No Party Line in Chinese News Media On Republican Primaries
China and the United States share a history muddled by mistrust. This is especially true today with respect to each country’s economic and political ambitions. The news media in one is influenced by its nation’s politics, culture and history in reporting on the other.
Yet, despite these restrictions and sometimes-tense national relationship, the way that the Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television and the South China Morning Post covered the U.S. Republican primaries showed remarkable variety in their attitude towards American politics.
This is an analysis of Chinese media coverage of this year’s Republican Primaries, from January until April, when the field was narrowed down to one candidate—Mitt Romney. State-run and owned news outlets ran mainly factual stories with minimal editorial analysis or opinion. From the coverage it was difficult to discern a preference for who might end up in the White House, nor was there any speculation as to the policy implications for China. Some individual issues in which China holds a stake were given some attention, especially where the Presidential candidates said they would be tough on China, for example in the fields of international trade and rare earth. Despite attention to these issues, coverage seemed unconcerned with the election’s specific outcome and was optimistic about the US’s and China’s need to cooperate. China’s media seems aware that US election rhetoric is just that—rhetoric.
The Xinhua News Agency devoted an entire special feature web page for their English language audience that included nearly 20 articles on the Republican primary. They covered background information on the parties, latest news from the Republican campaign trail, candidate profiles and even photos and videos to correspond with the story. More than South China Morning Post and China Central Television, displayed a comprehensiveness that appeared to reflect the agency’s attempt to become a news source for an international audience. Xinhua even runs a ticker tape in New York’s Times Square.
Save for a profile, Newt Gingrich was noticeably absent in Xinhua. The US press continued to give Gingrich some attention, but unshackled from any responsibility to offer some balance in its coverage among candidates. Xinhua editors appear to have decided that Gingrich was history by then. They focused on Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.
As news analyses go, Xinhua did not offer any radical insights or statements about the U.S. When Santorum exited from the primary, Xinhua offered just one analytical offer that tamely noted that his departure signified the “real” start of the U.S. presidential race between Romney and President Barack Obama.
Editorial writing was even more absent. State ownership completely changed the role of the media. In the U.S., the role of media is often to serve as a watchdog and an editorial commentator on events, but Xinhua is owned by the Communist Party, which appears to restrict its journalists from making their own sharp commentary or analysis.
China Central Television, known as CCTV, is the main state broadcaster in China. It has a network of 22 channels, many of which are entertainment-based. Channel 13 is its main news channel, but there are other factual offerings like documentary and finance channels. It is overseen by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, which itself falls under the remit of the State Council of the PRC.
CCTV’s coverage of the primaries over the last few weeks and months focused on factual reporting. The CCTV English language news site relies heavily on newswires like Bloomberg, Reuters and Agence-France Presse for breaking news, including news of the campaigns—and the lion’s share of Chinese news is provided by Xinhua.
The coverage yielded little information on what implications each potential U.S. president would have on China. Republican primary campaign gaffes reported faithfully, but for the most part without a framing narrative or analysis on what it might mean beyond a candidate’s chances. A news report on Romney’s gaffe on women stated that “women are a weakness Romney needs to address.” A report titled “Romney stumbles out of the gate in US election” suggests his chances might suffer.
Similarly, a March news report on Obama’s Buffett Rule for taxing the wealthy was framed by the “uncertain economic recovery” – unlike the more optimistic tone in the US media and a narrative on the process of economic recovery.
In February, CCTV opened an office in Washington—with the intention of reaching out to American viewers. One show explored the concept of American Exceptionalism, which has been evoked by Romney and Obama over the last few months. The feature debated what this means and whether there is “a new world order” that has dislodged America. (The program wrongly attributed the origin of the term to Alex de Tocqueville when it was actually Stalin who first used it, but that is a mistake many make. )
The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman appeared as a guest, saying the US was wrong to “put its feet up” after the victory of the Cold War. Another expert, Jennifer Lee, said that all countries, including China and Japan, believe they are exceptional.
China has been an election talking point this year. Obama and Romney have both done some tough talk on China. Romney has repeatedly said he would ‘label’ China a currency manipulator (although it is not clear what that act alone would accomplish) and confront China over trade issues. Trump is said to have endorsed Romney over Gingrich because of his promised tough stance on China.
In the Chinese media, however, there is no discernible narrative as to which candidate China might prefer in the White House. Nor is there any reflection on how China might tailor specific strategies for the eventual President. But the Chinese media’s silence on the Presidential candidates might be just as telling.
Obama has already taken the first steps in a new strategy to monitor China’s rising ambitions in the Pacific region. On the trade front, in March he opened, together with Japan, a WTO case against China over their restrictions on exports of rare earth minerals—which are critical to the production of advanced technology.
CCTV devoted more coverage to these individual US-China issues, but has stopped short of analyzing the implications for China of a Romney vs. Obama presidency. CCTV coverage of Obama’s WTO case dismissed it as political expediency in an election year:
In a campaign-like statement delivered in the White House Rose Garden, U.S. President Barack Obama upbraided China of breaking global trade rules […] But experts say this appears to be part of a broader effort by Obama to solidify his political stance, as he prepares to seek re-election this November.
Some possible explanation for China’s sanguine response was put forward by China’s Global Times editor Hu Xijin, in a translated op-ed in Foreign Policy. In a bold analysis, Xijin explained that China has seen this all before: pre-election posturing by potential American presidents rarely matches up to real strategy once they are in the Oval Office. Specific US-China disputes over rare earth, exchange rates, and human rights are dealt with in isolation–and these disputes might well grow tenser with Romney in the White House–but ultimately, there are too many overarching interests for both China and the US for the smaller issues to derail the larger relationship, he wrote. He added:
The leaders of the United States and China can of course personally affect Sino-U.S. relations, but only in a limited way…If Romney gets elected, even if he doesn’t continue to encourage anti-Chinese sentiment, there will be more friction between the two countries than there is today. The next U.S. president must work to limit the mistrust between the two countries…
The US has only a small chance to contain China, he said, whose rise is a “natural process with many forces behind it.” He continued:
We believe the person whom the Americans elect to enter the White House will, at the very least, have rational thoughts. Romney won’t make the mistake of turning a specific conflict into a showdown with 1.3 billion Chinese people.
The US’s best option, he said, is to mitigate the effects China’s rise will have on US interests, and to enjoy the opportunities created by the country’s development. If this attitude is represented in other sections of China, whether business or media, it might go some way to explaining why there is a lack of media speculation on who ends up in the White House.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) is bolder than the party and state-controlled outlets and has an international focus. A Hong Kong-based English language newspaper with a circulation of over 100,000, it is also widely read in other parts of Asia. Like the CCTV news site, most breaking news on the primaries and 2012 election issues is provided by international newswires. But the SCMP featured some expert commentary on election issues and the US-China relationship in general—from international and Chinese experts.
Greg Torode, a longtime correspondent for the SCMP who reported on the elections in 2008, speculated in one article that Republicans were late out of the starting blocks because they have become victims of their own success. Republican candidates were falling victim to the echo chamber of negative smears that have been so effective against Democrats in election narratives, he wrote.
An expert analysis by Andrew Hammond put Obama’s chances in a historical context. Incumbents do get re-elected even with low approval rating, he writes. A “positive economic headwind going into November” —barring any unforeseen disasters–might be enough to push Obama over the line, but his success is far from assured.
A commentary by Cary Huang framed the context of elections this year in China-US relations by comparing a visit of Hu Jintao in 2002 to the February 2012 visit of vice-president Xi Jinping to the White House. Xi will take over from Hu next year as Prime Minister. He is the most senior Chinese leader to visit the US since Obama announced the new strategic focus on Asia. Hu visited a very different America, then in the grip of “hawkish” Republican rule. Now, Xi visits America in the grip of an economic downturn and Obama’s tough re-election campaign. While the policy questions are still the same — the trade deficit, the value of the yuan, market access for US businesses, North Korea and regional security — as they were in 2002, they have grown more intense.
Minxin Pei, a Chinese governance expert affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for the Peace, provides a thoughtful analysis in his article “Game of rivals: Sino-US Influence Jockeying” and references a recent Brookings Institution-Peking study on the two countries’ growing strategic distrust. How will China respond to regional competition, he asks?
No Chinese leader wants to see a total collapse of US-China ties. So when China’s pending leadership transition is completed in the coming year, the most urgent foreign policy priority for Beijing is for its own reset of US-China relations.
The competition is regional, he wrote, not ideological.
If the primary coverage of the three Chinese news media outlets is any guide, the Chinese seem aware that there a great differences between the two big countries—but they also see no reason why they cannot both benefit over the coming years. Perhaps, China’s attitude for its US relations over the next four years corresponds to Thomas Friedman’s comments on CCTV America: “Economics is not like war—it can be win-win. We and China are like Siamese twins…China cannot succeed without America succeeding, and America cannot succeed without China succeeding.”
It will be interesting to see if this statement rings true in four years, when the US prepares for its 2016 elections. As China continues to grow in economic and military power, one thing is certain: it will still be a big election issue.
Alexa Van Sickle is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@alexavsickle)
Nilo Tabrizy is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@ntabrizy)