South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Lanxin Xiang says the rabid nationalism being peddled by mainland newspapers like the Global Times is hurting China’s interests at home and abroad, not least by staining its global image
Populist nationalism is rising rapidly in China. Much of the official media has found nationalism a very lucrative commodity. Papers like the Global Times, a self-styled quasi-party paper specialising in international affairs, offers striking proof. But nationalistic papers are increasingly a hazard not only for Beijing but also for China’s national interest. What is the secret of the success of papers such as the Global Times, which was founded in 1993 and launched its English-language version only three years ago?
It has prospered by peddling a virulent version of nationalism under a halo of dubious authority. Its editorial approach seems twofold: it claims that the “Chinese model” of governance is the best in the world and the foundation of the regime’s political legitimacy; and it fans nationalistic foreign policy through half-truths and amateurish editorials while banking on its affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party’s chief mouthpiece, People’s Daily.
As a result, the paper attracts attention at home and abroad for its deliberately ambiguous and often questionable authority in explaining Chinese foreign and domestic policies. Many such papers have adopted a tabloid approach so as to increase circulation and at the same time disclaim charges of factual errors both in content and the identities of the authors, who often hold fabricated, “creative” titles. Many “famous scholars” writing for these papers do not have any academic credentials in respectable higher education institutions.
As China Youth Daily – a more serious and pro-reform Chinese paper – recently pointed out, the Global Times has carved out a large commercial niche by “selling nationalism” to the detriment of national interest. Indeed, the paper has been veering towards a vehement ethnic-nationalistic stance in dealing with China’s disputes with other countries, such as the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. Some recent commentaries even made veiled references to Japan being “nuked”.
Such papers also try to create an illusion of establishing an authoritative “Chinese language” in foreign affairs. The danger of this approach is obvious: not only does it help hijack the policymaking process by turning the web-conscious leadership into psychological hostages; it also creates a vicious version of popular nationalism, which is now spreading beyond control.
Undoubtedly, these papers have been innovative; they prosper in any small gap in the media-control monolith by peddling nationalism to support the party line. But they no longer really serve party interests. Papers like the Global Times, for example, often help bring about popular pressure on the leadership to push Chinese foreign policy further into an isolated position. At some point, the leadership will have to realise the enormous damage being done by this type of commercial journalism to China’s national interest.
The success of nationalistic tabloids is nothing new. One can easily find parallels in 20th-century Europe, and it would be a great shame if history should one day place papers like the Global Times in the same category as Der Stürmer, a Nazi tabloid published by Julius Streicher from 1923 to 1945. The paper flourished in Germany on the theme of that extreme version of ethnic-nationalism: anti-Semitism.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, nationalism has been a most powerful weapon for political leaders to rally domestic support. But it is also a dangerous beast – like a tiger. And those who wish to ride a tiger to a designated end should also bear in mind the risk of a fatal injury should they be thrown off. Yet the nationalist media outlets on the mainland appear willing to take any risk to obtain quick commercial success, and they certainly do. They may also have to suffer the consequences for the harm they have done to the common good of the people.
How about the general readership? Today’s China is no longer dominated by a single voice. Many moderate media outlets can directly challenge the position and editorial policy of nationalistic papers. Moreover, as many middle-of-the-road authors stay away or disappear from such outlets, the only driving force will be further tabloidisation. A lack of basic morals will eventually shrink their readership. For many educated people in China, it has become increasingly unbearable to read the Sturm und Drang diatribes about other countries on a daily basis.
China has been promoting its soft power throughout the world over the past 10 years. In some areas, it has achieved success, especially in re-establishing global awareness of Confucian values. Peddling nationalism is, however, a nasty business, which makes only negative contributions to world peace and prosperity.
Papers like the Global Times have offset the limited recovery of China’s image on the world stage and directly helped the revival of the “China threat” thesis in the West. Instead of creating a reasoned and unique “Chinese-language authority” for international affairs, many of the articles and reports hark back to the dark language the modern world has created, misrepresenting China as a country at once racist, assertive and aggressive.
China has benefited from a prolonged period of external peace and this environment has been crucial for its remarkable success in development strategies. Old-fashioned nationalism is the last thing it needs, for it helps neither China and its neighbours nor the world at large, even though it may help papers’ profits.
China’s propaganda tsar seems to be missing the mark: by focusing narrowly on straightforward criticism of the party in the media, the department is overlooking the real danger caused by these radical nationalistic outlets.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva