By Jackson Kwok, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree with specialisations in Chinese language, history, and foreign policy from the University of Sydney.
Reading through the Chinese media coverage of last week's US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington DC, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to mind. In Orwell's novel, Oceania regularly shifted alliances between Eurasia and Eastasia, first condemning one side in its propaganda and then quickly praising it when alliances shifted. In the same way, China's state-aligned media has shifted dramatically from heavily criticising the US to praising bilateral cooperation.
For the last month, China's media has constantly portrayed the US as an anxious world hegemon bent on containing China. On the eve of the Dialogue, the conservative tabloid the Global Times claimed the US had recently adopted a strategy of 'opposing China at every turn.' Yet the overwhelming praise for this year's Dialogue among China's media outlets marks a departure from the anti-US line.
Xinhua published an article last Thursday which said the Dialogue had 'enhanced mutual trust' and 'consolidated consensus' between the two great powers. An article by the state-owned People's Daily argued that 'cooperation is the only viable option.' Xinhua produced another article on the same day which concluded that 'another solid step has been taken in the construction of Sino-US relations.'
Another article by Xinhua published last Monday hailed the event as a success, especially against the backdrop of bilateral tensions in recent months. The article argued that financial cooperation had become the 'new ballast of bilateral relations.' The sheer number of items agreed upon was also presented as evidence for the success of the Dialogue.
Chinese media also emphasised the reportedly candid tone of the discussions. Articles celebrated the fact that disagreements on certain issues could be discussed openly. Both Xinhua and the Global Times said this was evidence that the relationship was maturing and praised each side's attempts to find common ground. China and the US diverged on maritime disputes and cyber security, but these were only vaguely mentioned.
An article published by the People's Daily last Monday examined how the Dialogue has developed over its seven sessions. The author concluded that he had observed a positive shift towards cooperation. Conversation at this year's round of talks was more 'candid', the atmosphere was more 'peaceful' and there was more 'mutual understanding.' Even the often provocative Global Times was impressed by the frank tone of discussion.
A feature page on the English version of People's Daily proudly proclaimed that the talks achieved 'substantial results'. Provincial news sources were similarly enthusiastic. There seemed to be little divergence from the official line.
As for online discussion, circulations on Weibo leading up to the Dialogue were cynical. Many Chinese netizens expected another round of political fallout between Washington and Beijing. After the Dialogue, many were genuinely surprised at how smoothly the event had proceeded, and praised the 'candid discussion'. Netizens welcomed what they saw as an attempt at engagement with China's position and a departure from Washington's hard-line tactics vis-à-vis the South China Sea.
There are two possible explanations for this shift in attitude.
One is that the media is attempting to set a cooperative tone ahead of President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington in September. This involves setting up China as a fellow great power and as a responsible actor in the international system. In this way, Xi can approach President Obama as an equal and China will not appear to participate from a position of weakness. This framing also requires that China is presented as magnanimous and committed to sharing world leadership with the US. This message was particularly strong in the People's Daily. A piece on Monday claimed 'the whole world saw that the US and China have a strong desire to strengthen communication, control differences, and expand cooperation.'
The Tang Dynasty poem 'A View of Taishan' featured in a number of reports. The trials of US-China relations are likened to ascending a sacred mountain. Upon reaching the summit, maritime disputes and cyber security will seem insignificant: 'When shall I reach the top and hold / All mountains in a single glance?' Though supposedly 'insignificant', tensions over these issues could potentially derail Xi's US visit. The Chinese media is attempting to downplay them and present China as committed to big-picture goals.
It is also possible that China's media is entering a damage-control phase. Some might argue that China has pushed too hard in the South China Sea, and this softening of tone might be a reaction to Washington's hard-line response. In this sense, it could be a form of managing domestic opinion. Analysts argue that cycles of push and retreat have occurred in the past.
It's still uncertain why we've seen this shift in tone and attitude towards the US. While there is increased magnanimity about the US, there is increasing criticism of Japan and Prime Minister Abe in particular. In the last month, state-aligned media has continued to press the Japanese Government on its wartime legacy. It is possible that China needs to have an 'other' against which it can define itself. If the US is not playing that role, anti-Japan rhetoric is likely to increase temporarily.
It is worth watching how this shift develops in the lead-up to Xi's state visit in September, especially as tensions continue to bubble in the South China Sea.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.