A key feature of mainstream Western media today is the relentless China-bashing. It is off the charts and tiring, often involving regurgitated trivia or fabricated stories with no evidence to support callous statements about the country, demonstrating a deep lack of understanding. But such stories continue to be churned out with no end in sight.
Countering this in international media by offering more balanced views for a global audience is near impossible as censorship is rife. There almost seems to be a global compact to control the narrative, a propaganda war powered by today’s digital technology.
Just try looking for a positive story on China any day of the week in any of the leading global media outlets. Apart from reports in January about the Lunar New Year, there will hardly be any, and these too are likely to have a negative spin. It would appear there is a confidential memo circulating within Western media groups that guides reporters and editors to ensure there cannot be any positive news arising from a country with 1.3 billion people.
Typically, the negative stories adhere to three core ideas, which inform the unspoken guidelines within these press rooms when it comes to reporting on China.
First is the belief that China is a threat to the world and that this belief must be relentlessly reinforced at every available opportunity. How and why China is a threat is never explored; such is the deep-rooted and almost religious nature of the belief. Sound arguments do not matter. The basic tenets of good journalism are ignored when it comes to a China story. There is no need to explain or give evidence of why China is a global threat.
Left ignored is the plentiful evidence that shows China is not a global threat – even if one can point to mistakes and overreach in certain areas. China has not invaded any country in decades, or imposed sanctions that have devasted the lives of millions in poor countries, unlike the West, led by the United States.
Second is that China must be linked to every possible global event that affects the West. This provides an opportunity for the West to bash China while simultaneously burnishing its own credentials as the supposed arbiters of what is right and wrong in international relations. From the pandemic to the Russia-Ukraine war to carbon emissions; from rising sea levels to the scramble for rare earths; from the building of infrastructure in Africa to the production of vaccines – there must be an angle to demonize the country and instill fear in Western nations (and beyond).
Indeed, media outlets are reverting to the “yellow peril” of the late 1800s. There is no subtle and nuanced approach to instilling fear like this. It is full-on and very often blatantly racist – but it is now acceptable for one to be racist about the Chinese in Western media, despite the fact that Black-White relations are very carefully described.
The third part of this phenomenon, which is surprisingly not challenged by liberal readers of mainstream media, is the sentiment that everything must be done – even illegal and unfair methods – to arrest the rise of China. Never mind the rights of hundreds of millions of Chinese to have a better life after a century of poverty and deprivation.
Headline after headline that capture this sentiment have normalized the view that there is a need to curb the rise of China, and that this is a legitimate geopolitical objective. There is no explanation about why or if it is even morally acceptable. It has become a feature of Western commentary on China to say that its rise is a concern and a threat. With this assumption unassailably in place, the West has the right to galvanize – and even bully – its allies and ask the absurd question, “what should be done about China’s rise?” – as if China does not have the right to carve its own place in the new world.
There is even a school of thought in the United States that it was America that magnanimously allowed China its first baby steps into the globalized economy, and that in hindsight the U.S. was too nice to China. This view betrays everything that is imperial about the West and why it is unable to come to terms with the legitimate rights of other nations to grow and become powers in their own right. The assumption is that the rise of others is a gift from the West, and accordingly they must never challenge its supremacy. The deeply entrenched view in the West from centuries of domination is that it will decide which nations will be permitted to be participants in the global economy according to its self-serving “rules-based order.”
Indeed, Western media seem wholly tied to the hegemonic competition view of geopolitics, constantly referencing the “Thucydides Trap” and being stuck in the Western canon as if there are no other ways of looking at geopolitics and world order. This view assumes conflict is inevitable and helps to demonize China while justifying the hegemonic position of the West – and the United States in particular – as a globally stabilizing force.
Needless to say, this is an extremely belligerent position to take, and not something media should be egging on. Whatever happened to promoting multilateralism? And why are people who speak to multilateralism side-lined as idealists or China apologists? This flies in the face of fair reporting.
So, how to fix this?
First, people in China and the non-Western world must realize that when it comes to the workings of the mainstream media we are in a new era – a propaganda war the likes of which the world has never seen before, powered by today’s digital technology. The media war is real, and tech-driven, and it is not a fight for eyeballs to deliver fair, honest, and educational news. It is almost everything else but that, especially when it comes to China or enemies of the West.
On one side is sheer propaganda aimed at the preservation of Western power. Participants include the most well-known brands in the Western media world, which are household names across the world.
The idea that Western media is run by fair-minded people who are independent, driven only by a desire to talk truth to power, is a mirage. It is a myth, and it is a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed. The idea that the Western journalist is a paragon of virtue also needs to be banished from the minds of consumers of media.
That is the first stage in enabling one to step out of the propaganda mist we are engulfed in on a daily basis, so that one can examine different viewpoints as news is consumed. This is not easy, given the current dominance of Western media outlets and their apparently collective mission.
The next step is to dismantle the dominance of Western media.
This too will be a long, hard fight. Mainstream Western media are the most powerful in the world and for close to a century, Western media have had a stranglehold on the dissemination of international news and viewpoints across the world. Many had their origins in colonialism, the preservation of empire and later the spread of Western ideas about how the world should be run. These outlets are a powerful economic force and dislodging them will require investments.
Across the world there is an opportunity to contribute to this effort, not necessarily by building large media companies but by investing in media companies that are committed to fair and objective analysis, so that local audiences in the first instance have choices and are not inundated by the propaganda of mainstream Western media. This too will not be an easy task and there are many hurdles to overcome, but this is not the space to dive into those details. Ultimately, it is all about readers becoming more aware of global issues by having more non-Western sources to rely on, so they are not victims of the current propaganda war. This is beginning to happen as more alternatives flourish.
It is an urgent need in the West too so that the mass hysteria generated by mainstream media is prevented from creating fear and pitting Western societies against the rest of the world. Today the target is China; tomorrow India and then maybe Africa.
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