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Study on China coverage ignores political reality

By Andreas Fulda
Political scientist and China expert at the University of Nottingham

I consider the authors’ analytical approach to be distant from practice and uncritical of domination. Studies like this will further deepen the crisis of public trust in the professional knowledge of China scholars. While German sinologists are often called upon to be more China-competent in state and society, for me, the question is instead what kind of analysis of the People’s Republic of China has been pursued so far.

My own research on academic freedom and the role of China has revealed that political censorship and the resulting self-censorship is a taboo subject in German academia. This has a negative impact on academic and public discourse on China in Germany. The present study is an example of this.

The remoteness from practice is already evident in the preface. It complains about “under-complex” German media reports and a lack of nuance. Policy decisions are too rarely made understandable from Chinese logic, it says. It goes on to say: Descriptions, localizations, and definitions create “realities” which is especially true for foreign reporting, “since we have had no direct experiences and adventures in other countries ourselves, have had no conversations and discussions there, have acquired no interests of our own, and also no advanced knowledge of history, culture, and specific problems that we could relate positively or negatively to a narrative conveyed by the mass media.”

These formulations, which explain the starting point of the study, are already very surprising. No conversations and no discussions? No own interests and also no further knowledge about history, culture, and specific problems? This preface pretends that there has been no practical Western engagement with China over the last forty years. It gives the impression that the media are solely responsible for the image of China in Germany. The reality, however, is entirely different.

Journalists are among the best China experts

Countless German politicians, business leaders, journalists, cultural figures, academics, and students have visited the People’s Republic of China since the early 1980s or are in constant exchange with local partners. Many tens of thousands of German citizens have also lived and worked in mainland China for a long time. To limit China to political or academic discourse, therefore, does not do justice to the wealth of experience on the German side.

Instead, the study’s editor pretends that the People’s Republic of China remains a closed book despite the intensive Western engagement with China and that the media are now pushing the country into the role of the enemy. That is too short-sighted. For precisely because we are increasingly gaining experience in dealing with the People’s Republic, the media essentially reflect what is learned from this interaction.

In my estimation, many Western journalists with long academic and practical China experience are even among the best China experts. Many have a high degree of empathy and sensitivity, many speak Chinese well, some fluently. They know Chinese domestic perspectives better than many others who have experienced the country or live there.

I trust these journalists to be realistic about the one-party state. They are aware of what happens when information flows dry up within China due to political censorship.

Just at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we saw massive conflicts erupting within China over freedom of expression. Responsible medical professionals like Dr. Li Wenliang were prevented from warning colleagues about the virus. Chinese critics of Xi Jinping’s crisis management were muzzled or sentenced to long prison terms. Meanwhile, Chinese research on Covid-19 is vetted by government officials according to political criteria before publication. What else, but “critical” to “highly critical”, should reporting look like in this context? But the study provides no such context.

Study provides too little context

The victims of the Xi regime play no role at all in the overall assessment of the reporting. Instead, China is analyzed predominantly from the perspective of the rulers. And while it is legitimate to engage analytically with “official China”, such engagement should not be at the expense of “unofficial China”.

The study gives the impression that there are hardly any critics of Xi’s crisis management in mainland China and that German media simply ignore this harmony in the country because it does not fit into the authors’ worldview or they do not follow the public debates. It is pretended that there are only a few activists in Hong Kong and that the media do not want to acknowledge that they are a “terrorist gang”, at least that is how the Chinese government reads it.

The study ignores the many dissidents in the country, such as the real estate entrepreneur Ren Zhiqiang, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his criticism of the state leadership under the pretext of corruption. The authors also ignore former Party College professor Cai Xia, who was expelled from the Party as a result of her criticism of the regime and no longer receives a pension. Chinese citizen journalist Chen Qiushi is also not mentioned. He disappeared from the scene for 600 days as a result of his reporting in Wuhan. Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, on the other hand, ended up in jail for her involvement. She is currently on a hunger strike. Her health has been considered critical for months.

Under these circumstances, it is incomprehensible when the authors speak of “an ultimately successful interplay of political and social action”. When representatives of the “unofficial China” are named in the study, their position is often only worth a short half-sentence, and their respective involvement has negative connotations.

Xi regime is a personalized dictatorship

Like that of the Chinese writer Fang Fang, who was attacked by nationalists for her Wuhan diary. The study only briefly mentions her for “denouncing the failure of authorities in the early stages” with reference to Fang Fang in German reporting. Meanwhile, Professor Xu Zhangrun, who lost his job at Tsinghua University in the wake of his criticism of Xi’s handling of COVID, is only quoted as questioning media criticism of Xi’s autocratic leadership style.

So the study itself must accept the reproach of lacking nuance that it accuses China coverage of.

The characterization of Xi Jinping makes it particularly clear how uncritically the three authors analyze China. In the study, they speak of a “narrative of the communist dictator”. But of course, there is also something like political reality.

In historical reality, Xi Jinping has created a personality cult, ended collective leadership in the Politburo Standing Committee, and, with Document No. 9, clearly rejected any liberalization and democratization of the country. From a political science perspective, the Xi regime can be described as a personalized dictatorship. It is therefore entirely legitimate for German journalists to address this fact so clearly in their China reporting.

Due to the aforementioned remoteness from practice as well as the lack of a critique of domination, I consider the study to be of little value.

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