The great media divide over China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am

Local journalists are often accused of bending over backwards to placate the mainland. Many of their western counterparts, on the other hand, seem to have an equal but opposite instinct to put a negative spin on anything to do with China. There are many exceptions, but I speak in generalities here.

An obvious explanation lies in who owns which media outlets and what the owners' business interests are. After all, if you want to know how things work in this world, always follow the money - and political influence. Journalism, despite its pretence of objectivity, is no different.

A clash of world views, or cultures, is also involved. A Hong Kong journalist is far more likely than, say, his American counterpart to give Chinese actions the benefit of the doubt. Two items in the news bring out this contrast in sharp relief: defective toys and other products; and Chinese investment and diplomacy in Africa.

When Mattel announced a series of recalls of defective 'made-in-China' toys, the world automatically assumed this was caused by unscrupulous mainland contractors cutting corners to make an extra buck. This turned out to be true in only a minority of cases. Most of the toys were recalled because of design problems for which Mattel was responsible, or for no good reason at all.

Last month, two Canadian university professors found that, of the 550 toy recalls that have occurred in North America since 1988, 76 per cent were due to design-related problems caused by the original companies. Only about 10 per cent were directly attributed to contractors' manufacturing defects.

The Canadian study received little media attention until Mattel openly apologised to China last week for damaging its reputation. However, Beijing had insisted throughout the summer that design faults were mainly to blame for Mattel's recalls. While the local media initially took the same critical line as the international press, they began to change their tune when Beijing launched its public relations counteroffensive.

Meanwhile, the western press, leading think-tanks and aid agencies have become highly critical of Beijing's economic and political activities in Africa, effectively accusing it of neocolonialism. From scholars at the US Council on Foreign Relations to actress Mia Farrow, Beijing has been charged with protecting rogue states, such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, or doing business with them.

Chinese influence, it is argued, is undermining western governments' - especially American and British - pressure on these regimes to improve on human rights, and aid agencies' attempts to rebuild the countries.

Presumably, similar criticism could apply to Washington's support for Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Uganda, all of which have questionable authoritarian regimes. But when was the last time you read about that in an international newspaper?

Sure, Chinese diplomats and businesspeople seem to be everywhere on the continent, completing public works, starting oil wells, mining ventures and opening businesses. They avoid only South Africa, which is seen as too close to the US.

China argues that this is a win-win situation - that its activities are driven by mutual commercial and political interests. It offers aid with no political strings attached, in contrast to western help. It makes no bones about its profit motive, whether that involves money, minerals, oil or political influence. China, at least, doesn't preach - something many Africans must find refreshing.

Unsurprisingly, the North American and British media by and large adopt a critical stand on China and its motives in these issues; mainland and local media play up China's beneficial influence on the African continent.

Which side is right? You are unlikely to find out by reading newspapers or watching TV news.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post