2020 started with promise for U.S.-China relations as the two countries signed a truce — a “phase-one” deal — in their brutal trade war. Hopes that it would provide a foundation for a cooperative, forward-looking relationship have been crushed as the COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc around the world. When the U.S. government finally decided to take that threat seriously, the Trump administration, with the president leading the charge, identified the disease as “the China virus,” sparking outrage in Beijing and setting off a diplomatic war of words.
The fight has extended to the media. Ostensibly, it began with a Wall Street Journal commentary with the inflammatory headline “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” — a phrase freighted with ugly historical baggage — which prompted Beijing to expel three of the paper’s journalists and demand an apology.
But the order came two weeks after the article appeared and hours after the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese news agencies — Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily and Hai Tian Development USA — as “foreign missions,” which means that they are considered arms of the Chinese government and required to register as such.
In retaliation, China ordered five U.S. media outlets — Voice of America, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Time magazine — to submit written reports about staff, finances, operations and real estate in China.
The United States then cut from 160 to 100 the number of journalists allowed to work in the country at the five Chinese media companies, blaming a “deepening crackdown” on independent reporting in China. Beijing again retaliated, pulling visas for reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal whose credentials were set to expire this year, and banned them from working in Hong Kong as well— historically where reporters have worked after they are kicked out of China.
Both sides claim to be acting in pursuit of reciprocity. That is hard to achieve given the vast differences in the two countries’ media ecosystems. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained the logic of the U.S. position, using Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 2016 own words that “All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity.”
China Daily interpreted that to mean that “It is necessary for the media to restore people’s trust in the party. …The nation’s media outlets are essential to political stability, and the leadership cannot afford to wait for them to catch up with the times.”
That logic drives Pompeo’s conclusion that the media companies are “clearly controlled by the [Chinese Communist Party], and we are simply recognizing that fact by taking this action.” Therefore, he said, “since these organizations work for the CCP, it is only fitting that we treat them as foreign missions, meaning they are subject to State Department regulation.” On the U.S. side, only Voice of America is a U.S.-government owned entity and the Trump administration would argue that The New York Times and The Washington Post are more adversaries than allies of the U.S. government.
In addition, “registration” and all its burdens — requiring, for example, to file with the government before making visits or conducting interviews — is what China already requires of journalists operating there. As Pompeo insisted, “These propaganda organs operate freely within the open American system, while journalists inside of China face massive restrictions. We hope that the Chinese Communist Party will reconsider its treatment of journalists inside of China.” It did that — but not how the U.S. desired.
China’s efforts to control the media are part of a broader offensive to shape domestic Chinese perceptions of its government (more specifically, the CCP) and international perceptions of Chinese power and influence. While every government attempts to “shape the narrative” that is not an endorsement of lying, omitting or distorting facts or promoting conspiracy theories based on groundless speculation or fantasy.
In the past, China reached out to Western media when it wanted to communicate with the world. Mao Zedong used Edgar Snow to court the West during the civil war with the Nationalists. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was Deng Xiaoping’s megaphone when he wanted to announce that China was open to business as he promoted reform. Jiang Zemin made his pitch for China to join the World Trade Organization through The New York Times. Beijing has even used foreign media to inform domestic audiences about accountability for accidents, recognizing that Chinese media won’t ask hard questions nor have the same credibility when it prints answers.
That’s no longer the case. The CCP under Xi believes that its dictates about truth and facts are enough. It has a global propaganda machine that can deliver its message on its terms. That new confidence is evident in the speed and readiness that Chinese officials go on the offensive against any criticism.
Indeed, it considers any criticism ideological in nature and intolerable. As Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “The United States cannot proceed from ideological prejudice, use its own standards and likes and dislikes to judge the media of other countries, let alone suppress the Chinese media unreasonably.”
He went on to urge the U.S. “to immediately change its course, correct mistakes, and stop political suppression and unreasonable restrictions on Chinese media,” and warned that If the U.S. “insists on taking its own course, compounding mistakes, China will be forced to take further countermeasures.” The hardline Global Times revealed Chinese thinking when it criticized New York Times coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak for “aiming to attack China’s political system and smear China’s efforts” to contain the virus.
Two important things are happening. First, China is going on the offensive, confident in its ability to compete with the U.S. (and the West more broadly) in the marketplace of ideas. Beijing believes that it can beat the West in that race. Trump’s fight against “fake news” helps China prevail. The president and his supporters insist that there is no objective reality and that what they say is as real, valid or reliable as information from any other source. Disdain for facts and the leveling of news sources works as well for China as it does for the Trump administration. Chinese officials are as quick to dismiss “fake news” as does the U.S. president.
Second, attacking reporting that challenges the official narrative erodes the trust that holds society together. The CCP insists that what it says is the truth and we should trust it to lead China responsibly and well. Yet only well-connected insiders in China know the truth behind recent events.
Contrary to the official narrative of a government that mastered this crisis, Zhao Shilin, former member of the Central Committee, noted in a letter to Xi that “Due to human error, we have missed the most important ‘golden window’ of time to combat the epidemic. … This has resulted in the epidemic spreading with great ferocity. The costs of this mistake are enormous. The lessons we must learn are unspeakably painful. The losses, immeasurable.” Sadly, while not engaged in systematic deception, the U.S. administration is also trying to rewrite the history of its handling of this crisis.
Forget the geopolitics, the U.S.-China contest and “global order.” Lives are at stake, not just now, but in the future, the next time that publics must trust the judgment and decisions of their governments. An independent and objective media ensures that those governments do their best, putting the national interest ahead of their more narrowly defined concerns.
Japan should have learned this lesson after the March 2011 triple catastrophe, when the public learned that the media too had been compromised by the “nuclear village” as part of efforts to convince them that nuclear power was safe. Yet, from 2013 to 2019, Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index lowered Japan’s ranking from 53rd to 67th.
John Barry, a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, writes that the most important lesson from the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak that killed millions of people is “tell the truth. Without it, trust in authority disintegrates, society began fraying. …” Japan’s special strength is its social resilience but even that has limits. A crisis is not the time to discover that the reservoir of trust and goodwill has dried up.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”