After trade talks, China press crafts a controlled nationalist narrative

May 27, 2019

A trade deal between the United States and China fell apart earlier this month, when Chinese leadership withdrew, rattling the global markets and prompting US President Donald Trump to accuse Beijing of breaking its promise. Amid the fallout, Chinese state media has taken a defiant tone, marking a shift from the subdued rhetoric of recent months. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chinese press is portraying the United States as a foolhardy bully and China as an able defender.

On May 13, CCTV, the state television broadcaster, aired an adversarial statement—unusually bold for the network—during a popular prime time news show. “Talk, our door is wide open; Fight, we will accompany [the US] to the end,” Kang Hui, the CCTV news anchor, said. “Having experienced disturbances for well over 5,000 years, what kind of battle formation has the Chinese nation not seen?”

The network ran harshly worded commentary again on May 24: “The attempt to block off a market of 1.4 billion people is idiotic nonsense.”

People’s Daily, the official newspaper for the Communist Party, took a similar tone, publishing a graphic image showing three slogans in gold lettering overlaid onto a red Chinese flag: “If you want to negotiate, then go ahead! If you want to fight, then bring it on! If you want to bully us, then forget it!”

Some Chinese media experts say that with its antagonistic press coverage, the Communist Party is aligning public opinion with the state’s position. It’s a familiar tactic: to rally public support during a national crisis, the state uses heated rhetoric about clashes with foreign countries. The result is political cohesion united against a common foe.

“It’s not coming out of the blue with a few patriotic opinion pieces or news clips accusing the US of bullying China, but rather it builds on years’ worth of efforts at selling the narrative of the century of humiliation and the need for China to rise up and stand up for itself,” says Emilie Xie, a PhD candidate in Communications at Columbia University who studies Chinese politics and media.

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While strong nationalistic language has indeed become more visible as the trade war escalates, other media scholars don’t see this as evidence of a centralized strategy orchestrated by the Communist Party. “Exactly how this language is emerging or being used, and by what sources, is a complicated question,” says David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project. “I don’t think unleashing nationalism can be tactical, certainly not in a targeted sense, because nationalist sentiment is very difficult to control.”

All media in China, state and commercial, are closely monitored and heavily censored pre-and-post publishing. Under publishing laws and regulations, commercial digital media are not allowed to conduct original reporting and publishing. At best, they are aggregators. On politically sensitive issues such as the trade war, most digital media republish or repackage content from three major state outlets: CCTV, People’s Daily, and Xinhua News Agency—together known as the “throat and tongue” of the party. State censorship of social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, now the primary news source in China, has become increasingly sophisticated. The state has also cracked down on private software to circumvent the Great Firewall.

Because of this, Chinese readers are facing increasing difficulty accessing unfiltered, trustworthy sources of information. And emotionally charged nationalistic sentiments are spreading simultaneously on social media. Searches for information about the trade war on the Chinese internet return few of the sticking points dominating the English-language press, including forced technology transfers and the effects on the wallets of Chinese citizens. In its reports about the trade war, state media have emphasized the vulnerability of the United States: the damage that China’s tariffs could inflict on the US economy, and the suffering of American farmers. In contrast, China is depicted as a country under confident leadership and in control of the impact to its economy and industries.

Cheng Yizhong, a veteran Chinese journalist, considers the media treatment of the trade war to feed into a narrative that the public is increasingly buying into: China has become so rich and powerful that it is now a real threat to America, and America wants to contain it. “The message from the Chinese government is: ‘There will be tough times ahead, and Americans are responsible. Blame America, not us,’” Cheng says.

Entertainment programming has also been altered to favor nationalist narratives and suppress American content. CCTV’s movie channel swapped its regularly scheduled shows in favor of four anti-American movies and documentaries set during the Korean War, known in China as the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.

On May 19, Chinese viewers of Game of Thrones became surprising victims of the trade war. Tencent Video, which streams HBO content in China, failed to air the show’s eagerly anticipated series finale. While the company cited “transmission problems,” an HBO spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that the Chinese government had banned Tencent from airing the episode due to the trade dispute. A Chinese TV show that was scheduled to debut the same day, about the lives of Chinese students studying abroad in the US, was also abruptly pulled from the programming.

At the same time, strong public sentiment can be a risk to state authority—“especially if it manifests into the collective action potential of mobilized masses,” Xie says. In 1999, Chinese citizens staged violent anti-US protests after a NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade killed three Chinese journalists. The Communist Party is well aware that overheated nationalism can create havoc — today, it’s most interested in projecting calm and stability to maintain its legitimacy.

There are signs that the state is now taking measures to temper its populist rhetoric.

Earlier this month, Trump signed an executive order that aimed to ban American companies from using telecommunications equipment from Huawei, deeming the company a national security risk. On Chinese social media, support for Huawei was encouraged as a sign of patriotism. Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times, a tabloid that serves as a government propaganda mouthpiece, announced on Twitter and Weibo that he had stopped using an iPhone and switched to the latest model of Huawei to protest against the “US government’s unfair suppression of Huawei.”

Huawei’s CEO, Ren Zhengfei, however, took a different view. In a rare interview with the Chinese press on May 21, he said, “Populism hurts the country. My kids use iPhones; does that mean they don’t love Huawei?” His comments were a stark contrast to the responses of state media and Chinese authorities.

“Huawei products are merely commodities,” he continued. “Do not tie them to politics.” State media, including People’s Daily, quoted Ren’s measured words on social media, and internet users almost unanimously applauded his open mind. Media scholars say his public appearance indicates that party leaders wish to calm the public while not appearing weak as the country prepares for a protracted trade battle with the US.

Cheng is convinced the two countries will eventually compromise and reach a deal. “China and the US aren’t likely to completely break up,” Cheng says. “What is happening today is just two bellicose dictators with big egos who are both refusing to cave in.”

Shen Lu is a journalist based in Boston covering the Chinese diaspora, culture, and technology.