Shaping the policy debate: how does the British media present China?

Jun 4, 2024
British Daily Newspapers

The almost total lack of any positive coverage of China in the British media further closes off the scope even for making arguments that policy should reflect opportunities from dealing with China.

Foreword by Gemma Cheng’er Deng, PhD student, Lau China Institute:

By the end of 2022, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the end of what was once called the ‘Golden Era’ of the UK’s relationship with China. Whether or not this complex relationship was ever golden is debatable, but the surge in unfavourable views towards China in the UK since 2018 – reaching a historic high in 2020 – suggests the British public’s feeling towards China has unequivocally soured. This emotion has been increasingly reflected in the British media and policies towards China. Today it is clear that the UK has not decided to completely ‘decouple’ from China, its ‘systemic competitor’, as reflected in the UK Government’s Integrated Review Refresh 2023; ‘We will double funding to build China capabilities across government to better understand China and allow us to engage confidently where it is in our interests to do so’. Nuanced narratives on China are therefore necessary for as long as the UK plans to continue engaging with China.

A report published by Freedom House in 2022 revealed that the British public did not consider Chinese media to be a reliable source of information on China. British media plays an important role in providing more balanced coverage of China. Media reports are widely cited in policy research as factual information. As Dr Tim Summers points out in this paper, the British media contributes to shaping the ‘Overton window’, ie the acceptable bounds of policy discussion. The British media’s lack of substantial positive coverage and the absence of such discussions in parliamentary debates severely restricts the opportunity for conversations regarding engagement and policy options. Furthermore, this dearth of positive coverage contributes to an incomplete and potentially misleading understanding of China within the context of current debates. Although the negative reporting may have derived from the Western journalistic culture of “reporting negative developments” and “telling stories that those in power don’t want us (journalists) to tell”, the oversimplification of the China narrative could reinforce misunderstandings of China as a place, as well as its people. For example, during COVID-19 which saw a sharp increase in violent crimes against people of Chinese/Asian heritage in Western countries.

In this paper, Dr Summers and his team looked at more than a thousand articles across different topics from different political leaning papers, collected between 2020 to 2023. Focusing on prominent outlets like The Telegraph, The Guardian, the BBC, The Economist, and the Financial Times the findings show that these media sources commonly employ a negative tone in articles about China.

Given the significant role of media in shaping public perception and policy decisions, the report concludes by discussing the policy implications of this biased coverage and highlighting the broader implications for understanding and engaging with China. – Gemma Cheng’er Deng.

Executive summary

Coverage of China in the British media over recent years has been predominantly negative, often heavily so. While negative reporting of China has dominated the British media for some time, it has become more evident over the last few years, alongside a hardening of the government’s China policy. The British media texts researched for this paper contain almost no positive coverage of China. Politics and politically normative interpretations tend to be emphasised.

This will not come as a surprise to many readers. This paper aims to elaborate on that phenomenon with some systematic evidence and discussion of the characteristics of coverage of China, based on data collected from selected British media – The Telegraph, The Guardian, the BBC, the Financial Times and The Economist – between 2020 and 2023.

There are significant policy implications of this analysis. The paper suggests that there are iterative relationships between media reporting of China, public opinion, the views of political elites, and government policy. While policymakers have other sources of information available to them, the picture of China painted by the media is influential and contributes to shaping the acceptable bounds of policy discussion.

British media outlets’ coverage of China therefore contributes to limiting space for discussion of engagement or other policies that might be based on alternative perspectives or on opportunities offered by China today. This means that the understanding of China that informs many of these debates is, at best, partial and, at worst, misleading and inaccurate. To achieve a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of China, alternative sources of information should be actively explored, and those with different opinions encouraged to contribute to the policy debate.

In short, media coverage and the wider public debate about China in the UK today fail to reflect the complex reality of China, and close off space for in-depth understanding or balanced debate about this most significant of countries.

Conclusion

This research has examined recent media coverage of China across a number of UK-based outlets. It finds that negative framing and tone are strongly dominant in coverage of China, though the extent of this varies across outlets, time and issue. Political issues attract the most negative coverage and they also are dominant within reporting on China – not just in the selection of political topics as those most frequently reported, but in the way that a political and normative lens is often brought to coverage of social, economic and cultural issues.

It should be noted that this research looked at coverage of China. It is sometimes argued that criticism is focused on the ruling Communist Party rather than the country, but even if such a distinction is meaningful, it gets lost in the way these reports are constructed. It is China, not (just) the Communist Party of China, that is framed negatively in the British media.

Some might argue that the British media has got China about right, that politics is really what matters, and that most of what the British public should know about China is negative – though, even if we accept that, it is not obvious why it should be up to media outlets to make that judgement. On the basis of my own experience of China, I would refute that and argue that there is much more to China than politics and that there are many positive developments to report alongside the criticism. The occasional story covered in this analysis demonstrates that there are positive developments to report; for example, the Financial Times report about BYD. At a minimum, the imbalance between politics, economy, society and culture in media reporting suggests that readers of the media are not getting a representative picture of China today.

What seems to be happening is that more negative issues are selected for greater coverage, as discussed in the introduction to this report. While, to some extent, this is a wider feature of the media that is not limited to China, when it comes to international issues it is a particular feature of coverage of countries that are considered ‘enemies’ or ‘rivals’ rather than those that are ‘friends’.

As discussed in the introduction to this paper, one view of many journalists is that their role is to report the negatives, though other approaches are possible. The purpose of this paper is not to engage in a theoretical debate about what makes good journalism. But we can observe that the coverage of China analysed for this paper emphasises the negatives rather than setting out to deliver a balanced and accurate picture of what China is like. That is done through selection of topics and repetition of ideas that normalise a strongly negative picture of China today.

An issue often raised in discussions of Western media coverage of China is the limited number of journalists based in mainland China itself. The numbers have indeed declined over recent years, due to a combination of factors: COVID restrictions, greater difficulty in obtaining visas, some tit-for-tat national security investigations (in the case of Australia, for example) and some internet-based harassment of journalists. A number of journalists also decided to leave Hong Kong in the wake of the passage of the National Security Law in 2020. Taiwan has been a big beneficiary, as a number of Western journalists have headed there. It should be common sense that it is more difficult to produce good coverage of China from outside the Chinese mainland, though it is less clear that being based in Beijing or Shanghai itself leads to more positive coverage of the country: counter-examples to this already referenced in this report are the BBC’s John Sudworth (before he left for Taiwan) and The Economist’s Chaguan column.

There are clear policy implications. Negative media coverage of China reinforces and contributes to widespread negative views about China in the UK. This makes a hawkish or more critical policy towards China more likely, in line with the interests of lobbyists and politicians inside and outside government who favour that approach (in contrast, as noted above in the discussion of previous studies, during the ‘Golden Era’ in bilateral relations the negative media tone was less dominant). The relationship between media and policy agendas is iterative, and we can see that media commentaries and reports are used to push policy issues and to set the policy agenda. A good example around 2020 was the question of Huawei’s presence in the UK. More recent examples might be the steady stream of media articles on Chinese industrial presence in Internet of Things supply chains, or alleged risks from using security cameras made in China, or the campaign against TikTok, which has led to its being banned on government devices. In many of these cases, the media reporting follows information shared by lobby groups or anonymous officials, with little critical reflection or investigation.

The almost total lack of any positive coverage of China in the British media further closes off the scope even for making arguments that policy should reflect opportunities from dealing with China. The Overton window on China policy does not allow for positive coverage of the country at the moment. Others have commented on this – for example, Daniel Bell said, ‘There is almost universal consensus in the West that China is led by an evil government that is bad to its own people and dangerous to people in other countries. It’s extremely difficult to publish views that argue otherwise’, and continued, ‘Public opinion makes it almost impossible to publish comments that offer a balanced picture of Chinese politics in leading Western media outlets’.

In the current political climate, this looks unlikely to change. As discussed at the start of this paper, the important lesson is for responsible politicians and policymakers to realise that the picture of China they are getting from the media is an inaccurate and incomplete one. In short, media coverage and the wider public debate about China in the UK today fail to reflect the complex reality of China and close off space for in-depth understanding or balanced debate about this most significant of countries.

Read the full version of the report here:

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