Examining the COVID-19 narratives aimed at foreigners developed by Chinese state media

Examining the COVID-19 narratives aimed at foreigners developed by Chinese state media

A case study of the Facebook content of People’s Daily and Global Times

Type: Academic paper
Author: Iris Yeung

Introduction

China is the first country in the world to declare a war against Covid-19, as the initial coronavirus outbreak is recorded in its Central city of Wuhan. Measures have been taken by the Chinese government to contain the spread of the virus, such as lockdown of cities and the construction of makeshift hospitals. As the pandemic has escalated and began spreading outside China, China has also initiated a propaganda war to shape the coronavirus narrative globally in a bid to polish its international image as a responsible and capable national power in face of a global health crisis. One of the ways the country uses to spread its message across the world is through state-funded English language newspapers. Two notable examples are People’s Daily, which is the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, and its tabloid arm Global Times. On social media platforms forbidden in China such as Twitter and Facebook, portals of these two newspaper have a considerable amount of audience of 80 million and 50 million people, playing a significant role in affecting foreigners’ perceptions of China’s response to the outbreak. This research would draw on the framing theory to examine how the People’s Daily and Global Times newspapers have portrayed the Covid-19 pandemic, by analysing the content on their Facebook pages. It is hoped that the research can shed light on the messages or ideologies China is projecting to the world.

Literature review

First put forth by sociologist Erving Goffman, frames are storytelling devices serving as “schemata of interpretation” enabling people to understand and interpret social reality (Goffman, 1974). Framing plays a crucial role in the construction of news. Journalists would engage in a process of news framing when they decide how to cover an event of an issue, and the stories they tell include frames that offer direction to news receivers for how to perceive the news event or the issue (Tuchman, 1978). Thus, the ways in which media frame an issue can influence the perceptions of the news by audience (Scheufele, 1999).

A number of studies have examined how Chinese media have framed major public health issues. Wu (2006) examined the frames embedded by Xinhua News Agency of China (Xinhua) and the Associated Press (AP) of the United States in the coverage of HIV/AIDS. The author spotted that pro-government frames of defense, progress and ambivalence/ambiguity appeared most often in Xinhua’s coverage. In contrast, anti-government frames of dishonesty/oppression, the human right abuser and incompetence were evident in AP’s report. Beaudoin (2007) compared how AP and Xinhua used four frames to cover the SARS outbreak in 2003, namely attribution of responsibility, human interest, economic consequences and severity. It found that the attribution of responsibility and server it’s frames were more common in AP’s coverage. The author also suggested that as Xinhua is essentially state-owned, reporters may refrain from placing blame for SARS on the Chinese government and tend to downplay the severity of the epidemic. Luther and Zhou (2005) compared how Chinese and US newspapers framed the epidemic. It found that Chinese newspapers focuses on the “positive initiatives that Chinese leaders were undertaking to curtail any negative economic impact of the disease”.

In a more recent context, Li, Brewer and Ley (2017) examined how Xinhua’s framing of SARS and Ebola. The study found that Xinhua mainly used the responses by domestic government frame to depict Chinese government in a positive light, by portraying it as a transparent, efficient authority which effectively contained the spread of the disease. It suggested that Xinhua’s coverage on SARS promoted social stability by downplaying the diseases’ health effects, reassuring citizens by asking them not to worry too much about it and focused on the neutral or positive impacts it had on Chinese economy. In covering the Ebola, it found many stories by Xinhua highlighted the actions of helping foreign governments by sending emergency supplies, medicine and financial assistance to the affected countries. These stories also stressed the contributions of Chinese government, citing authoritative international sources such as the WHO. In a nutshell, Xinhua framed the diseases in a positive light which promote its national image as having the ability to manage diseases which originated at home and fighting diseases aboard.

Regarding Chinese media framing of Covid-19, a recent report by US cybersecurity company Recorded Future found that the focus of coronavirus coverage by Chinese state-run media on Twitter shifted from neutrally informative to shifting the blame away from the Chinese government as the outbreak progressed from January to March. It also found that many of the tweets highlighted the prominence of President Xi Jinping as a leader who is able to respond to the outbreak effectively. Similarly, a report published by the Standard Internet Observatory also found that Chinese state media aggressively reported positive stories about the country’s prompt emergency response to the outbreak, such as the construction of makeshift hospitals.

Methodology

This research would analyse the English-language Facebook posts from People’s Daily (@Peoplesdaily) and Global Times (@globaltimesnews) from January to March 2020 to examine the key frames the newspapers used to convey messages about the coronavirus outbreak to global audience. Stories are collected by running a search for the keywords “coronavirus” and “Covid-19” on Facebook’s internal search engine, which is believed to have an algorithm which ranks and displays posts based on their reach, engagement and relevance. 40 posts are collected from the Facebook page each of the newspapers every month, and a total number of 240 posts are collected and included in the analysis. In identifying and categorising the frames in these Facebook post, this research would synthesise the framing devices proposed by the scholars in the above literature review section. In particular, it would make reference to the frames consolidated by Li, Brewer and Ley (2017), which include frames of health effects, economic effects, responses by domestic governments, responses by international governments, reassurance and confidence in government respectively.

The main research questions are as follows:

RQ1: What major frames did People’s Daily and Global Times use to portray the coronavirus outbreak on its Facebook Page?

RQ2: Did the focus of the coronavirus narratives put forward by People’s Daily and Global Times on its Twitter change as pandemic escalates and begins spreading outside China– and, if so, how?

Findings

From January to early February – heavy emphasis placed on the effective domestic response frame and confidence in local government frame

At the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak, both People’s Daily and Global Times used the effective domestic response frame in its coronavirus coverage, portraying Chinese government’s effort to contain the outbreak in an overwhelmingly positive light. A lot of posts described how medical teams and emergency supplies like masks and medicines were sent to Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the outbreak, in a prompt manner. The construction of makeshift hospitals in late January to early February was also another focus of the coverage, as both newspapers posted photos and time lapse videos to commend the quick construction progress of the Leishenshan and Huoshenshan hospitals. For example, People’s Daily posted a series of pictures on 2 February showing how labourers worked tirelessly to build the Huoshenshan hospital, and called its completion in ten days a “miracle”.

On the other hand, the newspapers also disseminated the message that China is confident in managing the epidemic. Both newspapers posted stories of recovered patients on their Facebook pages, and also comments from international authoritative sources like WHO which affirmed China’s effort in containing the disease. They also posted content to reassure their audience that the country has full confidence and capability to win the battle against Covid-19. For example, Global Times posted a video on 22 January, with its chief editor Hu Xijin saying he is confident that China will fight the coronavirus battle better than it did against SARS.

One of the very few negative coverage of the epidemic was from Global Times, which described the death of whistle-blowing doctor Li Wenliang as “igniting an outpouring of outrage in Chinese society”. The Facebook post also mentioned that many citizens “criticised formalism and excessive bureaucracy in local governance”. However, such a critical approach was not seen in People’s Daily coverage, which mainly placed the emphasis on applauding Li’s “heroic action” but not public anger. It might indicate that the Global Times, which is a more market-oriented news outlet, would take a bolder approach in reporting than People’s Daily.

From mid-February to early March – People’s Daily focused on hailing Xi’s leadership, while Global Times began lashing out at the United States

Starting from mid-February, the spread of coronavirus epidemic inside China had slowed, with the number of new cases dropping. However, the picture outside China had become more alarming since as infection around the world accelerated. Responding to such a change, the coverage of People’s Daily from mid-February to March focused on the “Xi leadership” frame, describing how China is able to control the spread of the outbreak effectively while stabilising the economy and reinforcing social harmony under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. For example, a post published on 24 February highlighted Xi’s remarks saying that China has been sparing no effort in Covid-19 control, while reiterating the Party’s confidence in rising up from the economic and social hardships the epidemic has brought to the country. This is in line with previous research on Chinese media coverage of diseases, which found that Chinese state-owned media would usually portray the responses of the Central government in a positive light by focusing on the initiatives leaders had taken to manage the health, economic and social impact of an outbreak. People’s Daily, as the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, played a role in reinforcing Xi’s leadership in its coverage of Covid-19 stories on Facebook.

However, its tabloid arm Global Times took a different approach in its Facebook campaign. The newspaper, which is believed to be more market-oriented, began adopting the “USA incompetence” frame to shift the blame of the coronavirus outbreak to the United States, aside from reaffirming the “effective domestic response” frame. A number of posts criticised the United States for failing to screen Covid-19 patients at an early stage and accused President Donald Trump of overlooking the severity of the epidemic. It also accused the US government and politicians of smearing China in order to deflect the criticisms in its own territory. For example, in a video posted by the newspaper on 27 February, its chief editor Hu Xijin described Trump’s assessment of the outbreak as “worryingly optimistic”, adding that the US cannot keep up with the rapid changes. In a separate post, Hu asked the US to “stop staring at China” and think about what it should do. It is trying to shape a narrative China can serve as a lesson as in how the world can handle a public health crisis, but the United States had refuse to learn from China. This is also to portray China’s image as a capable global power in face of the rising tensions between China and the United States in trade disputes or other geopolitical issues.

Since mid-March – heightened criticisms against the US and frequent use of the “international cooperation” frame to establish China’s image as a global leader

As the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States has surged drastically since mid-March, the two newspapers have stepped up their campaign to blast the United States for mishandling the epidemic. They also hit out at the “Chinese virus” remarks by President Trump, saying that it is discriminatory in nature. For example, Global Times posted a video on 24 March, accusing Trump of “buck-passing, lying, inciting hate crimes with racist remarks” and making excuse for his “incompetency” to deal with the outbreak.

Meanwhile, both newspapers also used the “international cooperation” frame to demonstrate China’s leadership in face of a global public health crisis. They reported actively on how the Chinese government was sending assistance to other countries to help them fight the coronavirus, which includes contributions like sending health worker and emergency supplies like masks and testing kits. There were also coverage on how the Chinese government was communicating and cooperating with different foreign allies in managing the spread of the disease, showcasing China’s commitment to the international community. China is portrayed as a beneficent and responsible global power who is willing to lend a helping hand to its international friends when the world is struggling with the epidemic.

Conclusion

This study has found that Chinese state-controlled newspapers People’s Daily and Global Times had mainly portrayed the country’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in a positive light, using frames of effective domestic response, confidence in local government and Xi’s leadership to emphasise its work to bring the epidemic under control and to reassure its people. This is in light with previous research findings that the coverage of public health crisis of Chinese state media tend to focus on the initiatives Chinese leaders have taken to safeguard social security and economic prosperity, as to paint a rosy picture of effective governance. As the epicentre of the outbreak shifted from China to American and European countries, China has also shifted the narrative from being a victim to a global power leading the global fight against the virus by laying the stress on the international cooperation frame.

China’s increasing tension with United States is also another talking point of the epidemic. This study found that Global Times had taken a more proactive approach in using the USA incompetence frame to discredit US handling of the epidemic and hitting back at the controversial “China virus” remarks over the origin of the virus. It can be understood in a way that Global Times might have a greater flexibility to use harsher words to criticise a foreign government due to its market-oriented tendency. In contrast, People’s Daily, which is the flag-bearing newspaper of China, might need to take a more prudent approach in handling diplomatically sensitive manner.

To sum up, this study found that state-controlled newspapers of China has played a significant role in framing the country’s effort of successfully managing the virus at home, while crafting a better national image for the country in the global arena.

References

  • Beaudoin, C. E. (2007). SARS news coverage and its determinants in China and the US. International Communication Gazette, 69(6), 509-524.
  • Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge: Havard University Press.
  • Li, J., Brewer, P. R., & Ley, B. L. (2017). Chinese News Coverage of Diseases with Domestic versus Foreign Origins: An Analysis of Xinhua Framing of SARS and Ebola. China Media Research, 13(2).
  • Luther, C. A., & Zhou, X. (2005). Within the boundaries of politics: News framing of SARS in China and the United States. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 82(4), 857–872.
  • Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.
  • Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.
  • Wu, M. (2006). Framing AIDS in China: A comparative analysis of US and Chinese wire news coverage of HIV/AIDS in China. Asian Journal of Communication, 16(3), 251-272.
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