If you’re looking for a story, any story, suggesting China is up to no good, you’ll quickly find it in the United States or Western media. Adopting a framework consistent with the Cold War, the mainstream media in the West are doing all they can to convince their audiences that China has become the new boogieman, ever eager to undermine the West or to make life difficult for everyone. Sadly, it appears those efforts are working.
One of the more curious examples comes from the New York Times, which offers this provocative headline: Think Covid’s Messed Up Your Travel Plans? Try Getting Into China. The report details how the country has drawn up some of the world’s strictest policies against foreigners entering the country.
Readers are told:
"Leave your partner and children behind. Quarantine for up to a month. Get inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine from China, if you can find one. And prepare yourself for an anal swab."
"For the past year, people trying to go to China have run into some of the world’s most formidable barriers to entry."
The irony here cannot be lost on anyone: One year ago, the Western media (often walking lockstep with the fiery rhetoric of the Trump administration) stated China was lax in how it handled coronavirus. Now that the Chinese government has established some of the toughest standards for international travelers — a policy designed to ensure coronavirus doesn't again gather steam inside China — it's again accused of not doing the right thing.
Perceived as not doing enough to fight coronavirus? Bad China. Perceived as doing too much to keep its people safe from coronavirus? Bad China.
Mind you, a popular travel site in the West reports 50 countries have sealed their borders to all international visitors. China is not among them, obviously. You'll have to look long and hard to find stories critical of these governments. And don't forget President Biden is flipping the script on his previous statements about Central and South Americans seeking to enter the United States. One news organization – Fox News – has noted Biden pushed hard for a relaxation of border security issues when he was running for president, but he now wants anyone seeking asylum in the United States to do so from their home countries. That’s an effort to seal the border, no?
Coronavirus is not the only issue in which consistently negative reporting of China can be found.
The media regularly report on sanctions levied against Chinese officials. These stories inevitably remind readers that the Chinese government is pursuing some policy inconsistent with international (which, of course, means Western) norms, and a sanction is required so that a stern message is delivered to selected Chinese men and women. How penalizing a number of people is consistent with a stern message too often seems lost on those handing down that penalty. For what it’s worth, the recent European Union sanctions levied against a few Chinese citizens was met by…sanctions from China against certain politicians of the European Parliament. The point? China will not be bullied.
The story of sanctions is best (or worst) demonstrated with how they’ve been used against Iran. The West will say the purpose is to hold the government to account because it is seeking to build up its nuclear capability. Therefore, crippling sanctions must be imposed, with all available evidence pointing to such penalties damaging the everyday citizen, not the government leadership. State that point too loudly and you risk being labelled either anti-West or pro-Iran. Speak up against the rather worthless sanctions against China? You got it: Risk being labelled either anti-West or pro-China.
No narrative about the obvious mendacity of China is complete with stories suggesting its military wants to expand its foothold throughout Asia. A recent story about the Philippines being angered by China’s actions in South China Sea gained a foothold in the press. A few days before that, significant reporting followed a top U.S. military official telling Congress the Chinese were "developing systems, capabilities and a posture that would indicate that they’re interested in aggression."
The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute examines military spending by countries, and it reports the U.S. spent $738 billion on defense in 2019. Of course, that figure far exceeded any other nation. But what is even more striking is 38 percent of military spending from all over the world in that year came from the U.S. (According to the SIPRI, China spent $261 billion, or 14 percent of all spending.) Is anyone prepared to say with a straight face that the U.S. is spending all that money for non-aggressive purposes?
The drumbeat of negative reporting is taking a toll on perceptions of China. The Pew Research Center noted in late 2020 that "unfavorable opinions" of the country has sharply increased among citizens of 14 nations it surveyed. The reputable research agency stated:
"A majority in each of the 14 countries surveyed has an unfavorable view of China. In most countries, around three-quarters or more see the country in a negative light. In Spain, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, the U.S., the UK, South Korea, Sweden and Australia, negative views have reached their highest level in the 12 or more years that Pew Research Center has been polling in these countries."
The West appears to constantly need an enemy. For decades, the Soviet Union and its allies filled that role. Iran and Iraq often are placed in that role. So, too, is China. If there’s a difference among all these nations, it’s that China has the economic and military might to stand up to the West and China is an important member of all key international organizations underpinning the global economic growth and governance toady. It is also willing to build a shared future for humanity. Therefore, the reason for framing Beijing negatively in Western media is the latter’s own need of an enemy.
The author is Associate Professor, School of Informatics, Humanities and Social Sciences at Robert Morris University, the United States.