There’s not really one clear answer. The Chinese government is doing two things at once. On one hand, it is trying to take credit for the country’s striking success over the past couple of decades, to foster a feeling of confidence in the country. At the same time, I think the Chinese state is very careful about appearing not to gloat and not to be feeding excessive expectations. They’re two different problems. Gloating, because gloating can bring costly reactions from other people—if you gloat about your adversaries or rivals then you stir your rivals to passions that are not in your best interest.
Expectations are a problem for another reason. China just went through these last couple of decades with extraordinary growth. You essentially have this whole generation of people who have grown up not knowing anything resembling a fully blown economic crisis—they think it’s normal to grow at 8-10 percent per year. This is to them the Chinese rate of growth. Although the Chinese government wants to see this growth for as long as possible, there are no guarantees that such things can be sustained forever. At some point the country will face—either through a crisis or a gradual but definitive slowdown—a period of much lower growth in the future. Perhaps even negative growth for a period of time. Feeding expectations is dangerous because if people believe in growth like they do religion, and it doesn’t work out that way, the first ones they blame are the government. The state doesn’t want to be in that position.
Does the press work with the government to manage those expectations?
Yes. First of all the Chinese state is very careful in its language about gloating and claims to global leadership and not making statements about superseding the United States, both politically and economically.
There’s a further problem here, too. China is a really big and diverse country. There are 500-600 million people who are not by any stretch of the imagination rich or terribly successful, or overjoyed with the material state of their lives. Talking about one’s success and talking about being on top of the world sounds otherworldly and unseemly to a very large segment of the Chinese population. It’s potentially insulting. They have this very complicated message that they have to manage.
We often hear complaints here about the Chinese media. What are some of the complaints that people in China have about the American media?
The most typical complaint is that the American media is excessively critical of China. I’ve worked as a journalist in China for five years and I’ve taught in China for the last couple of years, and I’ve had more of these conversations with Chinese journalists and ordinary Chinese people than I care to remember.
There is an element of truth to the notion that Western journalism about China tends toward the negative. But there’s a danger in seeing this in isolation. There are two factors here that need to be kept in mind. One is that American news coverage as a general proposition is about problems. You don’t see front-page news articles about how all of the mail was delivered on time in Akron, Ohio today. But if the mail doesn’t get delivered in Akron, Ohio today, then that’s going to be a big story somewhere. This is a predisposition in the American press that is poorly understood in China.
The second thing is that Chinese people see the question of how the U.S. media covers China in isolation from how the American media covered the Soviet Union in the past, or Russia today, or country X, Y, or Z. The same proposition of looking for the problem applies. Every now and then you will read a story about a country that has put it all together and is having this otherworldly success. But in Thailand the story is about the problems between the Muslim south and the mainstream Buddhist population. In Brazil it’s the Amazon being cut down. There is this tendency to look for the weak points in other societies, to analyze them and come to terms with them, that’s what the American media tends to do.
The Chinese see this as something that is aimed particularly at them. And that’s basically not true. I spent a lot of my career working in Africa and what’s so striking about what I hear from Chinese people is that I’ve heard almost the exact same thing from Africans about American and Western coverage of Africa. “All you do is focus on coups and human rights atrocities and rape—what about the good news?” As with many broad observations, and perhaps clichés, there is an element of truth in that.