Mutual distrust between the American news media and the Chinese government and public represents a significant barrier to US-China relations. There is the widespread perception in China that the American news media is consistently negative about China, or even part of a greater effort to foment unrest. For American journalists in China, the prospect of not having their visa renewed if they look too closely into the affairs of important government officials discourages more in-depth reporting. On top of that, the general censorship of U.S. news websites in China gives American reporters little incentive to write with a Chinese audience in mind. Both sides have valid concerns—historically, the U.S. media has not always provided a balanced overview of China, while American journalists often find access to sensitive topics shut off by Beijing. If mutual perceptions are to be improved, then, Chinese news censorship and the depiction of China in America media must be among the first issues addressed.
The taboo of restricting free speech has made Chinese media censorship a popular subject in American news publications. These stories often feature passionate arguments in favor of free expression and accountability, or criticize Beijing’s attempts to control access to information. The impact of internet censorship in particular is difficult to overstate. Many of China’s 1.4 billion people are connected to the rest of the country, current events, and the world through the internet and the Weibo microblog networks. Sina Weibo, for example, has over 500 million registered accounts. Because of China’s heavy reliance on the internet for news, internet censorship is an important part of Beijing’s efforts to control the flow of information. The infamous “Great Firewall” is one of the most sophisticated and effective ways of restricting internet access in the world. It is used by the government to regulate the internet habits of nearly 600 million internet users in China, a number that has steadily risen over the last decade, and can be used to control access to web content both inside and outside the country. On top of that, popular Weibo users risk arrest and prosecution if they use their account as a platform to promote social change, or even just to share news that might be seen as inciting social unrest.
Furthermore, investigation is a cornerstone of American journalism, and is at the heart of a modern news publication’s relevance in an era of social media. Newspapers in particular have maintained their status in a world of budding amateur journalists by maintaining their reputations for exposing lies and political scandals. With such a robust state-run censorship apparatus, American journalists have few hopes to continue that practice in China. Censorship in China is a real and serious problem that has the potentially to greatly impact the availability of information, and justifiably concerns American journalists.
On the other hand, as China continues to rise and take on the role of an important international player, the American people will need a clear picture of Chinese current events in order to contextualize U.S.-China relations. When economic reforms or plans to deal with pollution reported by Chinese state news often go unnoticed in the U.S., it deprives Americans of the insight they are used to getting from the media. Despite being the world’s most populous country, the second-largest economy, and a significant consideration in American foreign policy, China’s domestic affairs rarely qualify for American news. When Chinese events do receive coverage, it often focuses on more sensational stories—the H1N1 virus, an earthquake, or a food contamination scare—all of which are important issues, but they are hardly representative of the wider Chinese experience. Discussions about China-Tibet tensions have been a regular sore spot for Beijing, and even coverage of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was colored by suspicion of the Chinese government.
It would be unfair to ignore the recent improvements in American coverage of China. Premier Li Keqiang’s announcement of reforms to promote sustainable growth was widely covered, as was a plan from Beijing to combat air pollution. Anti-China commentary has fallen somewhat out of style since the 2012 presidential race, but threatens to return in the future as other nominees look to identify with strongly pro-American ideas. Journalists may struggle to maintain their even tenor when opinions from Capitol Hill begin leaning anti-China once more.
There are incentives on both sides for change. For the Chinese government, censorship is a well that only goes so deep. Traditionally, Beijing has leaned on the Great Firewall, tight media control, and arrests to suppress popular expressions of discontent. Weibo bloggers suspected of “spreading rumors” will now face arrest and jail time, a law that can easily be manipulated to silence dissentors. While efforts by Beijing to prevent embarrassing news from making headlines are usually successful, Ling Gu’s Ferrari crash managed to reach the internet shortly after the beginning of the Bo Xilai scandal, demonstrating the Propaganda Bureau’s incomplete grasp on the flow of information. Weibo’s tenacious amateur detectives even helped push the Bo Xilai story to the breaking point by circumventing censors using code. On top of that, arrests of high-profile activists draw international attention to suppression of free speech in China. However tightly Beijing might clamp down on the flow of information, it is always only a matter of time until something important slips through the net. For China, the existence of an independent news industry might actually be able to provide many advantages, and censorship’s inevitable limitations make it a poor alternative to actively redressing the people’s grievances. A reform-minded leader might look at the opening of China’s presses as an opportunity for a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government to show its commitment to curtailing corruption and providing greater opportunity for a rising China.
An independent news industry also has the potential to add legitimacy to government plans and programs. Currently, the legitimacy of state-owned news services, like Xinhua and the People’s Daily, is damaged by the lack of traditional, non-governmental political commentary, which has lead many Chinese to turn to their favorite Weibo blogger for opinions on current events and politics. Attempts by the CCP to forestall dissent with strict censorship can be easily undermined by ‘rumor mongering’ among curious netizens with nowhere else to turn for reliable news. Instead of pursing ever-tighter controls on a burgeoning number of internet users, Beijing could benefit from an honest media speaking to the very real virtues of many economic and public policy reforms that continue to help China grow.
Relaxing restrictions on the press would help the U.S. media cover China on a much more personal level. Allowing Americans to follow events in China more closely could have a greatly humanizing effect, an increasingly important aspect of U.S.-China relations as both countries grow more suspicious of one another. Making American news publications available to the Chinese people would also permit China to develop a sense of nationalism in the context of a growing international community, preparing the country to participate more actively on the world stage. If the Chinese intend to be citizens of the world, they will benefit from more open communication. To encourage cooperation in trade and international relations, The U.S. needs to embrace the growth of China as a nation. To realize this, American journalists must avoid framing the United States’ relationship with China in Cold War terms and provide even-handed news coverage that reflects curiosity and familiarity in lieu of suspicion and fear.
Ben Kienker is a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University with a B.A. in History. He is currently interning at The Carter Center under the China Program.
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