An opinion piece in the usually hawkish state-run Global Times tabloid telling local companies to invest in China and not in India was widely picked up by the Indian media last month.
It branded more or less every Indian between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the “labour class” as corrupt, lazy and inefficient, and said India was merely “barking” about the trade deficit with China – the last bit being a jab at the jugular.
It was fodder for the Indian media, which helped itself liberally to the article and attributed its tone to the thinking within the Chinese government.
It was published in the People’s Daily-affiliated Global Times, it was anti-India and it must be what Beijing thinks, sees and wants – that assumption was made automatically by the Indian media.
But the Indian media missed a point – the article was written by an Indian freelance writer based in China.
Did that furious article by an Indian in Global Times English, a newspaper possibly not even available outside Beijing, Shanghai and maybe three airports, really reflect the thoughts of the Communist Party of China (CPC)?
In fact, do state media opinion pieces – even by Chinese scholars and writers – uniformly reflect government thinking on foreign policy issues? Is Communist China’s media, said to be strictly controlled by the party, entirely single tone? Maybe not.
“Though published by the People’s Daily, the Global Times should not be understood as a simple reflection of policies or attitudes at the top of the leadership,” said David Bandurski, China Media Project editor at the University of Hong Kong.
So, maybe not. But the problem is this: Chinese politicians are inaccessible, diplomats won’t talk and bureaucrats are faceless. For foreign correspondents, it basically adds up to zero perspectives and insights on policies and what the government is thinking on bilateral issues.
The statements trotted out by foreign ministry spokespersons – the friendly Hua Chunying, the strict Lu Kang and the earnest Geng Shuang – are usually just repeats of past statements on the same issue.
For a parched foreign media, in Beijing and abroad, that makes the state media look like a mirage in an information desert.
Hence, the dependence on state media editorials for insights into the workings of China, the world’s second largest economy and a country that is very vast and very complex.
But assumption is the mother of, well, many misinterpretations.
“Sometimes Chinese government uses state run media to express its opinion but those opinions are not always its official foreign policy. Global Times often serves a role of being more aggressive and nationalistic, but the People’s Daly maybe more an official mouthpiece,” said Xiao Qiang, from UC Berkeley and founder of China Digital Times.
“I’m not surprised that the Global Times has been called out by name! It has repeatedly taken other powers – especially Japan and the US – to task. It’s a highly polarising paper as I personally see it – oftentimes even the official People’s Daily doesn’t show this much in the way of ‘bare teeth editorials’,” David Feng, media academic at Beijing’s Communication University of China, said.
Feng added: “I’d probably not be all too sensitised by the ‘loud shout outs’ by Global Times. Rather than sticking strictly to one paper, I’d go for an assortment of different papers to gauge general consensus on issues regarding, for example, India.”
Bandurski said it wasn’t an easy task to read “intention” in Chinese state media because of its relation to the CPC.
“Reading intention into commentaries appearing in China’s state media is a difficult business. In a general sense, all of the language appearing in party media, such as the People’s Daily, reflects what Chinese leaders call the ‘mainstream’, meaning dominant official news and discourse,” he said.
“In a Chinese context, ‘mainstream media’ actually refers not to dominant commercial media institutions, but rather to the party-state media. But in fact this current of ‘mainstream’ party coverage and commentary can sometimes show a lot of contradictions and contrasts.”
The experts HT spoke to were broadly uniform – if it’s People’s Daily (Chinese) or Xinhua (the national news agency) writing on foreign policy, it could be a window of insight to opaque CPC policies.
“I would say Xinhua takes precedence in most cases, with local papers at times required to redistribute the official Xinhua line. At about this same level you’d find the People’s Daily, as well as other political or official publications, including Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth) theory magazine…,” Feng said.
One thing, however, is sure: coverage of India in China and vice versa has increased.
The English version of Global Times published more than 80 opinion pieces on India this year.
“As the two countries become increasingly interdependent, there is more coverage of India in Chinese media than before, and we have noticed the same on Indian media,” said Li Hongwei, Global Times’ managing editor.
The coverage – a combination of news reports and opinions – will not be evenly positive or negative; it will be a mix.
The Global Times also brushed aside any bias against India.
“The Global Times published many commentaries in support of closer cooperation between China and India, as in the case of the Goa (BRICS) Summit. What you perceive to be anti-India is perhaps, sometimes, simply a reaction to anti-China mobilisations,” said Li.
“For example, the recent boycott against Chinese products. It’s also unfair to conclude that any critical commentary is anti-India.”