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May 4, 2020

Responding To: The U.S.-China Relationship Under Stress

Media Perspectives: U.S.-China Relations at Difficult Times

Yunfei Dai

The United States and China are, and have proved themselves to be, the world’s leading powers with different and not necessarily competing systems and perspectives. Since the United States and China formalized their diplomatic ties after almost a decade of negotiation in the 1970s, some of the two countries’ pre-existing tensions intensified after China’s tremendous economic growth mostly in the 21st century. Fifty years later, China has grown so much and is identified as the United States’ biggest competitor without doubt; while vice versa, China’s advancement in its economy, technology, and military is met with numerous obstacles and clashes of interest with the United States.

The nature of political tension between China and the United States is highly contextual according to a spectrum of information: the nation’s existing conditions and state of affairs, alliances at the point in time, and political outlook, visions and ambitions. I want to explore the dynamics of U.S.-China tensions through another lens - the media. Journalism can be an adequate representative of not only how two countries are dealing with each other, but how the media is shaping civil perspectives and sentiments. What the American and Chinese general publics perceive of the political tensions are also crucial but often neglected influencers of U.S.-China interactions and dynamics.

Let us look at some of the controversial historical moments in U.S.-China relations: The 2001 Hainan Island Incident (also known as the South China Sea Battleplane Crash) ; the South China Sea discussions in 2016, and more recently, the ongoing Hong Kong protest. I will interpret the trajectory of media representation change through reviewing some fact-based mainstream media reports (instead of opinion articles) and internet infrastructure.

Before 2001, the 1999 Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing was an incident between China and the United States with responsibility held in apparent manners. The incident is categorized as a faulted attack by compounded mistake admitted by relevant NATO departments. However, for the 2001 Hainan Island Incident, the question of who should hold responsibility for the Chinese battle plane crash remains uncertain between China and the United States. By the time, the New York Times published an article titled “U.S. Plane in China After It Collides With Chinese Jet" concerning the incident. While it is natural that the article comes from the American perspective and interest, it has given a fair representation of the Chinese argument and response. For example, the article quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mr. Zhu on the issue, “Tailing and monitoring American military reconnaissance aircraft along China's coast belongs to proper aviation activity and is in keeping with international conventions”. To the general American audience, such a quote offers not only objectivity to the issue, but also a chance to get to know (if not to agree with) the rationale of the other side.

More than a decade later, the South China Sea became a key area of concern between the United States and China in the 2010s. I found a relevant fact-based article titled “The first new rule for South China Sea talks: Don't Talk about the South China Sea” in 2016 from the Washington Post. However, in this article, China’s response towards the South China Sea Arbitration was misrepresented. The article wrote, “China dismissed the ruling as ‘trash paper’ and denounced the process as ‘farce’”, without any reference or quotes. What this sentence does is wrap the writer’s opinion inside a representation of “fact”. To the audience, China’s response was hardly explained but depicted with some discrete quotes like “trash paper” or “farce”, and without a source. This reporting is not very helpful to inform, and could potentially mislead the general public to think about the true meaning of the Chinese response. No matter whether one agrees with China, such misrepresentation could cause unnecessary confusion.

Looking at the Chinese media, it is also true that certain exclusion or misrepresentation of the United States’ rationale exist in similar ways. In addition, it is also worthy to note the influence on civil perspectives from the Great Firewall. Though the wall does work to filter out a lot of fake information, it also excludes a lot of valid and truthful information from the public, since that information is on blocked platforms. In the reverse way, the firewall also limits how the Chinese general public communicates with the world and impacts civil perspectives of other countries. Concerning recent Hong Kong Protests, there have been comments and opinions on the issue from everywhere around the world but mainland China. How can the world ignore the mainland Chinese people’s perspectives when it comes to the Hong Kong Protest? The civil perspectives and rationale from mainland China on many issues are currently important pieces missing in the dialogue.

To conclude, the intention to assess media influence on U.S.-China civil perspectives is not to favor either side but to reflect on how public thoughts and understanding may influence the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. Clashes of interest will, if not always, exist between leading powers. The nations and their peoples don’t have to agree, but empowering awareness and understanding of each other’s positions will lessen hostility, help refresh old perspectives and open up future possibilities. The U.S.-China relationship lies not only in political institutions. The general public can play a great role too. But in many circumstances, people just disagree, without knowing what the other side says and what to disagree about.

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