I received a transcript from my colleagues last Friday detailing the press conference held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, along with a report from the American media outlet CNN, discussing the discovery of 39 bodies in a British truck. I was out of the office conducting an interview at the time, but I stopped dead in my tracks and immediately took a screenshot and sent it to my peers, asking, “What is wrong?”
This question is becoming increasingly common. At the press conference, one reporter asked, “As you laid out, there have been many successes, advances and progress of the past 70 years with the People’s Republic of China… Hearing that and then from an outside perspective, what would then motivate people from China to want to leave in such a risky way?”
With the abundance of foreign media located in Beijing, it is common for razor-sharp questions to be raised at various press conferences. Even so, the provocative question of why one would leave under such dangerous circumstances still managed to shock listeners.
They further attacked CNN, suggesting it was ruthlessly using 39 lost lives as a political prop to question China’s achievements.
Undoubtedly, this question infuriated Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying, who immediately berated the reporter who asked it. She questioned the motives that led the reporter to conveniently assume the bodies were of Chinese nationality, and from there to go on to associate the whole incident with the PRC’s celebration of its 70th anniversary, saying, "You just assumed they were Chinese and linked this case with the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, which was wrong from the start. What kind of answers do you want to get?"
After this exchange, China’s state media criticised CNN, and the China Central Television released a commentary reprimanding the “sinister motives of CNN”, sarcastically remarking that its association of the tragic deaths in the Essex truck with the PRC’s 70th anniversary was “the result of an intentional, laborious plan made possible by multiple sleepless nights and a great deal of effort”. They further attacked CNN, suggesting it was ruthlessly using 39 lost lives as a political prop to question China’s achievements.
The point is that, by associating the deaths of alleged illegal immigrants with the PRC’s 70 years of growth, CNN’s argument lacked coherence and had jumped the gun, blowing the inconclusive case out of proportion as it aimed to question China’s developmental path, achievements, and institutions.
At the end of the commentary, it was stated that “the CNN reporter owes an apology to the families of the 39 victims and to the Chinese people. This is not too heavy a debt to be paid.” By comparison, the Western media generally chose to avoid this debate without elaborating further on the commentary. Though CNN did not receive a response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it released another article on the same day, titled “Why would people from China, the world’s second largest economy, risk their lives to enter the UK?”, insinuating that the inequality that resulted from China’s economic boom was the underlying cause behind the tragedy.
In all fairness, with preliminary police findings stating that the bodies found were of Chinese nationality, it is justifiable to reflect on why Chinese nationals are choosing to escape the country. In fact, before the surfacing of reports suggesting that the bodies could belong to Vietnamese nationals, Chinese social media sites like Weibo saw a surge in Chinese netizens rallying for the unearthing of deeper socio-economic reasons behind the wave of illegal immigration.
The point is that, by associating the deaths of alleged illegal immigrants with the PRC’s 70 years of growth, CNN’s argument lacked coherence and had jumped the gun, blowing the inconclusive case out of proportion as it aimed to question China’s developmental path, achievements, and institutions. The implicit question being asked was, “Isn’t China supposed to be amazing? If so, why did 39 people want to escape?” Naturally, this is a highly provocative challenge in the view of the Chinese public.
This case is in itself a tragedy, and the way it has developed into a confrontation between the East and the West is even more unfortunate. It is just one more example of a clash between Eastern and Western values and ideologies.
On one hand, CNN’s presumed ability to question China’s development based on the tragic deaths of illegal immigrants and the American public’s general acceptance of this stance demonstrate the widespread agreement to such an association. But to the Chinese public, CNN is clearly insulting China and attempting to negate China’s achievements based on a single tragedy. All these issues were stirred up in the midst of the PRC’s 70th anniversary celebrations, just when the country was experiencing a surge in patriotism and nationalism. But this is not entirely out of the ordinary, since China’s celebrations have always been saddled with foreign scepticism and belittling. CNN’s question is just the latest proof of such confused sentiments in the international media.
In the face of various external risks and challenges, it is important to solidify a developmental and governance model with Chinese characteristics.
With the increasing tension between China and the West, especially between China and the US, it is clear that foreign powers’ scepticism of China’s developmental path, achievements, and institutions has not been minimised and could even be on the rise. A viral commentary on Chinese social media sites expresses frustration towards Western scepticism. It says, “To the Western media, China’s very existence is a sin. China’s social problems are not merely social problems, they are Chinese problems… That’s the price we pay for charting a completely separate path from the West.”
The Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th Communist Party of China Central Committee discussed ways to strengthen the Party’s national governance system for the development of a modernisation path that is different from that in the West. In the face of various external risks and challenges, it is important to solidify a developmental and governance model with Chinese characteristics. In light of the recent CNN saga and an array of other factors, China’s attempts to gain acceptance and understanding from foreign powers for such a model face a difficult challenge.
In examining the role of the media, it is important to note that, in view of recent developments, the Western public, including CNN, will continue to critically scrutinise China’s every move. This can undoubtedly lead to constructive criticism, but if the truth is not accurately portrayed, or if there remains a lack of coherency and a loss of neutrality, the basis of any sharp questions will be shaken, making such efforts ultimately prove to be futile.