China and the Western Media

Bill Holstein is the current president of the OPC Foundation and has written about press issues in China for OPC online.

It’s a delicate moment in how the Western media covers China — and how the Chinese government engages with the media.Most countries scheduled to host the Olympics enjoy a positive media build-up to the games, as Japan did in 1964 and South Korea did in 1988. Reporters and their news organizations tend to “discover” the host country and give it the benefit of the doubt.But the Western media’s perception of China seems to be undergoing a negative tilt even as the country gears up to host the Olympics next year:

  • Coverage of how Chinese enterprises and companies sell fake pet food, pharmaceuticals, tires, toothpaste and toys around the world has been intense. Chinese officialdom has sought to counter this line of reporting through various means—executing the head of the nation’s drug safety agency or suggesting that some American goods are equally dangerous. Neither has been effective.
  • China’s environment is attracting increasing attention in major publications–and it isn’t a pretty picture. The country is paying an enormous price for its pell mell industrialization. How China can clean up its environment for the Olympics can only intensify as a story. Chinese officials shouldn’t, and can’t, deny that their environment is a legitimate issue.
  • Chinese corruption also looms large. The truth of the matter, based on my coverage of China for a quarter century, is that corruption is pervasive at the provincial and municipal level. Top leaders in Beijing appear to be relatively clean, but they sit atop a giant corrupt structure. When the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that the government goes easy on the people who offer bribes, while sometimes arresting people who accept them, senior Chinese officials were quoted as criticizing foreign news media for those reports.

The message to the Chinese government should be this: don’t shoot the messengers, who are covering important issues as China seeks to hold the Olympics and engage deeply with the West. Chinese officials could resort to old tricks — denying entry visas, blackballing reporters, even arresting more local Chinese support staff on allegations of betraying state secrets. But if China wishes to maintain a positive media climate — and overall the Western media’s coverage has been supportive for 28 years even since China’s opening to the United States — it should articulate how it is going to address its problems, not pretend that they don’t exist. The current negative tilt could be mitigated — or it could snowball.By Bill Holstein


4 Responses to China and the Western Media

  1. opcofamerica says:

    Hi Bill, and thanks for the post. This is an issue the OPC will be highlighting in the coming month online and in the monthly newsletter.

    In terms of opening up a free press, perhaps it’s best to start with the citizens themselves, and I’m thinking primarily in journalism schools. For example, this semester, Deloitte Touche is supporting global biz journalism at Tsinghua University, which hopes to provide journalists with the skills to cover international business.

    And of course, there are those journalists who are already on the ground, like Arnold Zeitlin, who we profiled in the July/August issue of the Bulletin. I just posted it online.

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