Let’s start with a complaint. There is a growing genre of “Chinese influence literature,” which seeks to describe the Chinese government’s attempts to influence other countries, but even among the higher quality efforts, there is a problem: It’s all structural analysis. No-one actually bothers to show you the content they’re talking about. Basically, when we’re told that the likes of Xinhua news are normally creating pro-Chinese government propaganda, it’s like Homer Simpson’s fever dream of the perfect invention: Everyone’s talking about it, but for some reason you’re not actually allowed to see the thing.
So, sensing a gap in the market, we’ve decided to conduct a mini-case study of a Xinhua article to see exactly what the alleged pro-China propaganda really looks like. We’ve chosen an article at random (it was the first one I clicked on), with the only criteria being that it had to be about China, because most of the critiques about Xinhua’s content emphasize this is where it looks most biased (though more innocuous stories are also alleged to be hiding pro-China messages.)
Here’s the article. Titled “China Focus: China spares no effort to prevent, treat severe cases of COVID-19,” it appeared on the front page of Xinhua’s English-language site on January 5.
The first sentence is this: “China is doing its best to prevent severe illness and treat COVID-19 patients in critical condition.” It’s certainly a startling opening line. The reader is placed in the position of the Chinese government and directly asked to sympathize with it. What’s more, the criteria offered is “doing its best,” a generous measure for any government: Rightly or wrongly, governments are usually measured on results, rather than good intentions. Commentators with obviously political positions, rather than journalists, frame articles in these kinds of terms.
The next sentence operates along the same lines. “Health authorities have coordinated medical resources, rolled out targeted response measures for vulnerable groups, and refined the protocol pertaining to patient triage in a bid to protect the health of the people to the greatest extent possible,” readers are told. Again, the superlative phrase “to the greatest extent possible” is subjective in the sense that it can’t be — and isn’t — proved. And again, the article is emphasizing the generous position that the government is doing its best within the limits of what is possible. Limits that are not outlined.
Next we’re told that “Hospitals have been better equipping doctors and nurses with targeted and the latest expertise in treating patients, particularly those with severe COVID-induced conditions.” We’re not given any numbers on this.
Then we’re told that “Medical institutions have managed to expand the capacity of facilities for treating patients in severe conditions, such as increasing the supply of hospital beds and ventilators.” This one does come with a statistic on the beds, but not the ventilators:
“By the end of 2022, there were about 181,000 critical care beds available across the country, meaning that the number of intensive care beds per 100,000 inhabitants, a major gauge for hospitals’ capacity in saving patients in critical conditions, reached 12.8, statistics from the National Health Commission showed,” the article adds. Note: This does not actually prove that capacity has “expanded,” because to prove expansion you need both a before and after statistic.
Then comes a line that tells readers “In China, the unique strength of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been leveraged in COVID-19 treatment (emphasis added).” That modifier, and the massive claim about the strength of traditional Chinese medicine it implies, is only justified by an indirect quote from Huang Luqi, deputy head of China’s National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine. No counter argument is offered.
What follows from there is a section titled “TARGETED RESPONSE FOR KEY GROUPS,” which tells readers that “key population groups have been given greater attention.” This is backed up with information about the “State Council inter-agency task force for COVID-19 response” releasing a circular stating that “Healthcare supplies containing medicine and antigen test kits will be distributed to the vulnerable groups” and “requir[ing] fast-track referrals for highly vulnerable infection cases to upper-tier hospitals.”
And finally there is a section titled “BETTER TRIAGE TO SCREEN FOR SEVERE CASES.” This outlines “an all-out campaign to identify potential risks at the most grassroots level,” and offers the details that “Local officials and rural doctors have placed highly vulnerable groups of people, such as those at an advanced age or with underlying conditions, under grid-based management, monitoring their health every day via WeChat, telephone, and other means.” It also says that “More clinics have been opened at grassroots medical and health institutions, which sort out patients according to the severity of their conditions and give priority to severe cases.” It does not say how many more.
Reading this, what do we learn about COVID treatment in China right now? We get a couple of examples of how vulnerable groups are being prioritized. The statistic that the number of intensive care beds per 100,000 inhabitants reached 12.8 by the end of 2022 is the only real piece of pure information in the piece, and it’s missing any point of comparison. The rest of the piece is overwhelmingly a set of warm words about a government “trying its best” (a concept which is not quantified.)
Now, of course, looking at the Xinhua piece in critical terms like this should not suggest that other countries’ news agencies are somehow neutral. One cannot include all facts about everything simultaneously, and as such every issue has to be framed by a selection of facts. Furthermore, editorial decisions that look like “balance” can be misleading, because in selecting “sides” of an argument to show, news can give the impression that it is showing every available position, when really it is showing very similar positions which share many of the same assumptions (the equivalent of asking a child if they want one piece of broccoli or two — they’re getting broccoli either way.) These are rightly contentious issues. The BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis has been devastatingly critiqued on these terms, for instance, with it effectively spending the period asking different bankers for their solutions to a crisis caused by banks. One might even argue that the more subtle art of framing in this way is actually more insidious, because it’s harder for the layman to identify what’s going on.
However, whatever you position on what is the most insidious kind of bias, no-one can really argue that this Xinhua piece is useful for learning about the world — except for telling us what the Chinese government would like us to think about its COVID efforts. It is, as promised, empty, pro-Chinese government stuff. If it’s representative of Xinhua’s broader content, it substantiates a lot of the claims about propaganda. And this isn’t a peripheral issue. Unlike other unsuccessful Chinese government media operations, Xinhua is expanding significantly.