YellowBridge Chinese Language & Culture
Chinese Language Center

Greater China News Chinese and Western Media: Bias Goes Both Ways

Is the Chinese media biased? Probably. But don't rush to click the Back button yet.

Living in the West, we take for granted our freedom of the press. American news organizations have an incredible power to cause change, even bringing down the presidency of Richard Nixon or ending the Vietnam War. American news organizations are privately owned and very protective of their independence. The state-owned news media, such as Voice of America, exists only for foreign audiences and is not allowed to broadcast within the US. In contrast, all of the major news organizations in China are owned by the state or by the Chinese Communist Party. News reporting is in fact the most important tool that the Chinese government uses to mold public opinion and behavior. Thus the public protests and national indignation in the aftermath of the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy or the 2001 collision of the US spy plane with a Chinese jet fighter were fueled in large part by the way the news was reported: the bombing being portrayed as a deliberate action by NATO while placing the blame over the plane collision squarely on the US. Locals did not get the alternative explanations widely accepted in the West.

However, rather than dismissing this type of reporting as biased, we should place closer attention to it. By doing so, we gain the same perspective that the Chinese population sees or, at least, the same perspective that the government wants them to see. Thus it can provide an insight which we can never get as an outsider reading only Western news reports. Moreover, is Western news really totally objective? Objectivity, unfortunately, is in the eye of the beholder. Take Tibet, for instance. Western reporting of Tibet present it as a formerly independent nation that was forcibly annexed by the Red Army in 1959. Tibet's history as part of the Chinese Empire extending back to the 13th century is never mentioned. The Western reporter who thus ignores 700 years of history does not think of himself as biased. His perspective is simply grounded in a Western-centric, short-term frame of mind which he cannot see beyond. Same as his Chinese counterpart but grounded in an alternate political framework.

The bottom line, objectivity cannot be found by blindly believing any one news source. Everyone and everything has some form of bias. We can only discover the "truth" by being as fully informed as possible, by getting as many different sources as possible, and by understanding what kind of biases the sources may have. This is why it is useful to read biased news reports. The upside is that we will also get detailed about local developments that are of little interest to the mainstream Western news media but which provide useful insight into the Chinese society and its progress.

Finally, a few words about the news media in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Taiwanese media prior to the political liberalization of the early1980s was as subservient to the government as in China. The picture today is dramatically different. The news media is free to report as they wish; some are openly pro-independence, some are pro-reunification, some are still run by the Kuomintang. Hong Kong, thanks to its heritage as a British colony, has always had a tradition of free press. The press runs the gamut of the political spectrum, including a strong representation of the left-wing, right in the capital of unbridled capitalism.