May 28, 2011
This entry was slotted to run the week of Monday May 16th and it started like this:
A scroll down The New York Times.com’s world page on Saturday (May 14) produced one China story, and it was about a bank being firebombed by a former employee. Al Jazeera’s Asia Pacific page contained two China stories: one on the bombing, the other on the US lecturing China on its human rights record. The latter came at a meeting between the two nations themed “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.” That the dialogue itself received scant coverage is noteworthy, considering that until recently nearly any high-level Chinese meeting with major global entities, from the US to Africa, made headlines.
Bogged down with writing news features, I wasn’t able to complete it and so yesterday I revisited the theme and discovered this:
The Guardian’s website (May 26) had one story on China about Chinese prisoners being forced to do labor by day and play online games for cash at night. Asia News Network had one China story too, about the success of EU firms on the mainland. Al Jazeera had one story, on the China blasts. The Financial Times homepage had nothing on China, nor did the New York Times, and the one story in its international page was on Mongolian students protesting China’s mishandling of a death. *
Of note here is not only the lack of China content – for a news industry that has grown obsessed with China – but its variety: missing is the standard narrative about the Dragon taking over the world.
So what exactly is happening?
For several months now, other news stories – Tunisia, Egypt, Japan’s nuclear catastrophe, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Osama bin Laden – have relegated China to the sidelines. The cumulative effect has been to remind the media (and thus the world) that China is just one force shaping our planet; that the emerging power’s destiny depends on factors beyond its control. This is in its own quiet way challenging the assumption, implicit in much media coverage of China, that the emerging power is so big and muscular that it will in time will whatever it desires.
Then there’s the matter of how the Arab Spring “revolutions” are negatively shaping perceptions of China. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently caught flack for ripping China on its “deplorable” crack down on human rights, saying Beijing is “trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand.” Thing is, she’s right. Citizens of the Arab world have revealed they essentially want what America symbolizes – liberty, justice and a shot at dignity. Next to this China looks behind the times, and it raises questions about the path of governance Beijing is on.
Another factor contributing to the shift, as I have argued elsewhere, is that China’s failure with the passage of time to live up to the media’s grand predictions – that China in terms of language and culture as well as economically, politically and technologically will soon rule the world – calls into question the substance of China hype. When, for instance, China was first hitting double digit growth, those figures convincingly fed the notion that China was unstoppably rising. But of course national ascendancy is a complex process, determined not just by impressive economic statistics, a fact that is becoming harder for the media and financial analysts to ignore. As Tim Moe, chief Asia Pacific strategist for Goldman Sachs, noted in January, “the longer-term picture of Asia outperforming the US is taking a breather.”
Then there’s the longer more subtle development stealing China’s thunder – American resurgence under Obama. From his deft foreign policy maneuvering in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa to the US military’s pinpoint justice dolled out to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist housemates, Obama is challenging the media portrayal of America as an overstretched empire on the decline. On Thursday (May 12) Yahoo! led with a story on the revival of US manufacturing, emphasizing (as I have been predicting for some time now) that rising wages in China and the strengthening yuan are hurting China’s cost advantage. US exports hit a record $173 billion in March, up 37% since 2009, the article noted.
In all likelihood we will see the media shift back toward emphasizing Chinese prowess, one reason being that China is quickly developing and that’s a story the media and the world can’t fail to neglect; the other being that beyond China’s growing profile on the world stage, hyping China is big business for global media. China was the most trended topic at the Economist.com during my research for this post and China stories are frequently among news sites’ “most read.”
Simply, the media and its audiences are attracted to big sweeping narratives that speak of unprecedented change. No modern storyline does that better than China – a grippingly ominous Hollywood-like script about a monolithic throng of one billion people about to topple the current world order.
At least for now the media are reporting on something a little closer to the truth.
* The media sources mentioned in this article represent all the news media I checked out on the given dates. No sources were omitted to make my case.