China’s president wanted this weekend to be all about BRICS. Despite North Korea’s milestone test of what is purported to be a hydrogen bomb, that’s exactly what it was, as long as you live inside mainland China without access to English-language news.
State-run China Central Television’s 24-hour news network devoted the entire news cycle Monday and Tuesday to the summit held in the beachside southern Chinese city of Xiamen, highlighting Xi Jinping’s and China’s leadership among the five-nation bloc. While online state media outlets buried the story towards the bottom of main webpages, usually as a picture-less third or fourth side bar story, a link to the news could be found slightly higher up on commercial news pages. By Tuesday, however, Sina news had relegated the first mention of North Korea to a place where no one need fear they might actually stumble upon it. The story linked in this place of obscurity? Coverage of a Tweet from Elon Musk explaining why North Korea is not a threat to civilization.
To help guide news outlets to this “correct” approach to covering the hydrogen bomb test, the Chinese government reportedly issued censorship instructions to Chinese media that comments sections on all reporting of the test be closed and that news on related topics must not be hyped.
It should be noted that Russian-language news was also largely mum on the development, though Russian-owned English-language outlets such as RT and Sputnik gave more prominence to word of the test. Sputnik made a point to highlight Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s response to US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s remarks that Kim Jong-un is “begging for war.”
“In this context, it is easy for the extra-regional countries to use the [word] ‘war,’” Peskov told reporters. “But those countries in the same region with North Korea and in the same region with the Korean Peninsula, have to be much wiser and balanced in their approaches to this very serious problem which causes our common concern.”
The Global Times English edition published an editorial on Tuesday, calling for the United States and South Korea to offer Pyongyang a “sense of security”. “As long as Pyongyang retains a sense of rationality, it won’t launch a pre-emptive attack on the US or South Korea, because Pyongyang will not be able to withstand the retaliation,” the editorial wrote.
The move by Kim Jong-un was no doubt timed to coincide with the BRICS meeting, and create a headache for Xi Jinping ahead of China’s party congress. It puts Xi in an awkward position, stuck between proving to the United States and Japan it is applying pressure, but avoiding the appearance domestically of bowing to outside demands. After China repeatedly claimed it was doing all it could, Beijing reluctantly agreed several weeks ago to an even harsher set of sanctions, a move that required convincing Russia to sign on as well.
But how much does the test really embarrass Xi domestically when its occurrence passes as a barely noticeable footnote in the news? A detonation that registered as a moderate to strong earthquake in the ground, had no impact on the airwaves or internet inside the borders of mainland China.
Meanwhile, the milestone North Korean test has dominated the news cycle for much of the English-language press around the world. It was indeed an embarrassment to the US president who had suggested several weeks ago that Kim Jong-un had begun to “respect” the US, following Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks. North Korea’s supreme leader knows about as well as everybody else that there is nothing the US can do to stop him from continuing to advance his nuclear weapons program.
Headlines from western media were quick to do exactly what China allegedly instructed its own media not to do, hype the event. The Financial Times highlighted that Trump “opens door to attack on North Korea” as their top headline after the test, despite the fact that few would lend credence to the president’s bluster, given his penchant for exaggeration and taking extreme, disingenuous negotiating positions.
What is interesting is that, even in its English-language coverage, Chinese media outlets are shy to push back on western news reports on these topics. Perhaps in cases such as this event, clearly a highly sensitive matter to the Chinese leadership, as well as the looming party congress which attracts about the same amount of attention, editors want to play it safe.
As he shores up political capital ahead of the party congress Xi benefits from complete control of media coverage. But the barrage of sensationalized overseas coverage of North Korea or speculative reporting on the palace intrigue of the party congress will continue to go unchallenged without a different picture being pushed from China.