Over the recent years, working in the media has seemingly become a struggle, as gone are the days when one could just simply be objective and professional. This is the result of society’s restlessness and the backdrop of greater geopolitical tussling.
When US-China relations were amicable, or at least when both sides compromised to get what they wanted, it was business as usual. However, in a world where one is either friend or foe, or finding enemies even when there are none, it has become very difficult to be neutral and objective, and one wrong move could easily lead to criticism from both sides, as it is impossible to please everybody.
The Western media, in particular, have entered a mode of cognitive warfare and are constantly on a witch hunt. Last month, Lianhe Zaobao became the target, as The Washington Post ran a lengthy investigative piece citing biased evidence to claim that Lianhe Zaobao was the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, and even insinuating that Singapore has aligned itself with China. Reading the article brought on a rueful smile.
No monopoly on all truth
Is Lianhe Zaobao’s editorial stand and news angle really that pro-China?
In some places, media outlets are clearly designated as left-leaning or right-leaning, and even have precise positions on the political spectrum. Readers make their choices in reading the newspapers they identify with and visiting websites within their own ideological bubble. Meanwhile, they ignore what they do not want to see, thus creating an echo chamber. And if one is in an environment dominated by state media, then I’m sorry to say, there is only one voice and you feed on what is given to you.
No matter how strong, wise or capable one is, they do not hold a monopoly on all truth.
But the platform of opinion in Lianhe Zaobao is meant to be diverse, so that a variety of opinions can flourish. This is why, besides contributions from local writers, the paper includes commentaries from a range of writers globally — from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong (Greater China), Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the US, Canada, the UK, Italy, Poland, Germany and more.
Also, articles from Western liberal sources such as The New York Times and Project Syndicate are sometimes translated and published. This ensures broad discussion whereby diverse viewpoints can go head-to-head, be compared and debated.
Recently, the satirical song Rakshasa Sea City (罗刹海市 Luocha Haishi) by Dao Lang (刀郎) — its lyrics a coded mockery of China’s state of affairs — went viral, and there were contrasting views on the song. Lianhe Zaobao ran several articles covering both sides, including a rare defence of singer Na Ying, who is said to be implicated in the song.
Clearly, we disagree with some of these views, but as long as an argument makes sense, it is worth sharing with readers. After all, not everything is black and white. No matter how strong, wise or capable one is, they do not hold a monopoly on all truth.
Yet, there are always those who dislike the content they see and proclaim that Lianhe Zaobao is pro-China or pandering to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Meanwhile, some selectively target articles they deem “unfriendly to China” and conclude that Lianhe Zaobao is pro-US and dancing to the tune of the West. These critics often take quotes out of context or focus solely on a few individual pieces, without seeing the bigger picture presented by the newspaper as a whole.
It is said that if both sides attack you, you are doing something right — at least you’re not biased. Of course, there are also many who appreciate and thank the newspaper for being “anti-China” or “pro-China”. Fortunately, many of my colleagues are professional enough to be unaffected by praise or criticism.
Logic that does not hold up
While Lianhe Zaobao has its own stance on certain international and public issues, it is expressed through editorials and not the opinions or commentaries of contributing writers. Similarly, our colleagues’ columns offer personal viewpoints, reflecting their individual thoughts and diverse worldviews and life attitudes. They do not need to shape their views to align with Lianhe Zaobao or be politically correct (yes, even this piece — from the first paragraph to the last — does not represent Lianhe Zaobao).
It was particularly baffling for me and my colleagues to find the Washington Post naming two Chinese writers in their report and criticising the paper for not disclosing their CCP membership. The Washington Post also mentioned a writer residing in Hong Kong, claiming that he wrote for both Lianhe Zaobao and Chinese media — gosh, how is this even a problem?
Hence, it is not surprising to have one out of every 14 Chinese experts and scholars who contribute to us be party members. This is a product of their system.
When I inquired with my colleagues, they pointed out that these three writers have contributed fewer than ten articles to the opinion section in the past 12 months, which is less than 1% of the total of around 1,500 articles. One can only say that while we see the efforts of the Washington Post reporters, the logic behind their accusations does not hold up.
In fact, the CCP has nearly 100 million members — about one out of every 14 people you see on the street in China is a party member. Hence, it is not surprising to have one out of every 14 Chinese experts and scholars who contribute to us be party members. This is a product of their system.
When the West engages with the Chinese in terms of investment, business, academic exchange, or even friendship, would they simply disregard someone due to their affiliation with the CCP? When we select contributions, it is definitely not based on such a rigid mentality.
The reasoning is simple: just like every person, every party makes mistakes, but there are things that they do get right (like lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in just a few decades, which is truly remarkable). While they have no problem collaborating with capitalists, we are prohibited from using their articles? Their writings are also not about loyalty or representing party ideology; they aren’t saying “My country is amazing!” (厉害了我的国), nor are they advocating for another proletarian revolution.
My colleagues in the op-ed section would not be interested in such arguments. Furthermore, these writers are usually well-versed in their fields. Indeed, we are interested in their intellectual output and their insights and analyses on various issues, which help us cross-fertilise ideas and enrich Lianhe Zaobao.
I don’t suppose the Washington Post only runs articles by either Democrats or Republicans? Lianhe Zaobao runs articles by the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers Party (WP); our colleagues have helped copy-edit pieces by the opposition. We do not dismiss people because of their political affiliations, or comments because of who wrote them.
Conversely, it is not uncommon for articles by political figures, including those from the ruling party, to be rejected. It is the duty of my colleagues to discern the value of these writings. The criteria and rationale for selection and rejection are the same for the ordinary person and writers from academic institutions.
These courageous individuals who are willing to put their thoughts on paper are already worthy of admiration, and they cannot be blamed if their expressions are sometimes indirect, subtle or obscure.
Furthermore, not everyone is a yes-man in China — it is just that there are few channels to openly express dissent. These courageous individuals who are willing to put their thoughts on paper are already worthy of admiration, and they cannot be blamed if their expressions are sometimes indirect, subtle or obscure. If you genuinely don't understand someone's writing, it's not anyone's fault; but, it's another matter entirely if you deliberately don't want to.
God of Wealth or Taylor Swift?
Whether Lianhe Zaobao’s reporting is biased towards China or the West is often scrutinised under a giant magnifying glass.
During the question-and-answer segment at a networking session for Lianhe Zaobao writers last month, I used two examples to explain Lianhe Zaobao’s vigilance towards the “ulterior motives” of the two powers and how the broadsheet can safeguard its bottom line of neutrality and objectivity.
The first example was an incident that happened two days prior to the networking session. A foreign wire in the West claimed that US officials had received information that Russia was planning to attack grain ships in the Black Sea and then blame it on Ukraine. However, Russia had already warned beforehand that vessels could be targeted as they might be transporting arms. What’s the point of framing someone else when Russia had already issued a warning? Are the US officials or reporters truly unaware of the situation or are they playing dumb? If the latter is true, why so? Subsequent news reports in Lianhe Zaobao presented the details in chronological order with a readjusted focus, rendering the “blame-shifting” theory crafty and absurd.
The second example was related to an oft-used expression in China to refer to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre: “political turmoil between the Spring and Summer of 1989” (89春夏之交那场风波), which is a deliberate attempt to erase the traces of history. Whether in reports or commentaries, Lianhe Zaobao always sticks with the terms “June Fourth Incident” or “1989 Tiananmen Square protests”. While there is no need to sensationalise, it is vital to refer to historical events by their proper names.
Such cognitive warfare without gunsmoke happens every day, and is often a collective endeavour at that.
... two countries surveyed last year with the most favourable views of China, Singapore (67%) and Malaysia (60%), were both excluded from the survey this year, while the number of countries surveyed this year was also more than last year.
A Pew Research Center report released on 27 July found that a median of 67% of adults across 24 countries expressed unfavourable views of China, a figure that has “simply remained high” in recent years. But what’s befuddling is that, the two countries surveyed last year with the most favourable views of China, Singapore (67%) and Malaysia (60%), were both excluded from the survey this year, while the number of countries surveyed this year was also more than last year.
The research centre did not respond to Lianhe Zaobao’s queries. I can only speculate in a “petty” way that Pew did not want Singapore and Malaysia to lower the median of adults with unfavourable views of China. If so, the professionalism and rigour of Pew’s report would have to be discounted.
The Washington Post’s article also used last year’s survey to demonstrate that Singaporeans are largely pro-China. To emphasise Singapore’s “China” characteristics, the article included six photographs of street scenes near the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Chinatown, as well as a God of Wealth statue, big Chinese characters and a Chinese martial arts school.
Although the visuals complemented the content, is there a need to include so many visuals and to sensationalise? It appears that the photo editor has neglected the principle of proportionality. Besides, the two locations depicted are but a partial snapshot of Singapore — the bigger question is: is the island truly steeped in Chinese tradition?
It’s not without reason that the only other stop on Swift’s Asia tour is Singapore, in addition to Japan, which has a huge market. This is because Singapore is the most Westernised country in Asia, bar none.
American pop star Taylor Swift will hold a concert in Singapore next year. More than a million virtual queue numbers were issued online within ten minutes. Two days before the in-person ticket sales started, Taylor Swift fans were already queuing overnight outside post offices across Singapore, hoping to get their hands on a concert ticket. Soon, scalpers were selling Taylor Swift tickets for more than four times its original price. I think that this is a better representation of the real Singapore, and a more obvious trend of the times.
It’s not without reason that the only other stop on Swift’s Asia tour is Singapore, in addition to Japan, which has a huge market. This is because Singapore is the most Westernised country in Asia, bar none. But it is an aspect that The Washington Post ignores, much less reports.
Brainwashing and distorting facts
The Washington Post, as well as Chinese officials, know that photographs have the power to influence perception. For example, sharp-eyed readers may have long noticed that ZBChina (the China section of Lianhe Zaobao) has published photographs showing tourist attractions and farm harvests in China on a number of occasions. These are the favoured topics of photographers from Xinhua News Agency, or more accurately, part of the Chinese state media’s tasks to “tell China’s story well”. However, it also gives us fewer visual options from Chinese media, and if used too often, Xinhuashe (新华社, Xinhua News Agency in Chinese) would seem like a lvxingshe (旅行社, tourism agency) while ZBChina would become a tourism page.
Excessive manipulation of photographs could also damage professionalism. For example, Western news agencies were the ones that took useful images when Beijing was recently hit by record rainfall. Those from Xinhua failed to convey the catastrophe’s full scope and gravity. It even went so far as to take a series of photographs depicting the reappearance of the “nine dragons spitting water” (九龙吐水) spectacle at the Forbidden City, glorifying the amazing drainage system that was built during the Ming dynasty. I’m unsure if this was a low-level mistake (低级红) or a high-level embarrassment (高级黑), but I believe that if any other news agency really picked up the story, it would be chastised by its readers.
In today’s world, it must be noted that discursive power is still largely in the hands of mainstream English-language media in the West. It is not an exaggeration to say that they have the ability to crush their opponents nine-to-one.
Indeed, both sides are fighting a “squid war”, using all sorts of hoaxes, tricks and even fake news to distort the truth. Caught in the middle, one would need skills to have a good grasp of the quality of the information while not being pulled to either side. Due to limited resources, it is simply impossible to thoroughly and objectively analyse every single piece of news and rewrite it to be as close to the truth as possible. But a moment’s carelessness is all it takes to become a tool for someone else’s cognitive warfare, misleading readers along the way.
In today’s world, it must be noted that discursive power is still largely in the hands of mainstream English-language media in the West. It is not an exaggeration to say that they have the ability to crush their opponents nine-to-one. Thus, they overtly and covertly discredit China every day. To use a trending analogy from Dao Lang’s song, they are adept at packaging news reports with a bunch of “chickens” and “donkeys” that distort and interfere with normal cognition. They are also aggressive, and due to their flawless execution, it is difficult for regular people to tell if these are real or not.
Because of Lianhe Zaobao’s frequent use of materials and information from international wires and the fact that Lianhe Zaobao is available in China, they are all seen, read, and, to some extent, have an impact.
For that reason alone, shouldn’t The Washington Post be thankful to Lianhe Zaobao instead of attacking it?
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “华邮攻击早报，究竟为哪桩？”.
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