By Megan Kelly –
For years, China has occupied a dominant space in U.S. reporting of world affairs. A 2003 study by University of Michigan’s Communication Studies Department shows that while media does not strongly influence the American public’s opinions on foreign affairs, it does greatly affect which developments citizens follow globally — giving outlets like the New York Times (NYT) substantial power to set the agenda of public discourse. Partly as a result of this influence, the NYT has at times been criticized for biased or negative reporting on China over the past decades. The charge has not only been that the NYT is more often than not pessimistic about China’s trajectory, but that it consistently focuses on themes that reflect an American bias, such as on government intervention in the economy, an assertive foreign policy, and human rights abuses, and hence provides an incomplete portrait of trends in China The following overview of the most-reported China topics in the NYT this year is intended to shed light on what the American public reads about China in mainstream news and help assess whether this reporting accurately represents China in 2015.
Overall there was a strong emphasis on economic stories regarding China in 2015, which is not surprising given the economic volatility this year, as well as the inauguration of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Foreign affairs, on the other hand, was somewhat lacking with few stories related to Taiwan, despite the historic Xi-Ma meeting, and even fewer related to Russia. It seems the effort Xi Jinping has put into a more multidirectional foreign policy, inclusive of visits to 14 different countries in 2015 (more than any Chinese Communist leader), has been lost on the NYT.
Xi’s One Belt One Road Initiative has come up similarly short in U.S. news coverage, with zero headlines in the NYT. An issue just beginning to make headlines is China’s view on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and domestic terrorism issues. A Chinese hostage held by ISIS and a new Chinese-language recruitment video only warranted one print article so far, though it may unfortunately require further mainstream reporting in 2016.
The following analysis utilizes stories from the New York Times (excluding Sinosphere, as it is less mainstream reading) with “China,” combined with the keywords seen below, in the headline. It includes stories from January 1, 2015 – December 25, 2015.
Stock market: This summer saw far more headlines than usual about China’s stock market. 16 stories or cartoons ran in the NYT containing the words “China” and “stock” in the headline since June 2015. Several articles offered comments on state intervention, such as this article from August, simplifying the state financial adjustments by writing, “Chinese leaders are often their own worst enemies.” There was also a trend in discussing the insecurities caused by China’s anti-corruption campaign, which spilled over into the financial market this summer as hedge fund managers and financial consultants were investigated. Early in the summer, the Editorial Board recommended that the Chinese government deal with fraud and speculation in its financial system, as well as give households more options for safely investing their savings. It referred to the stock market crash as “a test of President Xi Jinping’s stated goal of reducing the government’s dominant role in the economy.”
Currency: There were 18 stories this year with “China” and “currency” in the title, with six relating to the recent addition of the renminbi to the IMF’s special drawing rights basket. 10 stories (including one video) appeared in the short window from August 11-15, related also to the stock market crash and government manipulation of the financial structure.
Bank: 13 stories with reference to China’s new international bank (AIIB) in the title appeared this year, largely reporting who was – or was not – planning to join. These stories ran from the middle of March, with the United Kingdom’s decision to join the bank, through the end of June when 56 countries joined the inauguration ceremony. The reporting was quite straightforward, with little comment on the potential success of the bank. Most of the articles analyzed the role of the Sino-American relationship in America’s decision not to join. The only article regarding the AIIB by the Editorial Board, printed on March 20, 2015, largely blamed U.S. leadership for its allies joining a bank to be led by “one of the most opaque, most state-driven, and least regulated economies.” .
South China Sea: Stories regarding the South China Sea this year mostly portrayed China as the aggressor. The Editorial Board was particularly prolific on this topic, with five stories emphasizing the rationale for a strong U.S. response to a power-grabbing China, particularly with regard to freedom of navigation. One editorial also suggests a stronger, united ASEAN as part of the solution.
Russia/Putin: There was a considerable, and somewhat surprising, downturn in the number of stories regarding China and Russia in 2015 as compared to 2014. Perhaps this reflects their economic problems this year, which have hindered the much-hailed enhanced relationship. The NYT ran 11 stories with a combination of China/Russia or Xi/Putin in the title in 2014, largely following their UN vetoes and mega gas deal. However, in 2015 there were only three such stories, despite reciprocal state visits to their respective WWII commemorative parades. One discussed joint military exercises, while the other two outlined the problems between the two countries: faltering economies and a relationship in which “long-term strategic convergence of interests is unlikely.”
Rights: This year was not without its fair share of human rights articles, with “rights” in the headline of 16 articles. Arrests of lawyers and women’s rights activists in particular made headlines in 2015. In March, the government detained at least 10 women protesting sexual harassment on public transportation. This was incorporated into articles about Xi Jinping’s overall clampdown on grass-roots activism and civil discourse. Also mentioned was the documentary about China’s environmental problems, “Under the Dome,” which became hugely popular and was subsequently censored off the Internet and out of public speeches. Eight stories covered the increased persecution of human rights lawyers this year, which culminated in the detention of over 200 lawyers and associates this summer, as reported here.
Corruption: Headlines with “corruption” and “China” were reported with similar frequency to last year, with five stories and one cartoon in the NYT. The stories were generally in response to a specific arrest and then elaborated on Xi’s broader anticorruption campaign.
Considering the most frequent NYT stories regarding China in 2015, a picture emerges of a rocky but successful year. On the economic front, two of the three major themes involved a significant victory for China. Additionally, while repeated reporting and criticism on the volatile stock market by mainstream media may have given the public a negative view of the Chinese economy this summer, Sinologists in more specialized reporting have repeatedly stated that the Chinese stock market has little to do with the health of its overall economy. Similarly, regarding foreign policy, China made important headway in its relationship with Russia and took historic steps toward a more peaceful existence with Taiwan. China’s advancements in the South China Sea may have caused negative reporting, but China has continued island building and the U.S. response has remained muted. Finally, it is in the society section that China generally fairs most poorly in Western reporting. Heavy reporting on this topic is no different than in past years, as evidenced by a China Daily article from 2014 complaining specifically about the NYT’s biased reporting on China. This year the NYT actually included significant positive reporting on Chinese society as well, due to Xi’s anticorruption campaign, which transformed stories of corruption cases from negative to neutral or positive.
The NYT’s coverage of China in all three categories shows that China is making an increasingly large space for itself in the international system, regardless of negative U.S. public opinion that may be shaped by mainstream reporting of China’s stock market woes, aggressiveness in the South China Sea, human rights abuses. All the major events analyzed above show a China in 2015 that is in the middle of major transitions, both domestically and internationally. Next year is likely to witness more ups and downs as China continues to grow in stature. As the United States continues to play an active role in the Asia Pacific and remains at odds with China over human rights, U.S. coverage of this giant will likely maintain the critical perspective it has held for decades. This, however, might not be the most accurate picture of China’s success in the changing global arena. Therefore, readers of China news should continue to look beyond the headlines to analyze the global implications of China’s rise.