The Research on How American Mega Media Reflect and May Influence Sino-U.S. Relationships During the COVID-19

By Jiayi MAO Ruiyi ZHANG

Combatting against the coronavirus pandemic is a complex challenge, which requires work like developing a new vaccine, reenergizing global economy and so on forth. The victory demands tremendously on international collaborations. Yet effective collaborations only stem from mutual trust and robust relationships between countries. This research article aims to analyze how American major media agencies report, describe, comment on Chinese Administration during the Covid-19 pandemic by framework theory. The research discovers that the selected media agency deliver articles upholding negative, disapproval, and confrontational attitudes more than those are in favor of Chinese government’s administrative behaviors during the special period. This suggests that Covid-19 becomes a new variable threatening to sour the diplomatic relationships between two superpowers.

The U.S.—China relations are entering a new bumpy period. The souring bilateral relationship have deteriorated faster than almost anyone could have expected. The tension is escalating. The gap is yawning. The alarming decoupling seems to loom on the horizon. Though the two superpowers have temporarily settled for the PHASE-ONE contract and called a truce on the trade war after rounds of negotiations, the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has again stirred up new controversies and conflicts. As the two countries have been co-existed in the same global economic system for 4 decades, the deep connections and complementary economic structures mean that decoupling is not immediately possible. Even if that has to occur ultimately, a protracted and painful process is inevitable and the extent of the damage to each side’s people would beyond imagination, as well as the damage to the whole world.

Aware of the significance of this bilateral relation, this research paper would like to explore how American media reports mirror and may influence the U.S.-China relation during the global pandemic. Considering that domestic public opinion has long been one of major factors influencing international relationship, the paper tends to discuss what effects may these news cast on American domestic opinions about People’s Republic of China. As it is widely acknowledged, media industry manufactures the most part of information received. Due to media’s this particular role of conveying information, media industry becomes a potent instrument in the contemporary society to construct the public’s cognition about certain countries, especially those distant areas unfamiliar to domestic citizens. In other words, media news in modern world are more than information source, but also are societal reality constructors by influencing or even leading public opinion. On this score, studying on how American media news describe Chinese Communist Party and PRC under its leadership during the epidemic would very much shed a light on American public opinion on China. The paper will then conclude how news reports that largely shape public opinion may exert influence on U.S.-China relations by dint of both quantitative and qualitative analysis on sample articles. At last, the paper would like to share inspirations for improving U.S.-China relations that the research fruits along the way.

Sample selection

This research focuses on news reports from March ,2020 to Early-May ,2020. The targeted reports all come from four U.S. media giants –New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Times, and Bloomberg. By searching key words like “China” “Covid-19” “U.S.-China relations in Coronavirus”, the research first gets access to relative reports superficially touching on the key words. Then by dint of sifting out those articles merely use those keywords but not deeply involves China-related discussions, comments, opinions, the research gains the most valuable and effective 32 samples in the end.

The reason why these four media are on the table is their representativeness and comprehensiveness. The research needs the most representative news reports coming from the big news organizations. These four media are famous and recognized ones in America and all of which have influential voices domestically. At the same time, the research aims to cover the news reports as comprehensively as possible. Therefore, the diverse political grands are taken into consideration. Furthermore, as pandemic effects every aspect of the society, the research select these four media with various concentrations on economics, business, and politics—multiple aspects of the bilateral relationship–to cover different topics in societal life as well as to reflect U.S.-China relations in multiple lens. 

Framing-type Clarification 

To come up with a framework, for starters, researchers need to categorize various news texts oriented to different topics. A framework then further needs operators to synthesize all kinds of topics so that one or multiple themes shall be classified in one framework. Though framework is largely based on topics of samples, it is more accommodating, general, and recapitulative. And here are the framework\s synthesized in this research.

Framework1.Conflict Framework

The criteria for this framework are that the reports reflect differences between different parties; one side rebukes the other; the problem or event concerns two or more parties. Conflict framework covers topic like “Chinese Political Propaganda” and “Expel American Free press to block out information”. The reports under this framework accounts for 63.5%, rendering conflict framework the most frequently reported one.

Topic a) “The United elites refuse to see a propaganda win on the Chinese Communist Party’s part during the Covid-19 pandemic”: Samples in this category concentrate on China’s aggressive political propaganda. These articles accuse Chinese top leader Xi and Chinese Communist Party of using the Covid-19 pandemic to shore up the political power. The samples mainly argue claim that the CCP government keeps bragging about its great performance of dealing with the epidemic and attempts to advertise the country’s authoritarian-style governance to the globe, so that the country can add another leverage in the competition for the global leadership with the United Sates. These articles generally deliver a predatory and aggressive Chinese image. The articles indicate that China takes advantage of the pandemic to achieve its political ambition and that Chinese government is ought to bear the most part of responsibilities in the souring diplomatic relations.

Topic b)  “Chinese government aggressively expels American journalists who help disclose hidden Covid-19 Information”: This topic is worth singling out as one independent framing type because “expelling American journalist” could been deemed as one of the toughest diplomatic responses that Beijing has counterattacked against the U.S. since 1979,the year when PRC and the U.S. officially established their diplomatic relation. Articles in this category tend to merely condemn Beijing for trying to block the critical messages in combatting Covid-19 by cracking down certificated journalists who attempt to reveal the independent and trusted information. At the same time, the journals under this topic use this particular event to reinforce Chinese government’s image of manipulating public opinion and repressing free speech. The reports in this category would approve that China’s move as an unfortunate echo of the Cold War and a sign of the yawning gaps between two countries.

Framework 2. Economic consequences framework

The criteria for this framework are: The report refers to the current or future economic gains or losses of a party; the news reports involve the impact of carrying out certain economic activities. Economic Consequences Framework involves topics “Covid-19 batters economic ties between the U.S. and China”.  The report belonging to this framework makes up 21.87% of the total, adding another permissiveness on U.S.-China relations

Topic a) “Economic ties that get effected Covid-19”: In terms of economic ties, selected samples mainly convey that economic relations between two countries are undergoing more complex challenge during the global healthy crisis. Chinese hawks seek to hit Chinese economy that is growing vulnerable due to the pandemic. Those who have long railed against China’s dominance over the global supply chain see an opportunity to lobby the congress to take stronger on China and undermine its economic status around the globe. Even though some articles express scruples of China’s retaliation and therefore holds that White House needs to be cautious while taking harder actions, they show a defensive and conservative view on economic ties rather than staying optimistic about the prospect of economic collaborations.

Framework 3.  Responsibility Framework

The criteria for Responsibility Framework: news reports mentioned the responsible parties of the problem, such as the government or relevant organizations; The parties concerned have the ability to solve the problem; The relevant parties propose resolutions to cope with the problem. Responsibility Framework includes topic like “The U.S. blames China for global epidemic”, “call for collaboration to assume global responsibility together”, and “U.S. government is responsible for the aggravating pandemic and climbing death rate”. Sample texts under this framework gains proportion of 21.87%. Though few of reports either call for collective responsibility or criticize White House for not assuming full obligation, majority still highlights the responsibility on China’s part.

Topic a) “The United States holds China responsible for the global epidemic”: The samples in this framework would cover different statements from White Officials. Yet these statements may span from different event, the central topic of this serious samples is to show how the U.S. top leaders try to blame China for the global pandemic. For example, aiming at holding China accountable, the White House accuses Chinese government of not reacting faster enough as well as withholding essential information from its people. Also in multiple reports, Oval Office has claimed that the virus originated from Wuhan; China was aware of the epidemic last December but didn’t act fast enough; China’s data is not factual and accurate; the international community should hold China accountable, seek damages and conduct investigations, and so on forth. This category reflects a trend of “always blame for China”.

Topic b) “Call for cooperation or an end to confrontational behavior”: Samples in this framework mainly deliver the message of seeking cooperation amid heated rebukes.   Though Covid-19 witnesses the furthering fraying ties that have reached their lowest point in decades, there is a silver lining of re-bonding collaborative and symbiotic U.S.-China relations. For example, articles in this framework brings about Chinese businessmen and philanthropists supply ventilators and other medical goods in need to several American states in dilemma. Articles in this framework upholds that two superpowers vying for global leadership roles should cast confrontations aside and put collaborations as predominance.

Topic c) “Criticize the U.S government’s wrongdoings in response to Covid-19”

    With a very limited amount, samples in this framework give China the moderate recognition to for its effort to other countries and criticize the White House for not acting fast and smartly enough.

The General Attitude: Positive/Negative/Uncertain

For the categorization of each source, we take the analysis based on some of the phrases and vocabularies.

Negative: The sources we classify as negative sources usually contain many derogatory words, most of which are used in the evaluation and opinion of China’s response to the Covid-19 and its actions in the international community. Examples are words and phrases like “China aggressive diplomacy” “as Coronavirus fades in china, nationalism and xenophobia flare” “China is at fault”. When the source contains such similar statements for evaluation,they are classed as negative.

Positive: The sources we classify as positive sources usually contain many commendatory term. For example,the words and phrases like “Rome praises Beijing’s ‘solidarity” “seek to corporations” “ it is imperative for the U.S. and china to work together”. When the source contains such similar statements for evaluation,they are classed as positive.

Uncertain: This kind of sources is an objective description of the facts, which does not contain opinions and evaluations. We cannot confirm the attitude of these sources.

Inspiration: Calling for Collaboration

The biases and stereotypes against Chinese government and CCP in the reports on U.S.-China

Relations from four American major media are always easy to spot. From China conspiracy theory, China threat theory, to “ABC” (Always blame for China) mindset, accusations of political bias in news programs dominate the American media reports. The media frameworks mentioned above reinforce the political bias by rendering audiences focus on specific facts while ignoring the rest part of the truth. The framework is wrapped with specific keywords, idioms and stereotypes, like “authoritarian”, “repressive”, “oppression”, “political propaganda”, and so on forth. By means of repetition, replacement and emphasis, specific keywords are sneaked into the long-term memory of the audience, so that the audience can unconsciously internalize a certain idea promoted by the media. These reports would not only aggravate misunderstandings of China in public opinion, but also may push the bilateral relations into the unfavorable direction and make Thucydides Trap a repeated history.

It would not be fair to say that American media always scheme to stigmatize China. But the line between “revealing the unfavorable truth” and “render China as a scapegoat” just get blurred from time to time. At this time of emergency, the inclination to present the American public with a negative and even repressive image of CCP and its government would largely stymie necessary collaboration between the two giants to combat Covid-19. To ramp up the production of ventilators, to shrink the time it takes to produce a vaccine, to recover the hardly battered international trade, to…All these goals cannot be achieved without global collaborations.

To collaborate is to eliminate the impartial bias and stereotypes demands constant and amicable communications. Staggering from the effect of the Covid-19 outbreak, the world is sent reeling by the fraying U.S.-China relations as well. In spite of all the contests almost in every domain between the two superpowers, the world is still expecting the two giants to make effective communications and to manage a win-win relationship in the coronavirus pandemic.

Public opinion on both sides plays a phenomenal role in the bilateral relationship and is largely and almost always under the influence of media and key opinion leaders. The new kind of cold war “sur-realized” by partial media reports could leave no winners at all. As no matter you are living in Wuhan or Washington. The distinctiveness of the virus is that it ultimately destroys all forms of distinctiveness. Virus was indifferent to the boundaries erected by society and its appetite was ravenous. Thousands of husbands, wives and children were led to the grave. The virus is posing a global challenge on all human beings who have live faculty and carry breath—at this moment, no question is more fundamental to the two country than that of endeavoring toward a collaborative relationship. And media is ought to be part of it.

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