Towards a more reflective ‘China Story’

October 25, 2021 09:08
Photo: Reuters

Much ink has been spilled on the question of telling the “China Story”.

Some view the exercise as one of defense, as one about truth-telling, pushing back against the ongoing smears that China has endured, as well as providing an alternative discourse to the increasingly vitriolic narratives concerning China’s ascent.

And we can’t fault folks who think as such – after all, it is all but apparent that across a large number of media platforms, China is damned if it does; it’s also damned if it doesn’t. If China invests in sustainable energy and research, it “must” be because it “lacks the literal fuel to run on a high-consumption, low-sustainability growth model”; if China pulls back on its emissions reductions, it must be because “Beijing is (ostensibly) reneging upon its promises concerning climate change”. Across a large number of political theatres and spaces, China has become the new Bogeyman – the new imaginary threat around which select members of the West – and their allies – coalesce and rally. Telling a fair and accurate story about China, then, may not be that outrageous an aspiration.

The trouble arises, of course, when the exercise becomes one of sheer propaganda… in certain quarters. Some believe telling a positive “China Story” with active proselytism and propagandisation of the virtues; extolling of the merits of China, would be at the expense of both plausibility and credibility. Setting aside normative quibbles concerning what public discourse should – ideally – be about, it’s clear that this quite simply doesn’t work, from the point of view of public communications. It’s not convincing, to assert and argue that China is overwhelmingly and unconditionally benign – with few flaws of its own. Neither is the country’s image boosted, nor is its overseas interests advanced, by the combination of flamboyant self-aggrandisement and trenchant projection of confidence.

A more reflective China Story is one that performs two functions at once. The first is to offer a more precise, objective, and pragmatic assessment of the country’s shortcomings and flaws – as opposed to brushing them under the carpet. Dismissing all criticisms of the country as “fake news” won’t cut it – for it would only induce the impression (perhaps erroneous) that the country is living in denial. Nor, indeed, would admittance to some flaws jeopardise national interests – as an ascendant great power, China can afford to accept that it has room for improvement – and it can do so openly and frankly. This would also enable China to reclaim the discursive space concerning its flaws and weaknesses from the plethora of external critics, who have been taking advantage of China’s reticence at engagement by portraying the country as “having something to hide”.

The second, which is equally important, is to highlight the country’s achievements and gains in a manner that is understandable and appreciable by all. An honest account of the progress China has made need not be propaganda – indeed, if anything, the adoption of bombastic and unreservedly positive language would only weaken the value of such accounts, especially in informing the uninformed or apathetic, of the 1.4 billion people’s struggles and successes. Devolving the storytelling to its civil society – as opposed to state-controlled and state-affiliated outlets – would go a long way in boosting the credibility of positive accounts about China. Few would root for a triumphant state – but many can and do bring themselves to agreeing with and seeing value in the testimony of ordinary citizens and civilians.

Now, there remains the age-old criticism of the view I spearhead as such. Cynics would argue that there exists no imperative for China to “play fair”, when confronted with such an adversarial and unfriendly international media environment. There are two issues with this argument. The first, is the assumption that international media are necessarily or inherently antagonistic towards China. I find this view lacking in nuance and creditable proof. Many of my friends have worked or work in the Mainland as journalists for international outlets – who fact-check and error-proof their stories out of both journalistic integrity and professional commitments. Might there be institutionalised biases (cf. Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”)? Perhaps. But are all journalists out to “get” the country? I don’t think so.

The second response is as such – even if we grant that certain media outlets are indeed politically predisposed against China, surely the response the Chinese state ought to embrace is not to fall for the very trap that has been laid and set by certain actors with vested interests. Heightened frankness, candour, and openness to criticisms would allow China to rise above cynics and critics, as well as those who do indeed make a living out of catastrophising about and demonising the country. On the other hand, tightening reporting and media regulations may only yield counterproductive effects – jeopardising both Chinese citizens and officials’ ability to speak truth to power, to connect with their counterparts overseas.

A more reflective “China Story” need not require capitulation or concessions. All it requires is some modicum of greater tact, honesty, and embracing of fair criticisms – without giving in to deliberate besmirching or slander. I’m sanguine about the prospects of this playing out.

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HKEJ contributor