HONG KONG — A study of the Chinese media, commissioned by a bipartisan American congressional panel — the U.S. China Security Review Commission — has found that the controlled Chinese press, in its reporting on the United States, appears to be relatively balanced overall.

The study, based on an analysis of news coverage in six newspapers at selected periods of tension and relative relaxation in bilateral relations, found that “extremely negative tones toward the United States are rare.”

The findings deserve to be publicized, since they contradict generally held convictions that the Communist Party manipulates public attitudes toward the U.S. by distorted coverage of the country. While this was true in the past, it appears to be much less so today.

While the commission’s report on China, released July 15, portrayed Beijing as a threat to American strategic interests that may again strain the seesawing U.S.-China relationship, the media study itself should contribute to a better U.S. understanding of China. The study was done by the Institute for Global Chinese Affairs at the University of Maryland.

“The goal of the project,” the University of Maryland report explained, “is to provide solid empirical evidence on how the tone of Chinese reporting on the U.S. changes over time and how it is affected by newsworthy phenomena. The project is based on the assumption that, to a significant degree, the tone of Chinese newspaper reporting reflects the official PRC attitudes toward the U.S. and its policies.”

Six Chinese newspapers were selected for study: the People’s Daily and the Liberation Army Daily, both published in Beijing; the Beijing Youth Daily, also published in the Chinese capital; Xinmin Evening News in Shanghai; Yangcheng Evening News in the southern city of Guangzhou; and Chongqing Evening News in Sichuan, in the southwest.

The study focused on several periods of Sino-American tension and relative amity between March 2001 and April 2002. They include the month surrounding the reconnaissance plane incident of April 1, 2001, the month following the terrorist attack on the U.S. last Sept. 11, the month of the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush to Beijing and a three-month period from Feb. 1 to April 30 this year.

Interestingly, one of the main findings of the study was that “Chinese reporting on the U.S. appears to be relatively balanced overall. Extreme negative tones toward the U.S. are rare and appear mostly during periods of overt Sino-U.S. confrontation.” The study found “a current tendency toward generally objective reporting.”

The study noted that the Chinese press provided coverage “of a wide range of topics” and also provided “a diversity of opinion among reporters regarding the U.S.” with articles ranging in tone from straight official reporting to catchy satirical poems accompanied by zany, politically charged caricatures. Even during the height of the reconnaissance plane incident, it said, articles with headlines such as “The U.S. should apologize for plane collision” and “National dignity cannot be infringed upon” appeared alongside articles such as “Golf becomes a popular major at U.S. universities.”

It also observed that the official Xinhua News Agency has, in recent years, placed emphasis on “objective” reporting in its attempt to be put on a par with the world’s major wire services, such as the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse.

It noted that “there appears to be a separation drawn in Chinese news coverage between official American policy and the American people.” While there is generally positive coverage of American technological advances, educational practices and entertainment venues,official American policy, particularly foreign policy, is frequently portrayed as “hegemonic and regularly in violation of international norms.”

The Chinese media perceives the American military as the strongest and most technologically advanced in the world, the study observed, which is why there is frequently a degree of cynicism with regard to “mistakes” made, as in the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

This very useful study was possible only because the bipartisan commission contracted the university to carry it out. A similar study of the U.S. media would add immeasurably to a better understanding of the U.S.-China relationship. While American newspapers, unlike their Chinese counterparts, are not controlled by the government, they do reflect sentiments and biases of many segments of American society, including the government, the military, religious and business communities, and, of course, the media itself. Such a study would shed much light on how American public attitudes toward China are shaped.

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