US Study on Mainland Media Tells Two Stories
by Edith Terry
A report submitted to the US Congress has put the quality of reporting by mainland media at the centre of a debate over Chinese perceptions of the US.
The US-China Security Review Commission report argued that Beijing had systematically represented the US as an "overbearing bully" and a "declining military power with important vulnerabilities that can be exploited".
However, a background paper written for the commission produced evidence to the contrary.
The paper said Chinese coverage of the US, including Xinhua reports, was "relatively balanced overall".
The most negative views on the US came from a Chinese reporter based in Washington, who was able to "see that life is not a paradise here".
The media paper, prepared by the University of Maryland, said that while Chinese newspapers portray the US as a hegemonic power, such accounts were balanced by favourable descriptions of the trade relationship with the US as well as of American culture, education and technology.
The study said Chinese media had followed the same trend as Chinese society, and that "Chinese and American media mandates, at least outside the purview of the [Communist] Party's official press, are growing more and more similar month by month".
In short, Chinese media perceptions of the US were moulded more by first-hand reporting and nationalist sentiment than by propaganda directors.
The background paper implies that China's views of the US are more nuanced and diverse than those expressed by the US-China Security Review Commission.
Analysts said the commission's recommendations reflect a tardy US perception that understanding China requires an appreciation of its complexities.
"What I see, living in China, going to China, is that the Chinese themselves tend to be schizophrenic. On the one hand, they may have these knee-jerk, nationalistic reactions to the US. At the same time, Chinese want to send their children to the US, you have people dreaming of getting a passport or just making money in the West," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China.
"This is why perhaps the Chinese are in a weaker position than the report suggests. One of the major weaknesses is that the model for young people in China is the model of the West, and of course you can apply that trend to many other areas."
Over the past 10 years, Mr Cabestan said, Chinese media had become "de-ideologised" as the view of the US emerging as an obstacle to China's ambitions to be a superpower had grown.
A second background paper, by National Defence University analyst Michael Pillsbury, looks at Chinese attitudes to the US based on the journals of mainland think-tanks.
Mr Pillsbury found a distinct anti-American strain in a "steady diet of open source books and articles" which assert that the US is trying to block or contain China's rising power.
He cited a post-September 11 article in which the authors, two army colonels, mused: "The United States has been too self-willed and conceited, likes to dominate others, and has made so many enemies that it has been unable to determine who the enemies were since the attacks occurred."
Mr Pillsbury believes such articles are part of a broader effort to portray the US as an enemy despite positive contributions made by US investment and aid.
Mr Cabestan, however, said Mr Pillsbury was behind the times, and that Chinese attitudes towards the US had changed over time as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union and the changing Sino-US relations since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
According to Mr Cabestan, the thinking behind the second paper reflects the extent to which US scholars have blinded themselves to China's changed geopolitical reality over the past decade.