Authoritarian Media Bias in International Context

Written by Ji Chengyuan, Ash Center Asia Fellow, AY16–17

Media bias under authoritarianism is well examined, as authoritarian governments often impose control on the free flow of information to their advantage. With propaganda, they decide what to tell the public; with censorship, they decide what to hide from the public. Most existing studies on authoritarian media bias have focused on the reporting of domestic affairs (or lack thereof), but our research highlights what drives authoritarian media bias in international news coverage in China.

China is a large economy that actively engages in trade with many countries. Exports of goods and services have consistently accounted for over 20 percent of China’s GDP, and China has become increasingly dependent on imports of important raw materials, such as metal ores and fossil fuels, to meet its growing domestic demand. Thus, the economic interdependency China has forged with its trading partners could be a significant factor that influences media bias in international news coverage. Our hypothesis, in short, is that the stronger the trade tie a country has with China, the more positive news coverage it can expect in the Chinese media.

To test this hypothesis, we analyzed a text corpus from a Chinese propaganda news program called Xinwen Lianbo (“News Simulcast”), which airs on China Central Television (CCTV) every day at 7 p.m. and usually runs for 30 minutes. Xinwen Lianbo is the longest-running and most-watched prime-time TV news program in China. Its influence is perhaps due to the fact that all Chinese provincial TV channels broadcast the program at the same time, making it virtually the only news program available to the national audience around dinnertime. A popular joke summarizes Xinwen Lianbo’s pattern of propaganda: in the first ten minutes, the program talks about how busy the national leaders are; in the second ten minutes, the program showcases how happy the Chinese people are; and in the final ten minutes, the program presents how chaotic the rest of the world is.

Our text corpus is taken from the “final ten minutes” of international coverage, containing over 28,000 pieces of international news from 2003 to 2015. First, we manually code a random sample of 2,000 pieces of news as negative, neutral or positive in terms of the underlying sentiment. For example, reports on military conflicts are coded as negative, whereas reports on technological advancements, such as NASA space missions, are coded as positive. Then with supervised machine-learning methods, we code the rest of the text corpus. Lastly, we calculate the yearly average score for each country based on the coding results.

This figure shows the yearly average score for each country from 2003 to 2015, one a scale of negative (red) to positive (blue).

Countries that are important trading partners receive more favorable news coverage

Based on textual contents and the frequencies of mention in the corpus, we generate a yearly indicator called “sentiment score” for each country. The score describes a country’s positivity or negativity in Chinese state media portrayal. By combining the sentiment score with other country-level observational data in a fixed-effects model, we find that, in the short term, the main driver of authoritarian media bias in Chinese international news coverage lies in the domain of international trade. Overall, countries that are important trading partners receive more favorable news coverage. Specifically, countries that are large export markets for China or countries that are important suppliers of fossil fuel imports for China are portrayed more favorably. In the analysis, we also simultaneously test for possible effects of short-term fluctuation in bilateral political relationship but find no significant results. Together, these findings provide evidence that authoritarian media bias in China is strongly correlated with and possibly influenced by its strategic interest in international trade.

In addition to the main analysis, we also examine whether international news coverage by Chinese state media has any impact on public opinion. Using multiple waves of survey data from the Beijing Area Study conducted by the Research Center of Contemporary China at Peking University, we find there is a significant positive correlation between the sentiment scores and the public’s attitude toward specific foreign countries. Albeit not strictly causal, this finding suggests that Chinese citizens’ perception of foreign countries may be susceptible to media narratives. Therefore, by selectively presenting international news to the people, the Chinese authorities may be seeking to shape public opinion, which in turn may help to achieve its policy goals.

Taken together, our research findings provide clear evidence that China’s short-term media bias in news coverage of foreign countries is driven primarily by economic considerations of the Chinese authorities. Relatively large and strategically important trading partners are cast in a more favorable light when presented to the national audience. This trade-driven media bias helps cultivate a more positive public perception of these countries, which in turn reduces the likelihood of public controversies that could jeopardize foreign economic relations. In contrast, the state media is careful not to inject significant bias in response to short-term fluctuations in political relationship with other countries. Such a cautious approach suggests that the Chinese authorities are pragmatic when it comes to balancing politics and economics.

However, outliers do exist. The most notable dual is the United States and Japan. Despite ranking among China’s most important trade partners, the two countries received a negative score in almost every year from 2003 to 2015. Here the constant theme of nationalism stoked by state propaganda may have played a more prominent role than considerations for trade.

Overall, our research shows that authoritarian media bias exists not only in the realm of domestic news, but also in the realm of international news. As the economies of many authoritarian regimes become more open and dependent on international trade in the age of globalization, how an authoritarian regime shapes its citizens’ perception of foreign countries will have important consequences on its economy, which in turn carries profound implications for the legitimacy and survival of the regime.

Ji, Chengyuan and Hanzhang Liu. 2017. “Authoritarian Media Bias in International Context: A Tale of Commercial Peace.” Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2956129

Chengyuan Ji is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Government at Perking University. He is also a Research Assistant at the Research Center for Contemporary China (RCCC) and Institute of Political Development and Governance at Peking University. Chengyuan’s research interests include internet politics, corruption, and anti-corruption.

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Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.

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Harvard Ash Center

Harvard Ash Center

Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.

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