Powerful force is behind Global Times

First read the editorial “Powerful force is behind Panama Papers

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It must be hard being a journalist in China. And getting harder.

Or all the intellectually robust candidates have long since changed careers.

Regardless, all discourses must be critically interrogated, in the pursuit of something like justice/truth/progress (delete as applicable to leave one you believe in).

The Global Times is a particularly lazy publication, so I feel the need to preface this post with a short justification as to why we should waste our time considering something written there. My simple view is that the intellectually lazier the state controlled publication, the closer it is to unthinkingly regurgitating the narrative that elites would like you to believe. ‘You’ here refers first and foremost to a domestic Chinese audience. I don’t think that editors of Chinese English language publications (Caixin excluded) realistically expect foreigners read and take seriously their writings.

Rather, these publications serve to further legitimate party views to the Chinese people, and Chinese abroad (what the party would like to call something like ‘ethnic Chinese’), by internationalising them. That is specifically printing them in English, referring to global issues sometimes censored in Chinese, and allowing a relatively unpoliced (or in the event, self-policed) comment section.

The West

The Global Times displays a clear mistrust of ‘Western leaks’, noting how small the crimes of Western leaders are in comparison to those of “non-Western” ones – notably Putin. It offers us a vague supposition that “Western countries are close allies in ideology. This is perhaps the basis for the concept of the “West.”” However, this just isn’t how the West is defined by any academic organisation I’ve ever encountered. Simply because ideologies always escape definition. Ought we, Mr. Editor, to consider China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam as ideologically homogeneous? They are, after all, all self-defined as communist, which is more than can be said for the so-called countries of ‘the West’.

By all generally agreed metrics, Russia is most certainly a part of “the West”. Considered from three angles;

Economically: Russia is a capitalist, industrial economy. It is very much a giver, not receiver of global aid.

Geographically: Russia, or at least its economic and political centre, is in the European continent (that is, the West).

Politically: Russia is a democracy, and shares a long, if at times strained, history of norms with the rest of Europe. It is at the top seat of all global political and economic governing bodies.

Consequences

Let’s accept for a moment that Russia is not a part of the West (maybe being on the receiving end of European and American sanctions temporarily excludes it). The author goes on to state that “In the Internet era, disinformation poses no major risks to Western influential elites or the West.” Good joke there Global Times! Or being kind, I suppose the news that Iceland’s Prime Minister is gone, and possibly the whole government will follow hasn’t made it through the Great Firewall.

As of today, most certainly the biggest fallout politically has been in Iceland and UEFA/FIFA, two ‘Western’ power centres. Likely Putin’s approval ratings have increased off the back of attempted foreign interference into domestic political matters.

Controlling Narratives

The article also mentions that “The Western media has taken control of the interpretation each time there has been such a document dump, and Washington has demonstrated particular influence in it”. I wholeheartedly agree, and Craig Murray has written an excellent piece about this, that all 2.6 terabytes of the confidential files must be released in their entirety, once sensitive personal information such as home addresses and telephone numbers has been redacted – there’s no place for lynch mobs here.

However, if we think back to the American embassy cables, those were released in full, onto the Internet, over a series of weeks, months and years. Insistence that control, especially from Washington, occurs “each time” is obviously false.

The article goes on to make a repeated point about how “Information that is negative to the US can always be minimized” and “It can be predicted that such disclosure will not survive if it embarrasses the West.” The US embassy cables were incredibly damaging to US national interest, their ability to make alliances worldwide, even to sign trade deals and cooperate on anti-terrorism. They “survived”. There can be no doubt that those leaks hugely damaged America’s reputation internationally and domestically, and helped all other countries in the world to strengthen their anti-espionage capabilities and sit on a more level footing with the US going forward.

It is worth fully unpacking what insinuation is really being levelled with the assertion “The Western media has taken control of the interpretation”. In what ways has the Chinese media attempted to take control of the interpretation? They have blocked all talk of the leaks completely from printed papers, online publications, and microblogs, forums and chatrooms. Interpretation is always shaped by someone, but with no guarantee that it’s going to be interpreted as they intend. This is most obvious in the modern world where more information is generated every day than could be ingested by one human in a lifetime. 11.5 million documents have been released. It’s not physically possible in this time frame to look through them all, so of course we all need some guidance, some summary of what’s worth looking at as a matter of urgency, and what can be considered later. Next time there’s a big leak, shall we give it all over to the People’s Daily and see what happens? Hint: nothing.

Neo-Orientalism

The crux of this editorial can be found as the author postulates that “Despite different interests, Western countries are close allies in ideology… Public opinion of different Western countries is quite uniform.” We are finally shown how clear it is that these ‘leaks’ are anything but, and instead “a new means for the ideology-allied Western nations to strike a blow to non-Western political elites and key organizations.”

This is a nauseating renewal of the Orient/Occident dichotomy, once supremely well exposed by Edward Said.

Beijing now stands up to proudly proclaim themselves the leaders of the Orient, self-charged with defining a (re)discovered Oriental civilisation and defending  it from a hostile West (excluding Russia). I am sure that most of my readers, harking from so-defined “Western” countries, will find it self-evident that we are a wildly diverse set of nations, peoples, cultures, religions, beliefs, lifestyles… it goes on and on. Any claim of uniformity and hostility is a simple fabrication. This assertion is an ‘othering’ of a bloc of nations, with clear political efficacy.

Orientalism

Prior to the wholesale rejection of colonialism in the ’60s and ’70s, the relative development of formerly ‘third-world countries’ and advent of affordable air travel, most ‘Westerners’ had never encountered the Orient. That is roughly Asia and Africa, but includes formulations of indigenous populations of the Americas and Australasia. Those ‘others’ were seen as generally homogeneous; being exotic, superstitious, violent, uneducated, barbaric in dress, language, behaviour and customs and ruled by corrupt dictators. Their otherness was both incomprehensible, and deeply threatening to the West (or rather, defined as what is not the Orient – the Occident). Those of the Orient appear to stand, united, and in greater numbers, precisely opposed to everything the Occident holds dear. Suspicion leads to mistrust leads to hatred ends in war, and the grand ‘civilising’ project of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Put in a way more instinctively understandable, when we hear about a group of new and different people who seem unusual to us, we are wary. All we can see is how they are different from us. If we then read about them and their group, we become more and more suspicious, they really seem fundamentally different, and in a threatening way. We also hear about some other people, with different differences, but all that really matters is that they’re different – together they are all the unknown, un-knowable other.

Then, if we happen to meet one face to face, and spend some time together, most of us will come away feeling like we met another human. A human person we can relate to on all the same fundamental human levels we do our friends and our family and our colleagues, who as we know all too well are a diverse, strange, often incomprehensible lot. This way, the false dichotomy of the other can be expunged, and for many years this was the trajectory that international relations was on.

Political utility

After a long period of time being ‘brought in from the cold’, and finding itself a great power once again and remembering the century of humiliations, China is acutely aware of the Orient and the Occident. The leadership know the discursive power of defining that which is homogeneously different. If the Orient of old threatened everything the Occident held dear, then a process of (re)discovery of a new Oriental civilisation in turn defines what is without as a part of the new Occident. This ‘West’ is accordingly existentially hostile to them.

In this instance, the orientalism has clear political goals that are central to the core discursive project of the Chinese Communist Party, domestically and internationally.

Domestically, it serves to delegitimise the values Western countries uphold as inalienable – democracy, free speech, pluralism, rule of law, transparency – and in doing so pre-empt discussion about why Chinese leadership refuses to implement these values domestically, and is on it’s current trajectory, undermining them day by day. I believe it is logically impossible to argue against these values, and I suppose the leadership feel the same way, which is why it’s so vital for them to employ discursive methods like othering that promise to circumvent the impasse.

Internationally, Beijing has consciously branded itself as an alternative to the neo-colonialism of the West. China speaks to developing nations as a former colony itself and promises unpatronising, no-strings attached aid. While the old Occident used to be on a perpetual mission to civilise the other, Africa, central and south east Asia are all a part of the new Chinese lead Occident. Mutually intelligible, non-judgemental – especially towards those dictators the other continually threaten violence against; Mugabe, Kim, Khamenei. As for the increasing presence in the South China Sea; we’re all friends here, and this is simply a bigger brother helping out his younger siblings. Clearly this last point is a harder sell.

Drawing a Conclusion

Certainly the writing is lazy and above all tried and boring.

But we would be foolish not to notice that this editorial has little to do with the Mossack Fonseca papers, and is rather just another slim page in the increasingly weighty tome of narrative from Beijing. A narrative attempting to re-establish a discourse of East/West Oriental/Occidental clash of civilisations, necessitating Chinese leadership. A discourse serving to justify increasingly opaque, repressive domestic policies and bellicose and exploitative foreign ones.

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