China and foreign relations

Israeli attack on UN Observers and a role reversal in Chinese media

Bringing the UN observer home - image from Xinhua
Chinese media reaction to Israel’s recent attack on a UN observation post has been surprisingly tame. This is especially clear when comparing the coverage of the incident in the China Daily – the Mainland’s usually docile English language broadsheet – to coverage in the rest of the Chinese language press.

Historically, the Chinese language press has responded to perceived assaults on China’s national interests far more aggressively than has the China Daily. For example, following both the 1999 U.S. bombing of China’s Embassy to Yugoslavia and the 2001 spy plane incident, most Chinese media lambasted the U.S. for weeks while the China Daily moved on after a few days of pro-forma condemnation.

Last week the historical pattern was reversed. On Thursday – the first day of reporting following the incident – the China Daily published not only a front page article on the attack but also an editorial entitled “Israel has gone too far”. This compares with virtual editorial silence on the Chinese language side since the attacks. One exception was The Beijing News which published an editorial titled “Du Zhaoyus of the world: Use your life to realize your innate potential.”

There were also differences on the question of whether or not the attacks were intentional. In a front-page headline on Friday the China Daily proclaimed, “Israel was repeatedly warned before the attack.” The ensuing article focused on claims made by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that Israel had purposefully attacked the observers.

Chinese language papers were more circumspect as they approached this controversy. While many did tackle the issue, most either gave both sides of the debate or argued that Israel did not purposefully attack the observers. The Xinhua report carried in the Beijing Daily “Israel denies premeditation” repeated Annan’s accusation but also included an interview between the reporter and an Israeli official. Similarly, a news analysis piece in the World News Journal headlined “Did Israel make a premeditated surprise attack?” concluded that it was unlikely given that it was not in Israel’s interest to do so.

This role reversal represents a significant departure from past media strategies. In 1999 the then little known Hu Jintao apparently chose to divide his media messages in such away that would stir up Chinese nationalists while simultaneously softening the message to the outside world. For a host of reasons, which probably include the limited success of the old method, current strategy seems designed to do just the opposite.

UPDATE: There is more about this subject by Jonathan Ansfield at Spot-On: Arab, Jew and Chinese.

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There are currently 10 Comments for Israeli attack on UN Observers and a role reversal in Chinese media.

Comments on Israeli attack on UN Observers and a role reversal in Chinese media

Isn't this because while the government wants to use the Israeli attack to score points against the USA, most Chinese people quietly approve of Israel bombing the hell out of an Arab country?

Thanks to Will for providing a very interesting report. I am not a frequent reader of the China Daily, so I can’t compare and contrast as you did. If the response to the bombing of the UN observation post seems muffled, perhaps it’s because the death of Du Zhaoyu delivers something convenient – a martyr.

The PLA Daily referred to Du as a martyr in a small article published on July 28, an article that announced the opening of an online memorial site dedicated to Du. It’s probably worthwhile to compare this to the report on the downing of a PLA aircraft on June 3. Despite working for the interests of China, not one of the 40 men who died in that crash were written about in the media. It seems that the death of Du better supports the needs of the Chinese leadership, so the pomp and ceremony surrounding the repatriation of his coffin have been more extensively covered than the funeral of those 40 plane crash victims.

I thought many reports about the bombing actually emphasised that the post was clearly marked as a UN post. For example, a report published on Xinhuanet quoted Luo Fuqiang, the leader of the Chinese peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, as saying that the UN logo on the post was very clear. Although, this doesn’t directly label Israel’s attack as deliberate, it makes the reader feel that the attack was at the least very negligent.

It has been very interesting to see how the Chinese media has handled the affair. In some ways, it is probably not that different from the media organisations of other countries – the Australian media seemed overjoyed that an Australian died while serving for the Israeli army because it gave them something to write about. Otherwise, readers aren’t very interested in the misfortunes of people from other countries.

Wouldn't it be pretty hard for any comment on the event, particularly those that are essentially lifted from the west, to not imply that bombing it was -- at the least -- very negligent?

Isn't this because while the government wants to use the Israeli attack to score points against the USA, most Chinese people quietly approve of Israel bombing the hell out of an Arab country?

Most Chinese I know are actually anti-Israel, which goes hand in hand with their anti-US stance.

"Most Chinese I know are actually anti-Israel, which goes hand in hand with their anti-US stance."==nausicaa

No, I don't think so. Too many Chinese, especially those journalists, are kind of loving Israel.

That's the reason behind the difference.

I don't think I have ever met a Chinese person who is "anti-Israel" except for those who see it as an extension of the US. Most Chinese are very suspicious of Arab countries.

Well, I'll defer to your judgement in regards to journalistic bias (I don't read the mainland rags anymore), but my obversation was based on my interactions with the Chinese people - both mainlanders and overseas Chinese. They're not necessarily pro-Islam, but many do tend to be anti-Zionist, if not downright anti-Semetic.

Oh, and I'm Chinese.

Thank you very much for a very interesting look into a subject that I wondered about. I think it would be interesting to compare the cover of recent affairs to the media cover of the death of 2 Chinese nationals in a terror attack in Jerusalem on April 12th, 2002.

Before maybe Chinese are kind of loving Israel, now tend to "anti-Israel", especially "anti-Zionist".

When Chinese people have died by the hand of Pakistanis, Afghans, or Palestinian suicide bombers, the Chinese press reported on it, but it didn’t become huge news. The same with this case of the bombing by Israel.

I think this points to two things:

1) The main confrontation China will have in the future is with the US, so any perceived slight towards Chinese dignity on the part of the US will inflame nationalist sentiments. When Americans abuse or (accidentally) bomb Chinese, it fits neatly into the constructions of “national humiliation” and “America constraining China” narratives.

2) Israel, like the other countries mentioned above, has no capacity to limit China’s ambitions in the long run, even though Israel is a US proxy state, to some degree. Therefore, it’s pretty hard to inflame nationalist sentiments. Instead, this tragic case is analyzed on fairly objective terms.

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