Umbrella Movement protesters in Hong Kong say Beijing is backpedaling on its so-called 'one country, two systems' political deal struck after the British colony was returned to China. The author suggests Western media reports on the protests fail to fairly portray both sides in the ongoing dispute and that this is a pervasive and potentially dangerous problem in reporting other global conflicts. Photo: Pasu Au Yeung/Wikipedia Commons.

Media reports and pundit opinions about China (or any other country) shape public opinion. The negative view that the majority of people in English-speaking countries (more than 50% according to Pew and Gallup polls) hold about China is based on media reports and the characterization of pundits because most don’t understand the country.

In this way, public opinion can be manipulated because the public believes whatever the media and pundits propagate. And public opinion matters because it influences public policies and, in the US, presidential elections.

“Fake” news and narratives mislead the public into supporting questionable conflicts. The Vietnam War, based on false accusations that North Vietnam attacked a US warship, cost the lives of more than  50,000 Americans and an indeterminate number of Vietnamese. More than 5,000 Americans and 175,000 Iraqis lost their lives in the Iraq conflict, triggered by false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both conflicts, many more people were wounded.

The US Department of Defense has estimated that the Vietnam War cost US$168 billion — much more in today’s dollars. Depending on which study one believes, the cost of the Iraq war ranged from $2.1 trillion (Brown University) to more than $3.5 trillion (Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz).

Mutually assured destruction remains a threat

Inventing information to cultivate public support for a military and/or trade war with China would be far more costly and dangerous. Both countries have enough conventional and nuclear weapons to wipe each other off the face of the planet, taking much of the rest of the globe with them.

Further, China is the US’s largest trading partner and the fastest-growing export market, reaching two-way trade value of US$560 billion in 2016. The US-China Business Council estimates that the trade relationship is responsible for more than 2.6 million jobs in the US. According to Forbes, Chinese companies invested nearly $54 billion, and Chinese-owned firms have created more than 140,000 jobs in the US. Further, the two economies are increasingly intertwined, as the US outsources production to China.

In reporting the 2014 unrest in Hong Kong by “Umbrella Movement” protesters who claimed the Chinese government has reneged on democracy for the former British colony, Western media and pundits considered only the views of protest leaders. Rare interviews of bystanders complaining about the protests were dismissed as “mainland plants” because they spoke with what the media thought to be a mainland accent.

Media objectivity means listening to all sides

This “cherry-picking” reporting style does not pass the “smell test” because some of those interviewed did have ulterior motives. But if the media claim to be independent and objective, they have a responsibility to listen to all sides.

Michael Pillsbury, a former US government official who is now a defense-policy analyst, warns that China is planning to supplant the US as the global hegemon. In his 2015 book The 100-Year Marathon…“, he accuses Chinese leaders of using “devious” means to trick US leaders into believing that China will become “like the US” in asking for US help to develop the economy.

Why moving pieces on the chessboard is considered “strategy” but moving stones on the Go board is “deception” has never been made clear.

Pillsbury opines that the Chinese are devious because of the way they play the chess-like game Go (Weiqi), which China invented more than  2,500 years ago. Unlike Westerners using strategy to move pieces on a chessboard, the Chinese are said to deploy “deception” in moving the stones to defeat or surround a Go opponent. Why moving pieces on the chessboard is considered “strategy” but moving stones on the Go board is “deception” has never been made clear.

Pillsbury illustrates Chinese “deception” by suggesting that Mao Tse-tung staged a military clash with the Soviet Union in 1969 to lure US President Richmond Nixon to China for a rapprochement between their two countries. The problem with his theory is that Nixon’s intention to reach out to China had already been revealed in a 1967 article in the US-based magazine Foreign Affairs. In that piece, Nixon recognized that China was too big to be shut out and that the country could help the US contain Soviet communism.

Moreover, the China-Soviet conflict was over border disputes. Lenin is said to have promised the return to China of all land that Czarist Russia had annexed. But the Soviet leadership later reneged on that promise.

Deng Xiaoping opened China to the outside world to modernize the country’s economy. He sent cadres overseas to study, and bought advanced US technology primarily to stimulate economic growth.

Deng and other Chinese leaders might, in fact, have dismissed the notion that US-style ideology could work in China because of differences in history, culture, polity and social values. Indeed, they were horrified at the outcomes in countries that did adopt US-style liberalism, prompting former Chinese President Hu Jintao to conclude that democracy is a “dead end in China,” years before Pillsbury published his book.

Scholar suggests a US-China war is inevitable

John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago scholar, has concluded that China’s rise will not be “peaceful.” He argues that a rising China would demand a “piece of the action,” while the US is equally determined to prevent China from attaining its “ambitions.” Therefore, he opines that the US and China will fall into the “Thucydides trap” which posits that war is inevitable when one great power threatens to displace another. Mearsheimer also has history on his side, in that most wars have been fought over a rising power challenging an existing one or vice-versa.

However, Mearsheimer left out three important factors that did not exist in earlier wars. One, the Chinese and American economies are increasingly intertwined. Two, both the US and China are nuclear powers with enough bombs to destroy each other. Three, China is not directly challenging US hegemony, unless one interprets forging a different ideological path and defending core interests as a challenge to US dominance.

The manufactured “China threat” has squandered economic opportunities, incurred huge costs and posed a significant danger to all.

US “freedom of navigation and overflight operations” in the South China Sea destabilizes the region and wastes taxpayers’ money. Putting on a show of force and producing weapons costs billions of dollars. What’s more, China is deploying fighter jets, warships and missiles to deter what it considers US provocation. Sooner or later a miscalculation could occur, leading to war.

Further, a trade war between the US and China would trigger an economic earthquake. The world trading order might collapse, bringing down the globalized economy.

It is time the Anglo-American press and pundits stop spreading fake news about China.

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Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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