Thursday, October 6, 2016

Global Times report: A bid for eyeballs or a move to pressure Singapore?

Kor Kian Beng
China Bureau Chief

5 Oct 2016

BEIJING • Concerns about relations between Singapore and China have flared again, after the Global Times claimed that Singapore had pushed to include an international tribunal's ruling on the South China Sea in the final document of the recent Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit.

In a report in its Chinese edition on Sept 21, the newspaper cited sources as saying that Singapore had insisted on adding contents endorsing a Hague-based arbitral tribunal decision on July 12 which dismissed China's territorial claims in the vital waterway.

Singapore's Ambassador to China Stanley Loh, in a letter dated Sept 26 to the tabloid newspaper's editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, said Singapore did not raise the South China Sea issue or the tribunal ruling at the summit in Venezuela.

Still, the Global Times report prompted some Chinese commentators and netizens to publicly call for tough measures to "punish" Singapore. Some Singaporeans, especially those based in China, have also wondered why Singapore, which is not a claimant in the territorial row, is risking Chinese ire by allegedly pushing the South China Sea issue.

To understand the motivation behind and significance of the Global Times' attacks on Singapore, a correct perspective of the newspaper, its modus operandi and its standing in China is critical.

The Global Times is officially a party-linked media outlet run by the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. This means it is supposed to toe the official line and reflect the government's stance on key issues.

But being a commercial newspaper means that it adopts a looser editorial policy to attract readers and advertisers.

The problem is that in trying to set itself apart from other similar publications, the Global Times has honed a market niche - and gained a notorious reputation - for its nationalistic, sensational and aggressive coverage of China's foreign relations.

The most controversial section of the newspaper is its opinion pages, which publish editorials written by its editor-in-chief or ghostwritten at times on his instructions.

It thrives - attracting eyeballs with language that often borders on being crude and offensive - by criticising foreign countries seen as China's strategic rivals or as acting against its national interests.

Its Chinese and English editions attract different readerships. The former, launched in 1993, now has a daily circulation of two million; the latter came out in 2009 and now has a daily circulation of 200,000.

Those who read the Chinese edition are mostly college-educated, white-collar males who like the paper's nationalistic tone.

Foreign diplomats, journalists and scholars tend to read the English edition to get an idea of what Chinese officials may be thinking or planning to do, but which they are unwilling to articulate publicly.

Some believe the Global Times has at times been used as a proxy for the government or officials in sending signals - mostly warnings - to other countries.

But its style is controversial even in China, with a media studies professor likening it to a rabid lapdog for the state. Many Chinese scholars and diplomats frown on the paper and criticise it for not understanding how diplomacy works. The government has also taken it to task before over its reportage.

Given such mixed feelings about the newspaper, it is difficult to tell when the Global Times is acting on its own and when it is reflecting the official stance. Similarly, it is hard to tell the extent of state involvement in or backing for its Sept 21 report criticising Singapore.

Last week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman commenting on the spat accused "some individual countries" of insisting on playing up the South China Sea issue in the final document.

But beyond that, the saga has largely been ignored by state media such as the Xinhua news agency and China Central Television.

Still, one should not dismiss the Global Times report or view it in isolation. The report is but the latest in a series of attacks directed at Singapore.

In June this year, the Global Times published a commentary by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Cheng Bifan, who said Singapore was taking sides against China on issues such as the South China Sea. It prompted a rebuttal by Mr Loh.

In August 2013, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs rebutted a Global Times report that it said "grossly distorted and misreported" remarks that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made at a forum in Tokyo about China's territorial disputes and relations with its neighbours.

Each report has been followed by a discernible increase in the volume and intensity of vitriol in the Chinese media and cyberspace, particularly over Singapore's close ties with the United States and support of American military deployment in the region.

There are several possible reasons for this. First, the Global Times could be trying to attract readers, knowing that publishing critical reports appeals to nationalistic sentiments and will elicit a response from Singapore.

Second, its reportage could be part of a long game by some quarters in China to diminish Singapore's international standing and, in turn, discredit its implied support of the tribunal ruling through calls for international law to be respected.

Third, perhaps most worryingly, it may be an attempt by some quarters to put pressure on nations to choose sides between China and its strategic rivals such as the US.

Many Chinese have high expectations that Singapore, being a Chinese-majority society, should side with China. Some also strongly believe that Singapore should repay the economic benefits gained from China's rise in the past few decades, often forgetting how Singapore has contributed to China's development through bilateral cooperation projects and supported Chinese initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Bilateral trade and investments have also benefited both sides.

Even as the dust settles over the latest saga, experience has shown it is unlikely to be the last, unless steps are taken to improve the situation.

Both sides should note that diplomacy is better conducted behind closed doors and not through the megaphone of the media, which could only aggravate relations.

Singapore has to be mindful of being fair and principled in dealing with all big powers. Feedback from Chinese officials suggests that while they understand Singapore's independent foreign policy, they are nevertheless growing increasingly doubtful about its neutrality.

Cooler heads also need to prevail at the people-to-people level.

Chinese defence adviser Jin Yinan's call for sanctions against Singapore is counter-productive.

Hostility would only increase a country's business risk and scare away foreign investors. The Chinese market holds appeal for Singapore companies, but a slowing Chinese economy also needs foreign investments.

Thankfully, the call by Professor Jin, a major-general and former director of the strategic research institute at the National Defence University, has not gained much traction in China. Also, under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Singapore-Sino bilateral cooperation has deepened. A new government-led project was launched in Chongqing and new areas of collaboration are being explored.

Many Singaporeans may want or hope that their Government would take a more low-key approach towards the South China Sea issue since Singapore is a non-claimant.

But they need to understand that doing so could put Singapore's own interests - respect for international law, freedom of navigation and a united Asean - at risk and potentially cause more harm over the long term.

The NAM saga, be it a case of misreporting or misunderstanding, has already done some damage. It has led to a growing unease about China's rise and assertiveness.

The Singapore-China relationship, which is steeped in mutual trust among top leaders and is a multifaceted one, is bigger than the South China Sea issue. Even so, it is prudent to prevent a vicious circle of mistrust and suspicion from forming.


Bitten by a dog? Don't bother biting back
Qiao Mu

Oct 5, 2016

Lashing out at those one disagrees with seems to be a fad of late. There was the falling out between Chinese cross-talk star Guo Degang and his pupil Cao Yunjin, as well as the debate between two United States presidential candidates who found fault with each other.

Now, the people of China and other countries have begun lashing out online. These include Mr Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, and Mr Stanley Loh, Singapore's Ambassador to China. The spat has ranged from news reports to letters, with both men employing diplomatic rhetoric or news reporting practices to make their point in no uncertain terms. Netizens took sides, with expressions of support and taunts, behaving as if they were watching a show.

The incident began with a report in the Global Times which claimed that at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Venezuela, Singapore insisted on adding content which endorsed the Philippines' South China Sea arbitration case, but it was met with objections from several countries. The words used in the report were critical and derisive of Singapore.

Ambassador Loh swiftly issued an open letter to Mr Hu, saying that it was an "irresponsible report replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations with no regard for the facts". He pointed out that the proposal was not Singapore's but the consensus position of all 10 Asean members as conveyed by Laos, the current Asean chair. He said that the Global Times report did not accurately reflect the proceedings of the summit, and Singapore was willing to offer its record of the meeting as evidence.

The Global Times stands naturally on China's side on the South China Sea issue. Singapore's main ethnic group may share a common language and ancestry with the Chinese in China, but in terms of geopolitics and economics, Singapore is closest to the Asean nations as it is an important member of the grouping.

China and Singapore also have different systems, and both countries established diplomatic ties as late as 1990. Although the overall relationship is friendly, as the ambassador said in the letter, both countries have different interests and positions on the South China Sea. He asked the Global Times to publish his letter so readers might be accurately informed, and the close friendship between both countries would not be inadvertently affected.

It is natural for Chinese nationals to defend China's interests in the South China Sea. This article will not discuss the South China Sea dispute raised in this incident, but will analyse from the angle of professional journalism the Global Times' report and Mr Hu's reply. Another premise is that the Global Times is a market-oriented commercial newspaper. It does not represent the Chinese government and Mr Hu is not a Chinese leader.

Ambassador Loh said that he was "disappointed that an established newspaper published this irresponsible report replete with fabrications". He has overvalued the status and credibility of the Global Times. Although the newspaper is run by the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, it relies entirely on market circulation and advertising revenue, and not government funding and subscriptions from public expenditure like its parent newspaper. It seldom discusses China's domestic issues, the rights of the people and welfare demands, but focuses on foreign relations and international issues so as to fan nationalism and cater to the ordinary readers who are interested in such matters.

There are three "wonders" in China's media sector. According to the People's Daily, China is the best in the world; according to Reference News, the world says China is the best; according to the Global Times, the world is jealous that China is the best. It means that the Global Times and the other official media are singing in chorus, playing either the good cop or the bad cop to promote the rise of China and expose the containment of China by other countries. The Global Times has adopted the same method on many countries and many issues. It gets eyeballs by fabricating stories, distorting facts and writing sensational headlines.

The journalism sector has never regarded it as part of the mainstream media, but sees it as a tabloid with no professionalism and journalistic integrity. On this incident, all the news from the Global Times came from "informed sources". No other media outlet has reported on the NAM meeting. The Global Times has not been able to provide the names and posts of its so-called sources, leading many people to wonder if its report was based on hearsay or deliberate fabrication. If you read the Global Times frequently, you will find that it often mixes news and facts with views and opinions. It has few professional journalists, and most of the contributors are stringers with unknown occupations who produce copy-and-paste reports.

In Mr Hu's letter of reply to the ambassador, he did not respond to questions on whether the paper had sent reporters to cover the NAM meeting and whether it understood the procedures of the meeting. Instead, he stands on the political high ground and lectures Singapore about damaging China's interests and the need to maintain friendly bilateral relations.

In democratic societies, the media is the public's watchdog and monitors the government so as to safeguard public interests. The Global Times has run a commentary in the past with the headline, "The media should be the watchdog of national interests." The paper is using the phrase "national interests" in a country where popular sovereignty does not exist. The Global Times calls itself a dog, so if a dog were to bite a man, would it be right for the man to bite the dog back?

Ambassador Loh should keep a low profile as there is no need to help the Global Times in its sensationalism. It is just a tabloid out to make money by selling nationalism, a paper which lacks professional news ethics and does not represent the government. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official sidestepped the issue when asked about this incident, and stressed that China and Singapore should understand and respect each other.

The writer is a professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The article appeared on his Tencent Weibo page. Translated by Lim Ruey Yan.

[In other words, responding to the Global Times is tantamount to responding to a story by The National Enquirer.]

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