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Why Chinese Stories Fall Flat for an International Audience

Journalist Erik Nilsson stars in a China Daily video explaining the country's considerable poverty alleviation efforts (screenshot from China Daily.)

It’s no secret that an enhanced international media presence is on the CCP’s to-do list, part of a larger strategy to boost Chinese soft power across the globe.

On November 8th’s “Journalists’ Day,” this idea was summarized in a message delivered by President Xi himself: “we should improve foreign-oriented communication through trying methods with new concepts, domains and expressions that are understood by both China and the rest of the world, telling the true story of our country and making our voice heard.”

Erik Nilsson is this political strategy personified.

With an appearance as Scandinavian as his surname, raised and educated in Michigan, he has come to be a senior editor at China Daily, China’s largest English print news organization. Speaking to a class at Tsinghua University, it’s clear he’s well-informed and deeply passionate about China.

The stories he tells are both interesting and heartwarming: an internet famous passionfruit farmer finds online customers for her village neighbors; solar panels make evening education possible in another remote hamlet. He relays a half-dozen or so human interest stories that serve to underscore the thesis of his talk – China’s remarkable poverty alleviation efforts over the last few decades.

He’s absolutely right. The World Bank estimates that China has lifted 850 million people out of extreme poverty since 1981, accounting for 70% of all people lifted out of poverty in that time. It’s not unreasonable to give some credit where credit is due – no country has contributed more to global poverty reduction than China. Yet, this colossal achievement is something rarely acknowledged in Western media circles.

Which brings us back to Erik Nilsson.

Like all media organizations in China, China Daily is directly accountable to the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party. So while Nilsson is making perfectly valid points, it becomes apparent that his delivery isn’t sitting perfectly well with his international audience. His praise for the CCP is perhaps just a little bit too lavish, his choice of words a bit too hyperbolic. The world “miracle” is used a lot.

Recent economic gains for Chinese citizens are undoubtedly laudable, but as with any major global development, it’s complicated. These nuances only came to the forefront of conversation once directly questioned: forced relocations, accelerating wealth disparity, damaging urbanization, and allegations of forced labour and cultural erasure are all aspects of China’s meteoric rise worthy of closer inspection.

On the uber-sensitive topic of alleged re-education facilities and potential religious suppression in Xinjiang and Tibet, he laughs a little. “You know, it’s one of those things. I remember reading in Western media, and I’m not saying all Western media, I remember reading in Western media about how these ethnic Tibetan schools were being told to no longer teach in Tibetan. And I mean these schools, they’re teaching in Tibetan! They’re actually trying to get more Chinese classes to go, you know what I mean?” The Xinjiang conversation is dismissed with a similar anecdote about a bearded kiosk vendor not having alcohol for sale. It starts to feel somewhat transparent that unless the story is pure patriotic positivity, it won’t be put under the microscope at China Daily.

China is a diverse and fascinating country, full of good stories. The problem is the CCP is not very good at telling those stories. Opinions of China continue to decline in the West, and Westerners are unwilling to give China the recognition that it often deserves. And to be clear: there are many achievements of modern China that are deserving of praise. However, it is easy for many to disregard narratives coming from media organizations perceived as Party mouthpieces lacking credibility, even when the narratives are perfectly legitimate. Unfortunately, China is unlikely to receive its deserving commendations internationally until it is also willing to acknowledge its valid criticisms.

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