than you think, especially among the young and educated. And my friends and colleagues here reach the same conclusions as me – western media are mostly hostile and biased towards China. Which leads to another more ironic conclusion – audiences of western media are brainwashed, and worse, without them knowing.
True, there are always areas China can improve on (and I hope it will continue to improve on), but the portrayal in western media is so skewed, it is toxic and poisons the minds of people who do not have much direct exposure to the country. This is not just ethically questionable, but also dangerous for global peace and security.
And I just don’t know what or who to believe anymore. All I know is I can’t just trust western reports on Russia and Iran, or any other political or ideological enemy of the US. The answer is to consume information from media outlets across the ideological spectrum, but that’s pretty tiring and time-consuming.
For China at least, CGTN, which is funded by the Chinese government, could be a good option. I am sure it costs China a lot of money to set up and operate, but it is a necessary investment for them, and I believe the Chinese government is smart enough to know that it’s only through quality journalism that the platform can gain trust and legitimacy. I also subscribe to some angmoh Youtubers in China who have been producing good, thoughtful content such as Nathan Rich and Daniel Dumbrill, among others.
We are living in a divided world, and the media has to take some responsibility for that. They should be opening peoples’ minds rather than closing them. I don’t expect the status quo to change much in future, but what the average person can do is to take what you read from any source with a pinch of salt, and always be conscious of the agenda and ideological slant of the media behinds the news. And this applies not just to global politics, but also to news in SG – especially as we approach the next general elections.
Header image from Shutterstock.