#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 16
A Chinese weather/surveillance balloon crossed the continental United States last week and was shot down on the eve of the American Secretary of State’s planned visit to China. The diplomatic trip has been postponed, and the ongoing press and political firestorms are as passionate as they are to be expected. The media treatment of this incident is a fitting coda to a thought-provoking discussion I heard recently regarding the impact of traditional and social media on the U.S.-China relationship.
The Shape(ing) of Our News
It was standing room only in the generous rear room at New York’s Rizzoli Bookstore in the Flatiron District on a late January evening. I had a second-row, side seat facing one end of a raised platform, three folding chairs, and a table draped with a floor-length black cloth with serious microphones perched on top. Anticipation was in the air as a live taping of The China Project’s Sinica Podcast was about to begin.
Ian Johnson (www.chinafile.com)
Co-hosts Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn bookended special guest Ian Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and now CFR senior fellow. The conversation began with diplomacy and Covid-19 before swerving into a deeper dive on how coverage of China by traditional and social media impacts the U.S.-China relationship. The co-hosts are known for their friendly yet spirited banter, and at times, the humble Mr. Johnson was the net in a ping-pong match.
(photo credit: Laura Lee Moreay on Unsplash)
The risks of the media we consume weekly, daily, and hourly are there to be examined, assuming those caught in the following situations care to look:
“Recollective power of the negative.”
Kaiser: Individuals in the U.S. do not overly dwell on our negative national news because these events do not generally intrude into our relatively nice, peaceful, local lives. Yet, since news about China is external, if most or all that we are presented is negative, we lose the ability to have a balanced view.
Jeremy: This dynamic also happens abroad vis-a-vis America. If most or all that people outside of America hear are our warts, then they will lack a balanced view of us as well.
America's press (mainstrream and otherwise) overflows with predominantly critical stories of China. As for abroad, I have seen this phenomena first hand with a friend’s elderly mother in China who is becoming more and more anxious about her family in America because of all the bad things she hears in the Chinese news. It seems that the “open” news system in America and the “closed” news system in China may not be all that different in their ultimate impacts on their respective societies and polities.
Ian: Most journalists are trained to believe that their role is to expose and cover problems and, in fact, reporting on the negative is what leads to eyeballs, recognition, rewards, and reputation in the industry.
This CNN story is a case in point. The reporter traveled into rural China recently to see how the Chinese were experiencing the all-important Spring Festival New Year holiday after three years of Covid-19 disruption and dislocation. The story focuses on family reunion, the joy of traditional life returning, and the palpably positive vibe. Yet, what were the principal online headlines?
“See moment that shocked CNN reporter during interview deep in rural China.”
“…Here’s what we found and how officials tried to stop us.”
Were the reporter and her crew followed by minders and were some of their intended audiences screened? Yes. Was an interview abruptly terminated when an undercover official intervened? Yes. But these, frankly, were not unexpected, did not seem to faze the reporter, and were de-emphasized in a story with an overwhelmingly reflective and positive tenor. Skimming readers will not know this, however, if all they do is read the eyeball-catching headlines.
(photo credit: Larry Mayer, The Billings Gazette, on www.apnews.com)
So what of the elephant in my Newsletter room—the enormous white balloon with a box three city buses in size hanging below it that traversed the American heartland last week. China acknowledged that it was theirs. They said it was an errant civilian weather airship. The U.S disagreed.
Was it a weather airship, a dedicated intelligence-gathering platform, maybe a dual-use device? Setting aside 1) why bother (satellites are presumably more effective and easier to control), 2) whether China’s left hand knew what its right hand was doing in launching the balloon (and others past and present), and 3) was this premeditated or not, the timing was awkward and self-defeating and has led to predictably explosive, righteous indignation.
First it was U.S. politicians who have taken the opportunity to not only blast China, but with even more glee in some quarters, the Biden Administration. The uncharacteristic initial attempt by the Chinese government at contrition quickly morphed into bombast once the balloon was destroyed: “the Americans overreacted, and we reserve the right to take further action.” I find the growing Chinese hawkish response quite rich because if the shoe was on the other foot, if an American device (wayward civilian or intelligence) spent a week meandering above China’s sensitive military installations and heartland, the hue and cry from the government, the media, and the people would have been deafening.
Foreign relations are often geared more to domestic reception than to the international audience, and once again our two countries are alive with fiery condemnation of the other. Traditional media fans the flames, while volatile social media east and west is alive with memes, jibes, and barbs. All of this feeds into our respective narratives – China is nefarious, America is weak.
Future Factory (Xinhua, Xia Pengfei, on www.thechinaproject.com)
Ian: It is harder to cover China and figure out what's going on in the country because journalists have been expelled, information is hidden, and society is strictly controlled. Journalists outside the country are thus forced to rely on anecdote and less rigorous social media sites. Social media amplifies and reinforces the bad because it makes it so easy to find what we want to find.
The stories of China’s challenges have been well documented. What about less well-known stories with a different spin? For example, how about stories covering China continuing to be the world’s leading energy transition investor (the U.S. is No. 2), the recovery and growth of European investment in China in 2022, the development of new quantum technology to help China’s financial industry combat fraud, the push for AI and digital-driven, intelligent factories in the wealthy industrial Zhejiang Province, and the widespread adoption of zero-emission transit in Shenzhen? These provide balance.
The media conundrum extends to U.S. think tanks as well. Though they deeply research issues and are policy focused, Mr. Johnson opined that here too there can be “group think” when it comes to China, fear of being contrarian to the generally-accepted zeitgeist.
Ian: The United States is missing opportunities to engage with China. Though the American populace at present appears to have no patience for it, we should welcome a “shades of gray” approach to the U.S.-China relationship. It is in our self-interest to find a way to deal with China, whether we like it or not.
Kaiser: The question is how to change in order to win over hearts or is the cause already lost?
This trio supports finding more nuance and believes (hopes?) that there is a path forward for a cause not lost.
See Professor Jessica Chen Weiss’s article arguing for a measured, not fearful and reactive, response by America not only toward China, but also toward America herself.
Interested in more? Listen to the Sinica Ian Johnson Podcast here. If you pay close attention (and have a healthy imagination), you can hear me among the enthusiastic audience.