Anti-Chinese Media and the US Government: an unhealthy alliance

Peace Advocate August 2021

President Joe Biden announces his executive order on electric vehicles, Aug. 5, 2021. He identified two objectives for his policy: "outcompete China, and address the climate crisis". VOA photo
President Joe Biden announces his executive order on electric vehicles, Aug. 5, 2021. He identified two objectives for his policy: "outcompete China, and address the climate crisis". VOA photo

By Marcus Breen

Anti-Chinese views dominate public opinion in the United States. This is hardly surprising given that the media and information services generally, act like magnets for prejudice. Rather than being sites of rational debate, the current state of things continues the great American tradition of making a currency of emotion, where prejudice operates to offer a positive view of US foreign policy. Over the past three years, anti-Chinese views, and elements of Sinophobia have produced a feeding frenzy of irrational emotions.

Trading in an emotion defined by fear as well as ignorance, Sinophobia has escalated among Republican and Democratic Presidents, the Congressional leadership, its members, as well as the US population. Unfortunately, the irrational nature of Sinophobia makes it difficult to redirect public discourse and attitudes into areas of mature analysis that inform public policies that are mutually beneficial for the US, China and the world.

73 percent of surveyed respondents in the US had a negative attitude to China by June 2020, compared to 35 per cent in 2005.  89% considered China a competitor or an enemy by March 2021.

This should be no surprise to peace advocates. Our experience observing US-led campaigns to assert US liberal democracy and capitalism as the unchallenged universal model for political life and social organization has mobilized the movement for peace and justice. We are sensitive to the assertion of US interests as an expression of the tawdry history of imperial behavior undertaken by our nation.

Fear and ignorance are the bedfellows of irrationality. Sinophobia has all the hallmarks of a narrative that has been effectively used by the US Government in the past to mischaracterize non-US interests as a precursor to ill-informed actions.   As the peace movement learned from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the starting point for overseas US campaigns are unfounded claims channeled by the US media from the US Government.

Media’s role in Creating an Enemy

In order for the anti-China campaign to succeed, the process of officially creating an enemy has to be established by the government, then reproduced, reiterated and regurgitated by the government in alliance with the national media. The US media has been an effective tool for “soft power” since the end of the World War 1, when the global film industry left Europe for Hollywood. Since then, celebrities, film and television stars, actors and producer/directors have globalized the message of American exceptionalism, where the world has pretty much fallen into line in delivering US-centric images, ideas and systems of thought.  US-centric media organizations in the cultural industries, like popular music, magazine and book publishing and social media platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter mop up reservations about US domination of mediated communication.

In their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky described a Propaganda Model of the ideological mechanisms at work in the US media.  Public opinion follows media reporting by allowing US interests unimpeded space in which to uncritically assert national foreign policy as well as US consumer culture.

While 1988 is the length of the internet away from where we are now in media history, explanations for anti-Chinese sentiment remain grounded in historical precedents. Indeed, by 2019, in an interview by Alan MacLeod for the anthology, Propaganda in the Information Age, Chomsky said “the establishment line” in the US media continues to dominate, adding: “I don’t think the Internet and social media changes the propaganda model at all.”

In the European Union, the United Kingdom and Australia, public service broadcasters had offered independent, publicly funded perspectives to the preferred US establishment line. Unfortunately, public service broadcasting in recent years has been emasculated by conservative governments in favor of private outlets, often with connections to conservative owners.   Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, all owned by Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, reproduce the preferred establishment line.

The US Government Campaign

The  US Government has led the campaign against China for one primary reason: China is outpacing the US in every aspect of human development.

For example, comments made by President Biden when he launched his electric car policy on August 5 identified the need by the US to “outcompete China,” though he admitted that, “Today, the U.S.  market share of electric vehicle sales is only one third that of the Chinese electric vehicle market.”

Competition with China is one aspect of the anti-China program that has been highlighted by the mainstream media (MSM), then shifted into a higher register of negative emotion. The fear-mongering of China’s technology prowess emerged in 2012 when the House Intelligence Committee released a 52 page report, “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE.”  “Based on available classified and unclassified information,” said the report, “Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems.”

The House committee did not investigate the U.S. national security state’s influence on U.S. technology companies.

President Trump adopted an aggressive line, informed by the America First policy announced at his inauguration – “a new vision,” as he called it.  Sure enough as that administration moved into election mode in 2019 and 2020, conservative allies led the MSM into its echo chamber.

Two key documents aligned with initiatives defined the last year of Trump’s Presidency, continuing into Biden’s first year as President.

Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, published The China Initiative in 2018. It reports a series of actions that the US has taken in “disrupting and deterring the wide range of national security threats posed by the policies and practices of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government.” Yet again, national security is foregrounded as an emotional trigger for an irrational reaction to China. The China Initiative is a core agenda setting document for US policy makers, but the MSM did not subject it to any critical evaluation.

The Council on Foreign Relations, which dominates Democratic Party foreign policy views, published “Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China: Twenty-Two Policy Prescriptions” in 2020. It outlines the “US role in shaping the global system,” recommending that “statecraft” be used as a significant solution to the challenge presented to the US by China.

The MSM presents a China focus in which the threat of China is taken for granted rather than assessed or analyzed.  Who has time for deep reflection, collaboration and peaceful cooperation? Not the MSM. Desperate to score points in a competition it is unable to reflect upon, the MSM cannot self-criticize, to recognize elements of its performance as propaganda. Moreover, it struggles to present diplomacy as a solution. Diplomacy and statecraft’s history of rationalist refinement, including the skills of listening and conversation in an exchange of opinions, collides with the media’s preference for constructing irrational perspectives that feed the public frenzy of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Peaceful coexistence between the US and China is possible if the nexus between the US Government and the MSM can be broken, to be replaced by a Fourth Estate worthy of the name.

— Marcus Breen is a member of Mass. Peace Action’s No Cold War group and a member of Boston College’s Communications Department faculty