What do Chinese tabloids talk about when they talk about the US?
For at least a decade people have been talking about a possible China — US confrontation and recently that possibility has become more live, as they have bumped heads a few times recently, on Taiwan, chips, Ukraine. The Anglophone or more broadly Western media isn’t overly helpful when it comes to portraying both sides, and that makes the conflicts hard to really get. It’s easier to grasp — to take a salient contrasting example — Putin, whose speeches are more easily translated and understood. Pundits in famous magazines like The Atlantic and the New Yorker are able to contextualize facts about, say, Ukrainian history and Russian political culture and in the last year or so, Putin’s made it even easier, seemingly falling into very familiar culture war tropes that make him often sound like a Fox News-Republican. Russia seems understandable.
None of this is true about Xi — in the tagline of a podcast on him, he’s mysterious. The whys and wherefores of Chinese political affairs, such as the ‘two sessions’ this weekend, are harder to learn about and seem more distant. It might be nice to make China closer, to understand it better.
One natural way to do that is to look at how Chinese media, writing for Chinese people, view the world. And so to that end, I was curious about the following question: how does Chinese media portray the US?
That’s obviously too big a question: Chinese media isn’t a monolith, and there’s too much stuff to capture (especially as a weekend blogger). So I decided — for reasons I’ll explain — to concentrate on just one source, the tabloid Global Times. This is, per Wikipedia, China’s Fox news, known for its ‘ultranationalistic perspective’; the same source mentions that (some) Chinese people look on it with embarrassment. It’s accordingly not in any slight way representative, but just as one surely can learn something about the US media and political ecosystem by watching Fox, so, hopefully, one can learn something about China’s system by reading this paper.
I looked at the 355 most recent stories (why? Because that seemed like a manageable chunk and anyway I was getting tired of scrolling). Here are some interesting things I noticed.
Here’s a good starting question: how often does this paper talk about the US? Ex ante I didn’t have any hunches, but here are the answers:
Russia = 56
Japan = 19
(This was worked out by putting all story titles on their own line, reading the lines into the array, then adding one to the counter if the name, or rather its abbreviation (“美” here) occurred at least once on that line. See the pastebin here for the stories and in case anyone wants to check my work.)
That’s pretty interesting already! Almost dead on one third of stories are about the US, about twice as many as there are about the second most talked-about country Russia. Clearly, the US looms large in the Global Times’s mind, at least of late. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily tell us what we want to know — it doesn’t tell us what the stories say about the US. So let’s look at that.
What I did next was read through the titles of the stories and tried to classify them into a small number of categories. This is pretty tedious and error prone, and I’m sure I did make errors, but here are some of the things I noticed.
About 22 stories on social misfortunes in the US
This is the biggest one. There are many stories about social and environmental problems in the US. By far the outlier is that there are fully ten stories about the Ohio poison train derailment. That, in fact, is the most notable finding of this piece: that story is massively represented in the corpus I looked at, in a way that bears reflecting.
And in fact that confirmed the hypothesis I had going in. Every evening I read the news via my Chinese learning app, which aggregates stories from a few sources. I had noticed, or thought I’d noticed, a bunch of stories about the train wreck and wanted to see if it was indeed so well-represented (incidentally, the other story I thought was well-represented was about mass shootings and more generally gun crime, but it wasn’t in the stories I looked at here). I saw that the most recent such story was published by Global Times, and that’s why I looked at it for this post.
But it’s not only the train wreck. There are about four stories about Trump and the January 6th trial which I think are well-categorized in the social disorder category. There are two stories about child labour in the US, one about drugs, and several about natural disasters. Overall, about one-fifth of the stories are just concerned with presenting stories of the US suffering from various things. In the same vein there are about 5–6 stories about problems with the economy.
Moving on, there’s a number of stories about US-China relations: about laws oppressing Chinese in the US, about backlash against Tiktok, about the unfair imposition of sanctions. But overall, as far as I can tell, there isn’t anything gigantically interesting.
Ditto with US-Russian and US-Ukrainian relations. Most stories here, as far as I can tell, are relatively factual: the US is giving stuff to Ukraine; Blinken and Lavrov meet, etc.
Slightly more interesting are some more bombastic pronouncements:
Foreign Ministry: We will never accept coercion and pressure from the United States 外交部：我们绝不接受美国的胁迫施压
China: The United States has repeatedly hyped up the “China Nuclear Threat Theory”, but it is just an excuse for expanding its nuclear arsenal
International Criticism: The U.S., which is used to domineering, will eventually harm others and itself
Overall, though, it seemed to me that combing through the stories yielded little. Worried about missing stuff I thought it would help to try and put some numbers to things
By The Numbers
The final thing I did was look at co-occurrences: I checked how many hits we got for “America” + [other thing]. The results are:
I’m not sure if there’s more significance to the China-US colocation than that it’s a Chinese paper. But I think the train stuff is interesting (and incidentally, if you look at the above picture you’ll see there’s one miscategorization but that’s made up for by the fact that there’s at least one story about the train that doesn’t contain the word ‘train’).
It is, it seems to me, unexpected that, when the world is talking about a new world war with the US and Russia as belligerents, nevertheless for this Chinese paper almost equally important is the goings on in Ohio which even most Americans whom I follow on social media don’t talk about (not that they’re right to do so!)
What significance does this have? This isn’t particularly surprising or novel, but I suggest: the political aims of this paper, for the short while we looked at it, include showing a US out of control — the train crash is the most pertinent example, but the drugs and child labour stories make the same point. The US is failing to make safe its people, the message seems to be, a fact more important for the paper than the support the US is giving Ukraine and almost as important as the US-Russia faceoff.
And that’s interesting! Tentatively, I think we’ve encountered an important rhetorical move in some contemporary Chinese media. At least, we’ve come up with a hypothesis deserving of further investigation.
Let me end with some sundry points. First, as far as I can see, this rhetorical move — US-as-unable-to-care-for-its-people — might be distinctive to China. It doesn’t seem, for a salient example, to feature in Russian discussions of the US, and having been reading such discussions pretty closely for at least a year, I don’t think that theme is found in RT or Tass or pro-Russian Telegrams. Second, you should be extremely skeptical that this tiny sample is representative. However, we can say some things. I noted above that I came to this project wondering whether my subjective impression that the Ohio train is covered a lot was borne out by data. And that subjective impression was got by general reading of Chinese news regularly over the past few months without going looking for anything like this. In addition, it’s interestingly noteworthy that there’s actually an extant book that supports my view. In particular, there’s a Chinese language textbook which I happened to acquire and read around Christmas, and it’s noteworthy that it, a collection of stories from the People’s Daily from the 90s contains the same themes: it’s overwhelmingly about dysfunction, poverty, racism — even child labour is there. So that slightly strengthens the claim that this is indeed a genuine, and perhaps somewhat long-lasting, theme.
Anyway, while more work certainly needs to be done I think the view presented here is worth considering as shedding a bit of light on how Chinese political rhetoric works, and what it aims at.