How should the Chinese media approach Belt and Road reporting?

A conversation with Michael Anti, award-winning journalist, blogger and veteran media observer

Michael Anti

*This blog is republished from my new blog site Panda Paw Dragon Claw, which is focused on discussing China’s overseas footprint. If you happen to be also interested in Belt and Road stuff, make sure you follow that blog too!

Many Chinese netizens, including myself, recognize the pen name “Michael Anti” (real name Zhao Jing) as an internet legend. His blogs, back in the early 2000s, were must-reads of an emerging body of online writing that was distinctive in style and latitude from what people usually saw on media outlets back then. As a journalist, columnist and blogger, Anti represents the outward-looking, critical voice that introduces liberal ideals into the Chinese cyberspace. In 2005 he famously celebrated China’s Super Girl show (an American Idol style singing talent show) as a massive experiment of democracy, where tens of millions of Chinese viewers voted for their favorite singers through mobile phone SMS. His critique of the global and Chinese media/cyber landscape has established his reputation as one of the sharpest journalistic minds in China. He was the winner of the 2011 M100 Sanssouci Media Award, worked as a war correspondent for 21st Century Business Herald and a researcher for the New York Times Beijing bureau, and became a Harvard Niemann fellow in 2008.

Today, Anti is the editor-in-chief of Caixin Globus, a new media project incubated by Caixin Media, China’s leading business news provider, in 2016 that specializes in reporting news events and developments overseas. When I met Anti in his office two weeks ago, we started by talking about how poorly international news performs in Chinese media. “It’s almost always ranked at the bottom of viewership at news portals,” Anti told me. His answer to that challenge is to make Caixin Globus a “reader-centric” platform of international news. Unlike the standard model of setting up bureaus and dispatching correspondents, a costly arrangement that is out of reach for most non-state Chinese media, Globus has cultivated an impressive network of over 200 overseas contributors, many of them Chinese students of journalism or political science living in countries across the world. With this network, Globus has managed to deliver timely, often on-the-spot coverage of the Kim-Trump Summit, protests in Iran, and the general election in Germany, among other international topics. Anti’s vision is to give readers more say in Globus’s editorial decisions through a built-in mechanism that allows readers to flag what they are interested in. In his words, he would “give up the elitist position of deciding what readers should read” and deliver world news that is actually needed by its Chinese readership.

Globus has recently launched a new initiative to track the overseas ventures of Chinese enterprises. The rolling out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also firmly on the radar of Anti’s global network. Our conversation naturally surrounds China’s overseas involvements and how the Chinese media should approach such developments far away from home.

 

“Our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.”

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (P): What is the status of Belt and Road reporting in the Chinese media?

Anti(A): I think most of the media outlets, when they are faced with the Belt and Road topics, are in a state of hesitation. They don’t know who actually reads such stories. From an ordinary reader’s point of view, why would she or he want to read about BRI?

At the moment most BRI stories are about corporate pioneers, the enterprises that first step out of the Chinese market and go global. They are either about initial successes or failures, and the lessons generated out of those. The problem is that the Chinese media have neither the resources nor the local presence to find really good story leads. So they end up doing what I call “policy reporting”. Such coverage of general policy developments does not pique the curiosity of most readers, who only browse them for casual reading.

P: So how can such reporting improve?

A: In a sense it is premature to expect the media to go big in this area. Readers’ interest in the topic has to be cultivated gradually. Without growing reader interest, investing heavily into BRI reporting is futile. At Caixin we have recently erected a paywall. If a story does not earn us subscription, it will be considered a loss for the publication. As you know, BRI reporting is expensive. Even if we can reduce costs by commissioning from in-country contributors, it will still cost much higher than reporting from Beijing.

Many of our peer news organization do deem BRI as of strategic importance to cover. The question is how. At Globus we want to empower readers to tell us what to cover. Even though many of them are currently not asking questions about BRI per se, they are starting to take a personal interest in other countries’ visa or immigration policies. And the US-China trade war is now high on their reading list. Sometimes their curiosity brings our attention to totally unpredictable places. So I believe that, with time, our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.

It then begs the question of how we spend resources to address that growing appetite. The conventional, elitist mode of “editors pick, readers read” is becoming more and more strained with the ever enlarging geography that news organizations need to cover. The BRI involves more than 60 countries! It’s too scattered. It’s unlike domestic reporting, where editors more or less know what main frames they should use for a given news event. In BRI reporting, some level of reader participation and guidance are definitely helpful. The result coming out of this interactive process will be a real reflection of the BRI that matters, not some imagined concept conjured up by editors.

 

“The Fourth Estate doesn’t apply here.”

P: Where do you get this idea of need-based reporting?

A: It actually comes from the earliest economic and business reporting, pioneered by the Economist almost 150 years ago, when news reporting was considered an informational service. Nowadays, Chinese media elites understand the role of media often through the lens of New York Times vs. Sullivan, or the Pentagon papers, where news media acts as the “Fourth Estate” (or fourth power) in a society, as a check to other formal powers. But if we go back to the media’s original role as an information service, we may find its value in rebuilding the consensual basis of public discourses, something that is lost in an increasingly polarized and tribal world. In the US, partisan polarization has hit unimaginable levels. China is not there yet but you can still sense that people too readily fall into camps in any given public debate. At such a moment, my concern is to construct the foundation of informed conversation. No matter which side you are on as a Chinese, can we have a shared point of departure as globalized citizens of a responsible world power? This is the kind of consensus-building I would like to invest all my time in right now.

P: Is there any place for the Fourth-Estate-style muckraking in BRI reporting?

A: I doubt it. To play the muckraking role, media would need to be able to influence public opinion on a given matter, thereby exerting pressure on policy making. But we are at such early stages right now that even basic knowledge still needs to be disseminated. It’s impossible to jump directly into a role that can move and shake policy.

P: But the need for Chinese media to play that role is already there, if you look at environmental and social controversies around China-backed projects globally.

A: This can be addressed without resorting to adversarial, critical reporting. We can put them under the framework of an informational service, by explaining local concerns and expectations as accepted norms. We can tell our readers, if you do not respect such norms, your projects or investments may fail. This way you achieve what may otherwise need adversarial reporting through more matter-of-fact analyses. We can take the environmental debates of a host country, summarize the mainstream thinking behind them, and present it as the prevailing norms that Chinese actors should bear in mind when they enter the country. I think the Chinese actors reading our reports will agree with this approach. Because at the end of the day, they seek the acceptance of local communities. There is no point arguing back from where they stand in China.

 

“China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. But its media isn’t ready yet.”

P: What kind of BRI stories should such a press tell?

C: So many stories can be told of China’s “going out”. First of all, readers care about why China is venturing out. It’s about motivation. Secondly, they are massively interested in learning how other countries view China. For Belt and Road reporting, understanding a recipient country’s “imagination” of China is crucial. If this element is not embedded into the reporting, I would consider it a failure as it assumes other countries see China exactly the same way as it sees itself. Understanding that each country is different is the prerequisite for producing really grounded BRI reporting. And in this aspect, Chinese media has not done a great job.

P: Can you elaborate?

A: Only a truly globalized nation will need globalized journalism. It first appeared as the British Empire set its foot around the world. The Economist is a typical early product of that phase of globalization: an encyclopedia of global political knowledge. Without the demand for such knowledge, a country’s media ’cannot be truly globalized. The Economist basically taught its readers how to approach local culture and norms. Only by respecting that can you do business with the local people.

I think China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. And it’s not even by choice. To focus predominantly on US-China bilateral relationship is no longer viable given today’s political environment. It forces China to turn to Europe, to get closer with South East Asia, and to promote BRI. There should be a globalized Chinese press in this era.

P: But it seems that the capabilities of the Chinese media do not match the new globalized nature of China’s diplomatic and economic relations?

A: Of course not! Fundamentally China’s media elites themselves lack globalized genes. There is a talent issue here. How many of China’s newspaper editors have practiced journalism in other countries? How many Chinese news organizations have international bureaus or local correspondents? The lack of international experience leads to lackluster international news reporting.

The bright side is that this is starting to change. The United States has actually helped us train many international journalistic talents through its J-schools. And at Globus we now have this expanding network of PhD students overseas who have lived in host countries for many years and are able to analyze situations on the ground. Ultimately, we will need correspondents based in those countries to fill the gap.

P: Beyond having experienced professionals, how can Chinese media deliver stories that accurately portray how other countries view Chinese involvements?

A: This falls under the question of reporting paradigms. In BRI reporting we probably need to go beyond the fact-centric approach of American journalism which is restraint in commentary and invites readers to reach their own conclusion by presenting just ascertainable facts. Considering that our readers often lack the very basic knowledge-base to interpret developments in a host country, I would encourage my reporters to be more adventurous with their methods. Sometimes you will need to be a bit more educational in your reporting to be effective, like what Lin Da does (note: Lin Da is the pen name of a Chinese writer couple living in the US famous for their educational prose collections introducing the history and politics of the US, Spain and other foreign countries to a Chinese readership). BRI reporting doesn’t have to stick with a standard news reporting paradigm. A reporter can be as enlightening and illuminating as possible, as long as he or she maintains objectivity.

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“Pakis-tie”: How Could Domestic Perception Undermine China’s Silk Road Initiative

巴铁

Discussions about China’s foreign aid program used to be dominated by a “foreign aid vs. domestic poverty” frame. The criticism that China prioritizes the “face” of its sovereign over the welfare of its poverty stricken people often dogs media reports about China’s largesse overseas. This line of questioning was so strong that top officials in charge of China’s foreign aid used to complain about the public’s bitter intransigence on this issue. The Chinese Political Compass, an online survey of Chinese netizens’ ideological leaning, also includes it as one of the 50 typical issues that polarize internet debates in China.

It is therefore noteworthy that such debates are largely absent around China’s high profile “One Belt, One Road” strategy formally unveiled this year, a grand plan to revive the ancient Silk Road connecting China’s prosperous east coast with Europe, with overland routes that go through Central Asia/South Asia (“the Silk Road Economic Belt”), and maritime routes that go through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean (“the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”). More specifically, President Xi Jinping’s recent delivery of a 46 billion USD aid package to Pakistan, a key country for the materialization of the strategy, almost completely dodged such questioning domestically. What happened?

It’s not that the criticism disappeared entirely. But even the occasional grumble is quickly shushed away by netizens who consider themselves more literate in economics. To be fair, the original criticism was indeed based on the public’s misconception about China’s large foreign exchange reserves. Many (mistakenly) believe that such an “asset” can be readily dispensed domestically to support much needed developments in the country’s poor landlocked regions.

But the ebb of this once intense debate cannot be easily explained away by a somewhat magic elevation of economic literacy levels in the population. Other factors are probably in play here, and one of them might just be how this administration chooses to frame the “One Belt, One Road” strategy in a fundamentally different manner.

Ever since President Xi first proposed the initiative during his tour of Central Asia and Southeast Asia in late 2013, it has been framed in terms of a grand visionary strategy. The intentional invocation of the Silk Road brings about an image of a world that is radically different from its current state, where large areas of Eurasia are haunted by poverty, religious fundamentalism and war. In that ancient world, the need for trade between Europe and China created prosperous trade hubs along a challenging route going across mountains and deserts. The trade of goods facilitated the exchange among cultures and civilizations, ushering in an era of great progress and creativity.

The framing of the initiative in such grand, visionary terms effectively transcends the somewhat petty debate about “who should the government give money to” and elevates the whole discussion to rumination about “China’s position in the world.” It has the effect of bypassing online demographics who are unable (or simply do not care) to engage in such a conversation. (Particularly noteworthy is that the liberal voices on the internet have been almost entirely silent on this issue so far.) And those who choose to engage, mostly elite media outlets and “geopolitical junkies”, have been very much focused on interpreting the grand strategic intentions behind the initiative, further reinforcing the narrative of a “brilliant geopolitical maneuver”.

Even though it manages to avoid an annoying line of domestic criticism, the rolling out of the strategy still faces other “public opinion traps” that are manifested by how Xi’s latest Pakistan visit has been received domestically. One of the traps is the sino-centric perspective that views the world as organized concentrically around China. As soon as China and Pakistan announced their relationship to be an “All Weather Strategic Partnership”, domestic commentators gleefully began to rank countries based on their relationship with China, with Pakistan at the unquestionable top (center) and Japan at the pitiful bottom (periphery). The word “Pakis-tie” (巴铁, “tie” as the Chinese pinyin for “iron”) starts to replace “Pakistan” even in the reporting by official media, an apparent reference to the President’s description of the relationship between the two countries as “iron brothers”. Reports from the People’s Daily website about Pakistani friendship towards China (e.g. primary school children calling the Chinese President by his nickname, Pakistani twitter flooded by China-loving contents) went to such a length that some claims became utterly dubious (e.g. the existence of a crime called “sabotaging Pak-China friendship” in Pakistan). Prominent online outlets explain to its audience why an “All Weather Strategic Partnership” is superior to partnerships that China forms with other countries: e.g. a mere “constructive strategic partnership” with the U.S., and a “strategic mutual benefit” relationship with Japan (not even a partner). Such a hierarchical ranking of nations based on their “friendliness” with China may easily be associated with the ancient tributary system where “barbarian” states were ranked based on their level of subjugation to the central kingdom. Actually, certain China observers proactively bring up the tributary system as a reference point.

The temptation to read China’s strategic intention in purely zero-sum terms may also prove problematic. The establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a key component of the Silk Road Economic Belt. It connects Kashgar in western China with the Pakistani port city of Gwadar on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Many Chinese commentators and media tend to emphasize its geopolitical benefit of allowing China to bypass the Strait of Malacca, which is currently China’s main maritime pathway to resources in the Middle East. But this so-called strategic benefit is largely based on a scenario wherein the the Strait is blockaded by a hostile military force (aka. the United States). This reading has provoked a rebuttal arguing that if such a scenario does occur (which amounts to a declaration of war against China), then maintaining a Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea will not give China much strategic advantage given the port’s own vulnerability. Another zero-sum reading of the initiative focuses on the rivalry between India and China, seeing India as an important chess piece of the United States’ strategic pivoting towards Asia. By investing in its “iron brotherhood” with Pakistan, China is basically vying with India (and United States) for political influence in South Asia. But this line of argument also readily overlooks the the potential for a China-Bangladesh-India corridor under the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.

The delicacy in China’s vision for a “community of shared destiny” in Asia is that while setting decisively against the U.S approach, it also painstakingly tries to transcend it. As laid out in Xi’s speech at the Boao Asian Forum this March, almost all the key elements of this vision are pitched against their perceived U.S. “counterpoints”. For instance, it emphasizes “an Asian way of respecting each other’s comfort level” (code for “I won’t throw Human Rights issues right at your face”), the respect for each country’s “social systems of its own choice” (code for ” I won’t impose ‘universal values’ on you.”), the upholding of multilateral consultation (as opposed to unilateral interventions) and a basis for security that ensures “security for all” (instead of “a security based on other’s insecurity”). Most importantly, all the initiatives under this vision, be it the “One Belt, One Road” or the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, are supposed to be non-exclusive. The risk is: such a delicacy can easily get lost in a familiar “turf war” narrative wherein China is simply grabbing its sphere of influence from what originally belongs to the U.S.

Many political elites in China firmly rejects the comparison of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative with the Marshall Plan, with all its Cold War connotations. Some of them have already started to worry about domestic “misinterpretations” that may only intensify outside suspicion of Chinese intentions, a precursor to hostility and rejection. Based on what has been triggered by Xi’s Pakistan visit, such a concern is not completely baseless.