Western reports on COVID-19 have overwhelmingly been produced under a simple banner of ‘China’. It’s a homogeneous label that ignores the human face of Chinese people everywhere.
Like almost every westerner with connections in China I have a WeChat account. It is both a direct messaging service and a posting platform like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
With estimates of up to 760 million having their movements restricted by COVID-19, Chinese people are spending a lot of time on their phones.
In recent weeks I’ve been messaged by a great number of people with whom I rarely have contact, in some cases I’ve not seen or heard from them for years.
One of the messages I received struck me hard. A tour guide in the eastern Chinese province of Fujian, a popular destination for inbound tourists, messaged to ask how I was going.
Her name is Madeline.
There ended up being 33 messages in that thread. For me a typical conversation would not extend beyond four messages, a very long one might extend to seven or eight.
It’s been almost five years since we’ve been in contact. She told me that, since January 26, she’s not left her home other than brief trips to pick up essentials. She says she’s fine as there’s only been a few reports of COVID-19 infections in Fujian, and no deaths, among a population of 38 million people.
Madeline tells me the price of fresh vegetables has gone up and that her retired parents are upset because they cannot partake in their three-hour daily walk.
After a few messages it dawned on me. She was lonely, isolated and uncertain of her immediate future.
With local tourism at a standstill she’s apprehensive her tour company will now fast-track changes that could see her future work hours cut significantly.
Her entire working life has been taking English-speaking people around her province, perhaps through me this conversation was a re-connection. Madeline just wanted somebody to talk to.
Now, multiply that story by 760 million people…
Chinese people have become collateral damage
Not too many people could comprehend the above equation; others seemingly have no desire to.
Of China’s bid to isolate its population from this virus, and prevent its spread, New York Times technology reporter, Paul Mozur, took to Twitter (in a post that now appears to have been deleted) calling it “one of the largest social experiments, ever anywhere, even in China.”
Calling this an “experiment” suggests the Chinese people are lab rats or guinea pigs. His is a familiar tone that feigns interest in the plight of ordinary Chinese people, when he is really only using them as a vehicle to push an anti-Chinese government agenda.
Only 6.5 percent of the Chinese population are members of the Communist Party, according to the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations, China has more practicing Christians.
Mozur and his publication, along with many major US media outlets, is fervently anti-communist. They have every right to hold and express those views.
The question I ask – more importantly Chinese people ask – is why is the tone of their reports overwhelmingly anti-Chinese?
China hits back at Wall Street Journal
Last week China’s Foreign Ministry expelled three Wall Street Journal correspondents from Beijing, though its two China bureaus remain open. The move was retaliation over an opinion piece headline that read China is The Real Sick Man of Asia.
The WSJ refused demands for an apology and journalists Chao Deng and Josh Chin, both US citizens; and Philip Wen, the former China correspondent for Australia’s Fairfax media, had their credentials withdrawn.
This is particularly regrettable for Chao Deng, who was filing reports from inside Wuhan where she was doing a fine job. Adding to her distress, latest reports say, she remains quarantined in Wuhan unable to leave nor continue working as a journalist.
The Wall Street Journal’s publishers, Dow Jones released a statement saying the expelled journalists had nothing to do with the offending story and that the Opinion Department is kept separate from editorial and news departments.
This separation is clearly in place, not just at the WSJ but at most major newspapers.
However, it is somewhat disingenuous for the publishers to suggest that opinion pieces are flagged through the WSJ without the publication’s editors ever being made aware of the headlines.
Whilst the original headline that caused such offence across China barely raised a whimper with western media outlets, China’s expulsion of the WSJ correspondents was big news across the world.
There were decries of press freedom and censorship; while these are sentiments I will always lean heavily towards, China has pretty unambiguous rules and expectations of foreign media and their reporting. These are clearly not western standards these are Chinese standards.
The simple fact is the WSJ produced a headline which it knew would cause great offence in China, it refused requests for an apology, and it would have come as no surprise to the journal when the credentials of its China-based correspondents were withdrawn.
Earlier this month I published an opinion piece criticising the ‘Real Sick Man of Asia’ article written by academic Walter Russell Mead.
I defended the author, whose argument was supported by a good many facts. However, I argued the headline was overtly racist and the language inappropriate as it rested on an expression that had its origins in late 19th Century.
In that assessment I am far from alone. Former Beijing bureau chief of the Washington Post, John Pomfret last week told CNN “sick man of Asia” is rooted very much in anti-Chinese sentiments.
My question to the WSJ:
Would it publish a headline applying long since discarded expressions – now regarded as highly offensive – to African Americans, Americans of other ethnicity or religions; or indeed members of the LGBTQI+ community?
It can’t decry Chinese media censorship when the WSJ, and many media outlets in western democracies, practice self-censorship, often to promote the interests of corporates ahead of ordinary citizens.
Missing in Action in the run up to the GFC
A study conducted at Bryant University in the United States found that both the WSJ and New York Times were missing in action in the lead up to the Global Financial Crisis.
Despite all the warning signs, just two days before the collapse of, investment bank, Lehman Brothers, the WSJ reported that Goldman Sachs had a ‘buy’ recommendation on the stock.
That Lehman Brothers collapse was part of a crisis which saw ten million Americans lose their homes and taxpayers forced to bailout banks, insurance companies and automakers to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Then executives of financial institutions, bailed out with public money, paid themselves multi-million dollar bonuses.
The Bryant University report found that in the period immediately preceding this collapse the WSJ had written 13 positive articles about Lehman Brothers, a major Wall Street investment bank on the brink of collapse!
Some reports just plain racist
Not long after news of COVID-19 first broke, the front page of Germany’s respected Der Spiegel magazine carried an image of an Asian man in a red protective cape, wearing goggles and a gas mask, peering at an iPhone – suggesting China’s primary worth is a cheap workforce which, among other things, produces iPhones.
The accompanying headline was “CORONA-VIRUS, Made in China”, while the front-page of a French newspaper blurted out “Yellow Alert”.
It is deeply embedded in Chinese culture that its people don’t engage in public arguments, yet a front-page headline in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, ‘Chinese Virus PANDA-MONIUM’, drew 75,000 people to an online petition, demanding an apology.
It wasn’t until a week later that Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally fronted the media calling attacks on the character of Chinese-Australians “reprehensible”. Labor politicians were equally slow to respond, only The Greens were swift and unequivocal in their condemnation of the Herald Sun.
A tone fermenting for some time
It’s not just anti-China stories since the COVID-19 outbreak. In November, former Australian prime minister, Paul Keating accused the Australian media of ongoing anti-China bias, saying, “the whispered word ‘communism’ of old, is now being replaced with the word ‘China’.”
To many China observers a, largely economic, Cold War between the US and China has already broken out and the west is relying on Soviet-era type rhetoric to combat China’s rise.
On this week’s Q&A program on Australia’s ABC network, respected journalist, author and filmmaker Stan Grant joined a panel discussion on China and the COVID-19 response.
A former CNN correspondent in Beijing, Grant had many run ins with Chinese authorities over his reporting. He remains unequivocal in his strong criticism of the transparency of the Chinese Communist Party and of its media censorship.
Yet he also criticized the tone, and language, of western media reporting on China, telling the studio audience, “I don’t think the media helps in the way that a lot of this is reported… we’re using the language of war: ‘the frontline’, ‘the battleground’.
“When you use language of war it is emotional language. When you give impressions of hordes of Chinese bringing illness it doesn’t take much to touch those buttons. Those racist buttons that are always there in our society.”
Stan Grant, Journalist and Author
Negative headlines looking for stories
China and its people are in the midst of an enormous human tragedy. There’s been a barrage of media reports questioning the Chinese government over its response. While it’s legitimate the world questions the Chinese response, there’s a sense that a few too many reports began as headlines in search of a story.
Major media outlets, including the Daily Mail, have peddled fake ‘bat soup captions’ on images suggesting the Chinese population en masse is responsible for this coronavirus. One idiot on Twitter fired off at me, saying the Chinese people got what they deserved because they “eat koalas in Wuhan.”
Whether it comes from austere publications like the Wall Street Journal or morons on Twitter, there is an overt message that if something is wrong in China the entire population is complicit.
The subtext of such messages is that it is somehow okay to pick on Chinese people in the midst of a crisis. It’s no okay, it’s the textbook definition of racist.
That tone of blaming all Chinese people is as offensive as it is irrational. Nobody has ever accused all Australians, Americans and Brits of giving blanket support to Morrison, Trump or Johnson.
Everybody hurts sometimes
There is a counter argument to my thesis, that western reports and attitudes to the Chinese people, and the diaspora, are not deliberately racist.
However, the simple fact is offence is being caused, on a very large scale, and Chinese people are hurting.
Friends within China have expressed dismay at insensitive attitudes towards their plight, whilst the distress of Chinese Australians is at a level I’ve never seen before. These are people who absolutely consider Australia their home, fearful the words of others are constantly questioning that right.
A Chinese Australian friend from Hong Kong, who in the 25 years I have known him has not had a kind word for the Chinese government, told me, “Why can the west only attack the Chinese government and make up anti-communist conspiracy theories? It’s like the opium British and Americans brought to China two hundred years ago, they don’t like the Chinese.”
The atmosphere hanging above Chinese people is palpable.
In her hopes and fears my friend Madeline is far from alone. She’s become a nameless face in a crowd that includes one in every five people on this planet. Their names are a not a virus.
It's often hard to see the human impact of a global crisis, especially when it's happening thousands of kilometres away, in an unfamiliar setting. As a WeChat user with thousands of connections on my personal accounts, I can vouch for the fact that there are many, many Madeleines out there, and life is not easy for them right now. That is the flip side of the endurance and adaptability that characterises Chinese business. As business people, we can speak well of China, and send our moral support to those we know who are suffering. It does make a difference.