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The role of the media in the rise of China

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The media’s role in China’s rise paint a picture centred around US struggles to maintain hegemony. Transparent and impartial information disseminator? Far from it

Pro-democracy activists Lee Cheuk-yan speaks to media as he arrives at the West Kowloon Courts before entering a courtroom to face charges related to illegal assembly during Tiananmen vigil, in Hong Kong, China, September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

China’s remarkable economic development since the 1990s to be the world power it is today, has been recorded by the World Bank as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history”. Growing at an annual average of 9.71% from 1989 to 2017, China’s economic progress certainly took the world by storm to be the challenging power to US dominance. But how has this growth been portrayed by the media? Is this “rise” part of a wider narrative to contain a power seemingly threatening to the future of the liberal international order?

The media in China’s rise

Two key issues underpin the media’s significance in China’s rise. The first, and more obvious point, is that as a medium for disseminating information on global affairs, the subsequent tracing of the events surrounding China to become the power it is today were undoubtedly interlinked with the media, since this is one of the main means by which both governments and the public come to be informed on events.

The second presents a more nuanced understanding of the media from the lens of the global dynamics of power. As this article will explore, the corporate roots underlying the media system have hindered the key tenets of impartiality and transparency of the media in a context of US struggles to maintain hegemony in its period of relative decline in the face of this rise.

The globalisation

By exploring the idea of the media as a manifestation of the prevailing economic system, the very nature of globalisation is particularly enlightening. The establishment of a unipolar world after the Soviet collapse marked a new epoch for neoliberalism and globalisation. Put simply, globalisation in this context has been used as a smokescreen to mask the “political project” of US neo-imperialism. The very corporations which form the cornerstone of the world’s economic power dynamics in this new age of interconnectivity, include the very media outlets purporting to embody impartial and transparent reporting on global affairs.

It is in this context that the analysis of the media as a highly politicised, economic-orientated propagator of the prevailing system comes in, most notably with the 1988 “Propaganda Model” by Herman and Chomsky.

Centred around capitalism’s market forces and drives to make profit, the model argues that the giant corporations which make up the western media system report information in line with their vested interests. Taking the example of the media’s composition and concentration into a small number of very large companies, with 6 firms dominating the US media in the 2000s, the intrinsic, systemic roots to why the reporting of information has been based increasingly on competing market forces and the pursuit of profit is demonstrated. The neoliberal structures entrenched in the US centric Bretton Woods trio were poised to facilitate this.

Placed in a context where governments and businesses possess the ability to withdraw advertising funding from media companies, impartiality in the dissemination of information is severely undermined. Radical and Marxist this analysis may be; but it provides a rational depiction of the media’s role in its portrayal of China to the world and reflects the underlying economic implications that result.

China’s path on the international scenario

It is all well and good to outline a theory claiming to fully encapsulate the nature of the media in China’s rise, but how does this relate to real world developments? For this, a brief account of the events surrounding China’s rise is necessary.

From revolutionary challenger, to status quo power, to the assertive shaper of global governance it is today, China has certainly taken a turbulent path in its role on the international stage. Product of Maoist revolutionary uprising in 1949, the inception of this new communist power brought immediate ostracization by the West which considered it a threat to the liberal order, especially when placed in the context of an alliance with the US’s Cold War adversary in the form of the 1950 Sino-Soviet treaty.

Subsequent rapprochement with the US in 1979 ushered in a new era of normalisation of relations with China, which would see the start of rapid economic and political integration of China into the global international system.

Of course, that is not to say that the media has consistently presented China in a positive light. China has always been an outlier to Western standards of human rights and democracy. Coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the subsequent bloody crackdown on protesting students, was undoubtedly negative. Yet this was not sustained in the proceeding years, nor did China continue to be at the forefront of a negative international media spotlight.

China’s global governance

Two events would change this seemingly tranquil view of China as a developing country. Firstly, the demise of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent consolidation of a globalisation centred around the United States, left China’s rapid economic development under increasing scrutiny as a possible rival to US hegemony.

Secondly, the economic fallout caused by the 2008 Financial Crash in the West served as a hammer blow to US global governance in its exposure of the flaws of the neoliberal economic system. But it also had the effect of enhancing China’s role in the international economy. The initiation of the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative and moves to create new supra-national financial institutions would act as the catalyst for changing western narratives towards China.

And it is perhaps this context which may demonstrate why China’s rise was seen through a lens of such alarm by the media, in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis. Not only was the dominance of US corporations at stake due to the economic fallout of the West, but the very structure of global economic governance itself was in peril. No longer could the world economic system depend on a solely US centric structure. A new age of east-west co-governance was inevitable. In the process, the label of “developing country” for China had been made redundant.

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