• andrewsingerchina

#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 1, Issue 35



The physical war grinding on in Ukraine is not the only battle being waged there. Major players, including China and America, are also engaged in a pervasive media and messaging battle. With all of the information, disinformation, and propaganda flowing freely, it at times can be hard for people to know what to believe.

  • Information in the Twenty-First Century

  • One More Thought (Food Security in China)

 

Information in the Twenty-First Century


Kiev-Kyiv (marjan-blan-marjanblan-AA7jaOPC8mE-unsplash)


The core ideological battle in the information-space between China and America has erupted because the Chinese and American governments each believe that its system of governance (China - authoritarianism, and America - liberal international order) is superior, and each country wants to be top dog, feared and followed. The Chinese side also layers in a deep yearning for respect and stability. Hence the messaging we see in each country:


America:

“China is repressive and closed; America is tolerant and open.” “China runs roughshod over personal rights; America is a beacon of individual liberty.”

China:

“America is an imperialist bent on dominating the world; China stands for equality and respect among nations.” “America benefits only the wealthy and powerful; China supports, protects, and strives to improve the lives of all its people.”

A central operational paradigm of the Chinese Communist Party is controlled messaging. The constant gathering, filtering, and packaging of information is the chosen path to ensure societal stability. The Great Firewall that blocks news from outside China is one mechanism to accomplish this result. Censoring and scrubbing of WeChat and Weibo, the two principal Chinese webservices, is another. Enforcing policies that lead to self-censorship is a third branch of this information-shaping tree.


Yet, none of the above are perfect. Though not easy, the Great Firewall can be scaled. The fact that robust web-scrubbing takes place means that a) public opinion is a force in society and b) that public opinion is being expressed (the anguished social media and on-the-street/on-the-balcony outcries over the ongoing Shanghai lockdowns are but one example). Self-censorship may indeed be limiting, but it also spurs creative work-around expression.


The official media in China must and will present the official, Party line, and most people get their news from this source. Take Ukraine for example. What is happening is a “conflict” and a “crisis,” not a war. The spark for the situation was the relentless, aggressive encroachment of American-led NATO closer and closer to Russia’s traditional borders, thereby threatening her security, stability, and culture. Not only this, but the United States military is also funding the research and manufacture of bioweapons in Ukraine on Russia’s doorstep, and Ukraine has been taken over by Nazis and needs to be “denazified.”


While the Chinese press echoes these Russian talking points to demonstrate Chinese support of an ally (though the government is also trying to keep lines of communication open with a principal Belt and Road economic trading partner in Ukraine), the subtext is also to set the table and strengthen its messaging to domestic Chinese ears: The United States is a menace. If the West is going after Russia as it seeks to protect its borders, economy, and security, it can and will similarly come after China. We must be prepared.


Xinhua, the official Chinese press, prefaced a recent series on Ukraine in part as follows:

For more than a month, the U.S. government and the media have been working together to make accusations against China on the issue of Ukraine, reversing black and white, confusing right and wrong, and slandering, trying to divert attention and frame China. This is intolerable. Xinhua News Agency has issued a series of six commentaries to clarify the facts, counter the false claims of the U.S. side, and expose the hegemonic nature of the U.S. to provoke war and profit from it (translation courtesy of Bill Bishop at Sinocism).

What about on this side of the Pacific Ocean? Ideology and struggle for control of information thrive here as well. The two camps in America are in a battle for supremacy, and the informational gymnastics of Ukraine play their part. While the Biden Administration and supporters are in full-throated opposition to Russia and what is happening, some major media companies and politicians downplay the situation, if not de facto support it. Domestically, “China” continues to be a convenient rallying cry for all in government as they seek to corral the hearts and minds of their supporters and put down their opposition. The messaging may not be nearly as controlled as in China; however, the same informational chess game is afoot. America has silos as tall and thick as China.


Demonizing and dehumanizing the other is part and parcel in ideological warfare. It is easier to write off, if not overtly strike out against, another party if they do not hold the same values as you, if they are only worthy of contempt, if they want to take from you that which is rightfully yours. Whether or not any of the claims are accurate becomes practically irrelevant. Reality becomes secondary. This is nothing new across the world and time.


For a host of reasons (chief among them of late being the politically-charged Covid-19 response in both countries), we are even more rapidly and increasingly losing touch with each other. Fewer Chinese and Americans are able to have meaningful facetime--whether tourist, business, governmental, scientific, academic or intellectual. Connections with the outside world are fraying. Positions are ever hardening. All of this diminishes understanding, increases lack of awareness, and breeds distrust. The ideological information war is incredibly effective and seductive and threatening.


 

One More Thought (Food Security in China)


Food Delivery in Shanghai (Photo by Aly Song at Reuters)


This news article is cause for concern. For the first time in decades, food security (separate from the related issue of food safety) is once again on the minds of a growing number of Chinese people. If corn and other foodstuffs cannot a) be harvested, b) brought to market, and c) delivered or made available to consumers, there will eventually be a cascading problem throughout the country. A Western businessman who has lived in China for twenty-four years and was approaching one month in lockdown in his Shanghai apartment spoke on a Zoom webinar last week and told us that for the first time in two generations, “people are scared about food.” He noted that for all the hardship, people are not starving, the government is delivering the occasional supplies, and food delivery services are more or less functioning. However, he also reflected on how for Chinese citizens who have come to take food variety, affordability, and availability for granted, expectations have been sorely scrambled.