The Chinese media is known for its nationalistic attacks against other countries that Beijing has opposing views and positions with. They vehemently condemn parties they deem as enemies over different issues and crises, and have always seemingly framed the government on the right track.
Chin-Chuan Lee, author of 2013 book Chinese Media, Global Contexts, said the Chinese press has been portraying their country “as being encircled by an ocean of potential enemies who are out to destroy it.” Generally, the framing has a mixture of “collective victimhood and historical memories in seemingly contradictory modes of xenophobia and narcissism,” he added.
The Philippines, one of China’s rival countries in the contested South China Sea, is among the objects of insinuations, tirades and insults in Chinese news articles, editorials, columns and op-eds.
In my 2017 master’s thesis at the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, it appeared that the Chinese media considered the Philippines a totally illegitimate claimant in the disputed waters, with the overwhelming articulation of bias to the government’s position: China has undisputable sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the islands and reefs being claimed by the Philippines; and that Beijing’s supposed aggression and militarization in the waters were an exercise of self-preservation and self-defense against countries posing threat to the region.
Deploying necessary national defense facilities on its own territory is China’s exercise of self-preservation and defense, a right granted by international law to sovereign states, said Hong Lei at a regular press conference.
Hong said that the Philippines’ unilateral initiation of international arbitration does not comply with international law and runs counter to the consensus reached between China and the Philippines as well as relevant provisions of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the action will never be accepted by China (People’s Daily, China urges Australia not to meddle in the South China Sea issue, February 17, 2016).
The content analysis was performed on published articles of China Daily, People’s Daily and Global Times – three of the most read and controversial Chinese publications in the world for translating the articles in several languages, targeting foreign audiences and for being bold in their write-ups – during the pre-arbitration months of January to March 2016.
While the study did not determine the amount of government directives and censorship to the newspapers on the issue, it was evident that the media units stayed within the lines of the government’s perspective with nationalistic approach.
To prevent any challenge to the authority, the United States-based non-profit think tank Council on Foreign Relations said that the Chinese government is heavily controlling both traditional and new media. In the 2007 book The Rise of China’s Public Diplomacy, Ingrid d’Hooghe added that the media organizations in China are all state-owned and although the possibilities for journalists and editors to bring their own news and messages have increased, much of the content of the television and radio programs, newspapers and magazines is still dictated by official policy lines.
In fact, the Chinese press remains one of the most restrictive media outlets around the globe. In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, China stuck on the 176th place, close behind the bottom three – Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea – where freedom of information is non-existent.
Further, the study showed that the three Chinese newspapers used attribution of responsibility frame in many of its articles. The Philippines, as well as the United States and Japan, were said to be the ones responsible for the dispute and accused of counterbalancing the Asian giant.
China has been exercising self-restraint amid fishing disputes with the Philippines in the South China Sea. However, Manila has captured and sentenced Chinese fishermen several times, and even shot Taiwanese fishermen dead. Manila’s barbarity finally triggered a standoff near Huangyan Island in 2012. Since then, China has been in full control of the island.
Now, Manila hopes it can bring US troops back, like a Mafia gangster asking their “godfather” for help. The Philippines, obviously aware that international arbitration has no jurisdiction over territorial disputes, filed a petition to an international court in Hague. China’s non-participation in the arbitration is protected by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but the Philippines, with the support of the US, has used this chance to taint China’s image internationally (Global Times, No more ship-grounding tricks allowed in South China Sea, March 2, 2016).
In China, some say the US seeks to “contain China” and thwart its historic rise. They see the US encircling China by alliances, explicit or implicit, with Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and India; coercing China to open its markets to control its industries and exploit its consumers; restricting Chinese companies’ operations and acquisitions and mergers in the US; hacking China’s computers and sending spy planes to patrol China’s shores; fomenting “extremism, separatism and terrorism” in the Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions; and injecting Western values to overwhelm Chinese values, eroding China’s independence and undermining its sovereignty (China Daily, ‘Asymmetric harmony’ for US-China ties, March 31, 2016).
Tokyo intends to take advantage of the South China Sea disputes to cause trouble for Beijing. Abe’s government expects Manila and Hanoi to be its two pivots in the South China Sea to contain Beijing. Thus, Japan has offered substantial economic and military aid to the Philippines and Vietnam in exchange for their strategic support (Global Times, Tokyo looks to Manila to strengthen pivot to South China Sea, January 28, 2016).
The pattern on which the Philippines was presented as a fellow claimant in the West Philippine Sea, as a bilateral partner of China, as an ally of the U.S. and as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was clear: Manila was unreasonable and unfair.
No matter what it does and what its excuse is, the Philippines can’t hide the fact it is the cause of the frictions between it and China.
For example, despite its knowledge that the territorial dispute does not come under the jurisdiction of the arbitration tribunal in The Hague, Manila has still submitted its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea to the tribunal for arbitration in an attempt to bring shame on Beijing and solicit the support of international opinion.
It is the Philippines’ breach of its promises and the normal code of conduct for countries that have prompted China to take reasonable and moderate countermeasures in the South China Sea (Global Times, Accusations can’t distort peaceful truth, January 7, 2016).
Although the Philippines was highly criticized for allegedly acting an illegal, untrustworthy and unreasonable behavior after it filed an arbitration case, supposedly refused dialogue and complicated the dispute, the newspapers stated that the so-called provocative moves were only a result of behind-the- scenes instigation and political manipulation of outside forces who want to contain China.
A former colony of the Americans and Japanese, the articles described the Filipinos as kind-hearted for forgetting its past sufferings, and even allowing itself to be used by these powers to counter China and contain its rise.
“The Philippines is an ancient friend and good trading partner with China,” Lee said. “Let us not forget that the two countries have never had any history of conflict or war. In fact, both countries were allies during World War II in jointly resisting the Japanese military invasion of Asia (China Daily, Mutual benefits seen in links with Philippines, March 8, 2016).
There was a layer in the presentation of China’s position on the West Philippine Sea issue. Instead of merely arguing Beijing’s supposed legitimate and sovereign rights in the disputed waters, the newspapers equipped the write-ups with comments and interpretations why the other parties’ moves and claims in the region were unreasonable and unfair.
China has been exercising great restraint in the disputes over the Nansha Islands, so the US should stop uttering groundless accusations and pay more attention to its allies’ ulterior motives in the region, Gu said.
“The region may consider exacerbating tensions if the US and its allies continue being hostile to China’s legitimate right to protect its own territory and efforts to promote regional security,” Chen added (Global Times, Countries outside region play up test flights in South China Sea, January 6, 2016).
Also a common pattern in the sample articles were the presence of evaluation of concepts, and then a judgments whether something was acceptable or not.
Referring to Kerry’s China visit, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying emphasized China’s wish that Kerry’s visit will help with “healthy” Sino-US ties.
“We hope that through this visit the two sides could strengthen cooperation in various areas and promote the healthy and stable development of bilateral ties,” Hua said at a regular press conference on Monday.
China welcomes Kerry to discuss proper measures to sanction North Korea, but his visit clearly has ulterior motives to contain China, experts said.
No matter if it’s the North Korea issue or the South China Sea issue, the US is attempting to use a unified strategy to contain China by driving a wedge between China and its neighbors, and to realize its ultimate goal of a “rebalance to Asia” strategy, Zha Xiaogang, a research fellow with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Global Times (Global Times, Kerry to visit China with N.Korea agenda, January 26, 2016).
The results of this study appeared that the newspapers used a sophisticated way of multimodality in what could be perceived as a bid to solicit an audience, as well as to imbed semiotic, generic and technological understanding.
The political and ideological views of the government-run publications can be expressed in the choice of vocabularies and different grammatical structures.
The Chinese newspapers represented the Philippines as a specific group. Certain naming strategy, therefore, foregrounded aspects of the country’s identity.
To illustrate this, the figure below shows a word cloud that briefly looked at the Chinese media’s representations of the Philippines, which was often constructed as a problem.
The Philippines was generally described negatively with the common use of “weak,” “cause of friction,” “groundless,” “unlawful,” “unfaithful,” “untrustworthy,” “shameless,” “unreasonable” and “erroneous,” among others.
However, there were also some positive words used to describe the Philippines, such as “good trading partner,” “ancient friend,” “tolerant,” “kind-hearted” and “resource-rich.”
Several representations suggested that the Philippines, as a relatively “weak” country, has to heavily rely on the U.S. to deal with the Asian power “like a Mafia gangster asking their ‘godfather’ for help.”
To add a layer to it, the newspapers presented China favorably without discussing its lapses on the dispute. As examples, below are some titles that apparently served the interest of the government.
- Beijing treated unfairly by media over peaceful island constructions (Global Times, January 13, 2016)
- No dispute over China’s historical rights (Global Times, January 19, 2016)
- ‘Island defenses depend on threat’: PLAN chief (China Daily, January 22, 2016)
- China reaffirms self-defense legitimacy on reported radar deployment in South China Sea (People’s Daily, February 24, 2016)
The articles were structured based on the biases of the media units, and that the way in which the articles were structured created a conflict of interest that acted as propaganda.
As an emerging nation, China will not be brought to its knees by external forces. Given Chinese diplomatic logic, which goes “We will not attack unless we are attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack,” Beijing is likely to be forced to resort to militarization while confronting US actions in the South China Sea (Global Times, Obama raises S.China Sea tensions to consolidate diplomatic legacy, March 9, 2016).
The Chinese media’s kind of representation foregrounded the Philippines’ supposed unreasonable and unfair behavior on the issue. The multimodality in the texts was used to form part of wider media discourses on the Philippines that were ideological in a sense that they created patterns of exclusion and sometimes directed the attention away from the central issue.
The result of the poll shows that the real world neighbors netizens want to move away from include Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, North Korea, India, Afghanistan and Indonesia, and the neighbors they want are Sweden, New Zealand and Germany (Global Times, If only China was next to Sweden, sigh netizens, January 16, 2016).
Among the 10 ASEAN members, only the Philippines publicly adopts a pro-US attitude, but it does not stand in complete opposition to China (Global Times, Sunnylands wrong place to discuss South China Sea row, February 15, 2016).