Chinese Media Coverage of Recent Clashes Demonstrates Balancing Act

The Chinese media is highly interested in Israel. This is attested, for instance, by the fact that there are five different Chinese media outlets that have permanent representatives in Israel, including Xinhua News Agency (China’s official news agency), China Central Television (CCTV), and China Radio Int’l (CRI), as well as two daily newspapers (in addition to various stringers).

The daily coverage of the mainstream Chinese media usually focuses on Israeli technology and innovation, the situation in the Middle East, Israel – US ties, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In days of relative calm, the Chinese media covers mostly technology and innovation, unlike the Western media that focuses almost exclusively on the conflict. For instance, the Science & Technology Daily, the official daily of China’s Ministry of Science & Technology, has a bureau in Tel Aviv, reporting mostly on Israeli technology. At the same time, China has boosted its coverage across the Middle East after the recent wave of unrest swept the region since 2011.

All Chinese media is owned by the state at various levels, and as such, express the official Chinese policy. Both Israel and China have been working on boosting the bilateral ties, each for its own reasons, and the past few years have witnessed an unprecedented strengthening of relationship. Still, China’s political and energy interests in the Middle East and its comprehensive ties with the Arab world dictate a cautious and balanced approach to the region, and this is reflected in the largely balanced coverage of the conflict by the Chinese media.

Thus, recent reports from Xinhua and CCTV on the various attacks perpetrated by Arabs against Jews carry factual headlines, unlike headlines from some Western media outlets that tend to confuse the attackers and the attacked, or apportion blame for the violence exclusively on the Israeli side, using the trope “cycle of violence.”

For instance, a video report by CCTV on the terror attack at the Central Bus Station in Be’er Sheba on Sunday, carrying footage from the scene, had the headline “A further escalation of tensions between Palestinians and Israel – An attack on a bus station leaves one Israeli dead and 11 wounded.”

A report by Xinhua on the night of the attack also gives the details, quotes the police spokesman, and notes the relative improvement of the security situation in Jerusalem as a result of various government actions. The Xinhua articles summarizes the article by noting the recent escalation of tensions in the past three weeks, without apportioning blame or analyzing further, and ends by quoting the victim tally from both sides of the conflict.

A Sunday report by the Tel Aviv-based Guangming Daily, the smaller of the two Communist Party newspapers, carried the headline “Israel adopts tough measures on the conflict.” The article began by detailing the stabbing attacks at the Jerusalem central bus station and quoted both Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas.

The recent terror actions did not even interfere with the usual focus on technology. For example, Xinhua carried on Monday a photo-report introducing the Weizmann Institute. Still, all of the above does not suggest that China is firmly in Israel’s camp. On the contrary, as part of its own revolutionary legacy from the 1950s and 60s, China has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause in the UN, recognized a Palestinian State, and China’s special envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike met with the Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau Khaled Meshaal as recently as July 2014.

At the UN Security Council emergency meeting on Friday dedicated to the escalating tensions, China’s permanent representative to the UN Liu Jieyi expressed concern regarding “casualties of innocent civilians” and reiterated China’s “support for the just cause of the Palestinian people.”

Nevertheless, in recent years, and especially since PM Netanyahu’s visit to China in 2013, China has been fine-tuning its foreign policy in the Middle East, adopting a more balanced approach due to a combination of factors. China is attempting a delicate balancing act in the Middle East as it positions itself as a power with a voice in all global diplomatic issues.

What the balanced coverage suggests is rather the peculiar and nuanced nature of the Chinese media. Firstly, where the reporter is based influences the angles of Chinese media coverage, with reports from Israel usually tend to be more balanced. Reporting on the Arab-Israel conflict by Arab countries-based journalists, or by stringers from Gaza are much more negative in their attitude toward Israel. Almost all the major Chinese outlets, with dozens of reporters, base their regional headquarters in Cairo.

Secondly, compared with their colleagues in the West, the Chinese media is still underrepresented in Israel, leading to translations of reports about the conflict from various Western media outlets, which usually take a critical view of Israel. (This also means that Chinese media reports about Israel in English tend to be more negative than the ones in Chinese.) For instance, China News Service (CNS), the country’s second-largest news agency after Xinhua, carried an article about the shooting in Be’er Sheba that quoted a Russian report about an attack in the “Palestinian (sic) town of Be’er Sheba.”

CNS does not have reporters in Israel. A later, more extensive report by the very same CNS, and quoting numerous sources from Reuters to Al Jazeera to the Jerusalem Post, safely “returned” Be’er Sheba to Israeli sovereignty, demonstrating perhaps the relative unfamiliarity of Beijing-based editors with the reality on the ground.

The operative conclusion for Israel from the above analysis is to increase engagement with the Chinese media on all levels. This is one of the goals of the Chinese Media Center (CMC), who acts as a media bridge between Israel and China.

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An abridged version of this article was published on the Government Press Office (GPO) website in English and in Hebrew.

The author is the founding director of The Chinese Media Center (CMC), at the School of Media Studies of The College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon LeZion, Israel.

About the Author
Alexander B. Pevzner is the Founding Director of The Chinese Media Center (CMC), at the School of Media Studies of The College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon LeZion, Israel. CMC, the first such center in Israel and one of the few globally, connects Israel and the Chinese media in a systematic dialogue and trains the current generation of future Israeli media and business leaders.
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