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Western Media’s Pervasive Bias Against China Today

Zack recently pointed out in the open thread the following article by Stephen Harner that accurately – though not necessarily exhaustively – hit on so many points on what is wrong with the Western press, which I quote in full:

Dealing With the Scourge of “Schadenfreude” in Foreign Reporting on China
Stephen Harner, Former US State Department Official
October 3, 2014

Stephen-HarnerWhy are we so often disturbed by Western media reporting and analysis of China? Why does reading commentary of China’s economy, foreign relations, politics, and society leave us feeling emotionally abused, injured, or even angry and resentful?
I believe our reactions are a response to the pervasive, ugly, and malevolent, but largely unnoticed element of schadenfreude in this commentary.  It is our natural revulsion to writing and thinking that is anti-humanistic, hostile, and harmful.

Schadenfreude is a German-origin term defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as  “a feeling of pleasure at the bad things that happen to other people.”  Schadenfreude is rarely expressed plainly, or in relation to a specific event or situation.  Rather, it is an attitude and bias that disparages achievements, discredits sincerity, and hopes for failure.

We see this vile sentiment often in Western media coverage of news events, in reporting on Chinese business, and particularly in analysis and commentary on policies, plans, and initiatives of the government and the Communist Party.

It is not just reporting mainly “bad news,” like tainted milk powder or cooking oil scandals, although this feature is common too, particularly in blogs and the popular press. Rather, it is reporting only of the facts that support a narrative of endemic amorality or immorality and government social irresponsibility, with a subliminal message that the Chinese people or system are immoral, corrupt, and will or should fail.

The commentator most identified with schadenfreude in writing on China is Gordon G. Chang.  Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, released in 2001, has turned apocalyptic predictions and ill-wishing into a best-selling “brand.”

On cue, writing on Forbes.com after Alibaba’s world-beating IPO in New York, Chang was quick to predict, and seemingly to hope, that the company’s ambition to surpass Walmart as the world’s largest retailer would be unrealized.

Indeed, at every major juncture on economic and social China’s development path, from WTO accession, to coping with the global financial crisis, to economic and financial system reform, to the current anti-corruption campaign, Chang has been predicting, and seemingly hoping for, massive failure and systematic collapse.

Chang has been consistently wrong on matters large and small.  Instead of failure and collapse China was achieved successes, advancing to a new, higher level of development and prosperity. Chang’s errors reflect a fundamental incapacity, and psychological unwillingness, to understand China and its people, their feelings, aspirations, and loyalties.

Chang’s brand is emblematic of the negative bias toward China, tinged with schadenfreude,that is more common than uncommon in the Western press.

Today this bias informs reporting and commentary on China’s top leadership’s two towering visions and initiatives: realizing a “China Dream” and rooting out endemic corruption. Both visions, and the actions being pursued toward their realization, typically receive cynical, unsympathetic, skeptical, or derisive treatment in the Western media.

The success of the anti–corruption campaign is of existential importance to China’s future, which is to say to the safety, security, and prosperity of the Chinese people. So is the vision of the “China Dream.” Yet in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal, the sincerity, or even the moral authority, of China’s leaders in pursuing these visions is regularly impugned or denied. Some reporting has seemingly aimed to undermine the authority of leaders, so as to complicate or derail related initiatives.

The government of China has felt obliged to protect the people’s vital interests by blocking publications like The New York Times that had acted as though its purpose was to sabotage those interests. This point was made by former Shanghai mayor, and now deputy head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Xu Kuangdi, in answering a member of the America Chamber of Commerce after the speech by former president Jimmy Carter in Shanghai on September 9.

That the government of China should take measures is understandable. That China has blocked such internet search portals as Google (while affording open internet access to its citizens through portals like Sohu.com) is also understandable and justifiable from the standpoint of the interests of the Chinese people.

China’s citizens nevertheless enjoy essential access to a range of domestic and foreign media that has not adopted an anti-China bias.  Such unbalanced reporting is itself a expression of a biased, schadenfreude media mindset.

A pervasively biased Western media unfortunately plays into the hands of persons seeking to characterize China as posing a security “threat” to its neighbors or to the United States. Possessing an attitude of schadenfreude, the media not only dismiss, but would seek to impugn and deny China’s leaders’ sincerity when they express the Chinese people’s vital need for and yearning for peace and harmony with their Asian neighbors and with the United States.

China’s actions, often in reaction to provocations of other countries (notably with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea) are described as “aggressive”–therefore requiring counterforce–when in fact they are defensive. The reality of China’s long-standing policy of patience, restraint, and dispute resolution through bi-lateral negotiations is never mentioned.

What to do about foreign media schadenfreude toward China?  It is too serious, malevolent, and potentially harmful a problem to ignore.

The most important counter-measure is to shine a light on this vile attitude, to sharpen readers’ and listeners’ perception of its presence. The second is to call out and condemn instances (and their authors) that are clearly malevolent in intent or effect.

The third is to join with and to support, through loyalty and goodwill, the efforts of persons in China and the United States, within and without government, working to further peace, harmony, mutual respect between our countries, and better lives for both our citizens.

Stephen M. Harner is a former Foreign Service Officer (U.S. Department of State), international banker, and consultant in Japan and China.  He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).



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  1. October 4th, 2014 at 12:02 | #1

    Unfortunately, if article such as this is to appear in the mainstream western press mentioned, the comment section would be filled with how this author has been paid by the evil CCP. The self-righteous cultural revolution style attack again opponents are not uniquely Chinese at all, it is alive and well. Just go to the comment section of any western articles that include any semblance of neutrality when dealing with China.

    A very refreshing read, a big thank to Zach and Allen again.

  2. tc
    October 4th, 2014 at 13:18 | #2

    I thought only ethnic Chinese who have been living in the western world for decades were able to see the “negative bias”, the “vile attitude” of the western media toward China. Apparently I have been wrong.

    Mr. Harner is a very sharp, very fair American.

  3. October 4th, 2014 at 16:55 | #3

    Quite surprised that this article came out of someone who used to work for the State Dept. I interacted with a lot of those people over this summer, & I found them to be rigid, out of touch, insulated, arrogant, & (surprisingly) socially awkward.

  4. raffiaflower
    October 7th, 2014 at 20:36 | #4

    The rule of thumb for Western media in its foreign – especially China – coverage is simple: never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
    Fabricate, spin, omit, slant and always “quote” an anonymous party who refuses to be named from fear of persecution – which heightens the impression of omnipresent, ruthless Big Brother who control every aspect of life. Misrepresentation can be lucrative. The likes of Gordon Chang, with no discernible talent, become `experts’ about China and mint it from speaking engagements, talks, etc, no doubt.

  5. Zack
    October 8th, 2014 at 05:56 | #5

    and when these same western media are taken to task for failing to maintain journalistic integrity, they cite having to pander to ‘the market’ or some bullshit

  6. raffiaflower
    October 9th, 2014 at 09:46 | #6

    Western corporate media has given a human `face’ to Hong Kong protests, to tell the story of their courageous fight for democracy.
    Joshua Wong (described as a `jumped-up urchin with serious delusions’ by a non-fan on TE – or Guardian) is on the Time cover. NYT features a `handsome lifeguard’ and a tattoo’d hipster who hates Transformers 4 because it features “China rescuing Hong Kong’!
    Could they also `humanize’ the children of Gaza soon? Or put a face to the victims of Ukrainian strife, dug up from mass graves?
    It isn’t all bad, Zack.
    One must be grateful for small mercies. Occasionally, little voices are allowed, that tell the other side of the story. Cnbc featured a piece by Dan Steinbock (10/6) which probes The Real Issues Behind the HK protests. (It ain’t all democracy!)
    The National, a Dubai paper, has a piece bylined Sholto Brynes that tells London to shove off, over the HK issue. Even CNN – surprise! – has an op-ed by Robert Chow, the former producer of the long-running Enjoy Yourself Tonight, putting the case for 1.7million Hong Kongers against the protests.

  7. dcl7851
    November 15th, 2014 at 11:44 | #7

    The exact and real reason why the Western media are behaving in such manner; if you care to read the articles the links I provided below:


    It is not hard to conclude that every allies of USA have been imposed on to have all mainstream television, newspapers, magazines, and online essays to be crafted in favour US view – because Uncle Sam told them to.


    There are people who work for Western media related organisation are more or less stupid about their perspectives on China, there are people who despise China just because based on what they’ve been told, or that people hate/dislike China due to their insecurity, inferiority, jealousy, racism, and the various lot. Sometimes, you’ll find people facing the reality of China is just too much for them to cope, to the extent they ludicrously instil their own perceived vision of China to automatically feel comfortable of themselves. At the same time they are not incapable of writing balanced, analytical and fair view point – the Western media have no intention in writing anything serious about China – the Western media’s job is, in most areas, to do what the US them to do: to write in favour of US and to write bad things on non-US allied countries most namely China, Russia, North Korea, and some South American States.

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