Research studies

Propagandizing China in the 21st Century: The Belt and Road Initiative in the U.S. mass media


Prepared by the researche : Dr. Lawrie Phillips – is Acting Head of Radio and Television at the British University in Egypt, and Lecturer in political communication, multimedia production, and social marketing. Recent publications include articles on U.S. propaganda in the 21st Century, on the current role and discourse of the BBC, and on U.S. and Islamic State recruitment strategies.

Democratic Arabic Center

Journal of Media Studies : Twenty-seventh Issue – May 2024

A Periodical International Journal published by the “Democratic Arab Center” Germany – Berlin

Nationales ISSN-Zentrum für Deutschland
ISSN 2512-3203
Journal of Media Studies

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This paper explores mainstream televised U.S. news reports in order to provide insight into patterns of U.S. propaganda against China in general and against the Belt and Road Initiative in particular. These news reports span a five-year period, stretching from news coverage of the trade war (2018) and allegations that the Belt and Road Initiative poses a threat to U.S. global supremacy (2020) to coverage of the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing (2023), the crisis in Gaza (2024), and the banning of the China-owned TikTok social media app(lication) on the grounds that it is gathering U.S. data and shaping U.S. beliefs. This timeline of mainstream U.S. news reports reflects the timeline of crises outlined, constructed and generated on the Internet platform of the United States Council on Foreign Relations (2024). This paper uses an official CIA report published in the Washington Post (2021) to contextualize this propaganda campaign against China. This report suggests that the United States has to defend its global interests against the insidious threat of China. This paper traces U.S. media propaganda against China back to the stereotype of the Yellow Peril and the myth of the model minority, both of which have targeted, marginalised, and disempowered Chinese people. The paper uses a broad range of theoretical insights into representing, narrating and framing the Other in order to construct a nuanced interpretation of the current nature and role of propaganda towards China and the Belt and Road Initiative in current mainstream U.S. news production. Using multimodal discourse analysis of 14 CNN and Fox News reports on China in general, and

14 on the Belt and Road Initiative in particular, this paper confirms the Orientalist hypothesis that current U.S. propaganda seeks to control, manipulate, and incorporate China in its Neo-Liberal World Order.


U.S. propaganda against China should be seen in terms of an official CIA statement published in the Washington Post (2021) that characterises China as ‘the most important geopolitical threat that we [the United States] face in the 21st Century’. This report announces the establishment of a U.S. mission centre to be focused on ‘gathering intelligence about China,’ on ‘countering its espionage against the United States,’ and on ‘preparing for an all-encompassing, years-long struggle with Beijing’. The report portrays China as the greatest present geopolitical threat to the United States, and suggests that this threat is increasing.

CNN (2023d) refers to the Belt and Road Initiative in similar terms, suggesting that this initiative is the latest stage in China’s ‘up to $1 trillion global infrastructure building drive’. CNN suggests that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping ‘is escalating his push to challenge America’s global leadership’ and to create a world based on ‘iron-fisted, autocratic rule’. This report argues that the Chinese Communist Party is opposed to ‘an international system [that] it sees as unfairly stacked’ to support the United States and its allies, and claims that China is aiming to win support across the world, ‘through speeches, diplomatic meetings, forums and international gatherings large and small’.

The China Daily (2022) on the other hand challenges U.S. propaganda against China, by claiming that Congress drafted an ‘America Competes Act’ that pledged half a billion dollars to ‘churn out negative news coverage on China’. This Chinese news report characterizes U.S. reporters as instigators of an ‘unrelenting and disguised smear campaign against China’.

These reports suggest that there is an ongoing propaganda war between the U.S. and China, and that the U.S. sees China in general and the Belt and Road Initiative in particular as threats to their interests. The purpose of this article is to explore the nature of this campaign in mainstream news production in the United States, bearing in mind that the United States is a Liberal society based on ‘competition and diversity’ (Herman 2020) and that ‘there is a need to view news [in the digital age] through a lens of struggle; a struggle in which journalists, audiences, scholars and, indeed, all citizens have a part to play’ (Harcup 2023).

This paper will begin by exploring academic insights into stereotypical mainstream U.S. discourse on China before providing theoretical and nuanced practical insights into the current U.S. propaganda campaign against China.

Negative U.S. stereotypes of China

Castaño et al. (2016) claim that the United States uses nationalism and negative stereotypes of other nations to support their global interests, by creating a collective

negative attitude towards societies such as China that pose a threat to U.S. global hegemony.

Negative U.S. stereotypes of China have portrayed Chinese people as ‘perpetual foreigners who are unable to be assimilated’ (Shim 1998). Such stereotypes suggest that Chinese people have a single, unified, pre-set, permanent identity (Hall 1996) and that Chinese people are in some sense inferior. Bhabha (1994) suggests that the goal of this nationalist racist discourse is to reinforce racial and cultural hierarchies.

These negative stereotypes of Chinese people can be traced back to the discourse of the Yellow Peril generated in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times (1886). Such stereotypes created a moral panic (Cohen 1980; Hall 1981) around ‘subhuman’ Japanese and Chinese immigrants that are supposedly about to flood into the United States, displacing and eradicating Europeans, ‘stealing’ jobs, and ‘destroying’ culture (Shim 1998). The Immigration Act of 1924 categorised Asians as an ‘undesirable’ race, limited Asian immigration, and marginalized Asian communities.

Important movie stereotypes of this inferior traditional Chinese stereotype include Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan (Wu 1982). Fu Manchu represented a mysterious threat in contrast to Charlie Chan, a bumbling do-gooder. Chinese females in turn have been represented in movies and television programs either as delicate lotus blossoms or as dragon ladies, depending on their level of submissiveness or despotism. Lee (2007) has also denounced the negative media portrayal of young Asian women as objects of male desire, a stereotype propagated by the treatment of local women in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan at the hands of U.S. military personnel during the 19th and 20th Century.

Ono & Pham (2009) claim that mainstream U.S. media currently portray Chinese people as a model minority. Chinese people are portrayed as ‘conscientious, industrious, disciplined, persistent, driven, studious, and intelligent people who have elevated their socioeconomic status through merit, persistence, tenacity, self-discipline, drive, and diligence’ compared to other ethnic groups (ibid). This claim is based on their strong level of academic success, their professional careers, and their high household incomes.

On the other hand, Ono & Pham (2009) argue that this stereotypical portrayal of Chinese people as self-disciplined and successful is in itself problematic. East Asian people living in the U.S. have a larger income gap than other ethno-racial groups, and there is strong discrimination against them. This stereotype of Asian people as conscientious and successful contributes to the illusion that social mobility in the United States is based on merit, thereby masking prejudice and corruption.

Mukkamala & Suyemoto (2018) concur, arguing that the model minority stereotype of East Asian people occurred in the 1960s in order to counter the Black struggle for civil rights. This stereotype represented Asian people as successful examples of cultural assimilation, thereby turning the blame away from the pro-white establishment and against the Black protesters in the streets.

Other mass media stereotypes of Asia are also damaging (Ono & Pham 2009). The Asian dragon ladies are portrayed as ruthless, obsessed with the high academic achievement of their offspring, and Chinese men are represented as sexless. These stereotypical images marginalise Asian people in the United States.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2022) uses ‘facts and figures’ to denounce ‘Falsehoods in US Perceptions of China’. This report argues that the international order promotes U.S. interests and hegemony. It insists that China is committed to basic norms in international law, in international relations, and in the UN charter, and that the U.S. is ‘the most belligerent country in the history of the world’.

Lu et. al. (2019) in contrast suggest that social media platforms are currently influencing and dissolving these negative stereotypes, and that Chinese ownership and use of the highly viewed TikTok app(lication) ‘provides great contrast to traditional U.S. news media which usually casts China in a negative light’.

TikTok audiences are predominantly composed of young college students. These audiences tended to watch videos on Food & Beverage and Fashion & Beauty. These videos gained over 10 million viewers, providing a positive and long-lasting framing of China and Chinese people. Unlike rival social media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok is associated with short videos that require low effort and commitment. These videos and positive views are personalized, discoverable, and shared amongst small circles.

Nevertheless, there are strong challenges to the notion of the Internet and the social media as a counter-public sphere that can challenge and bypass the private interests of capitalism and corporations (Castells 2015) and dissolve political, national, racial, cultural and economic barriers. The U.S. government for example has unleashed a legal campaign to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok platform (Washington Post 2024) on the grounds that it is gathering information on its 170 million U.S. users and at the same time ‘secretly’ shaping their beliefs. Such policies and measures seem to reflect the U.S. commitment to dominate and distance itself from China and Chinese people that is at the heart of this paper on ‘propagandizing China’.

The China virus

Media rhetoric seems to impact on hate crimes. Ang (2020) argues that the portrayal of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the Birth of the Nation movie incited riots and lynching in the early 20th Century. Yanagizawa-Drott (2014) claims that the radio programming in Rwanda promoted the extermination of the Tutsi people.

PBS (2020) explores the effect of U.S. media discourse and anti-Asian rhetoric on hate crimes inside the United States during the Covid-19 epidemic. The number of anti-Asian hate crime events in California more than doubled in 2020, their most common target being individuals rather than organisations, and their most common manifestation being violent crime in general, and simple assault and intimidation in particular. The number of property hate crime events, ranging from arson to vandalism, also increased dramatically.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (2022) argues that hate crimes against East Asians in the United States spiked ‘around the time Trump began attributing Covid-19 to China,’ resulting in ‘incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying’. This report links these violent incidents to U.S. President Trump’s tweets regarding the so-called ‘Chinese virus’. These tweets created a negative mental construct that suggested that Chinese people ‘are’ the Covid-19 virus, and that this China virus, these stereotypical Chinese people pose a threat to the very survival of the so-called Free World.

Darling-Hammond et al. (2020) provide insight into the power of this negative discourse surrounding China, arguing that on March 8th the term Chinese virus and its derivatives were re-tweeted more than six times on Twitter (X) and on March 9th, 2020 the use of these terms increased eight times in news reports. Between March, 2020 and June 2021, the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition reported over 9,000 incidents of racial violence (Lang 2021). The connection between Chinese people (foreigners) and the pandemic then spilled over into racism, xenophobia, and othering of minorities in the United States (Elias et al. 2021), and into relations between the U.S. and China (Rodhan 2020).

Zakaria (2020) has argued that the discourse surrounding the pandemic intensified rivalry between the United States and China, undermining lucrative trade deals between the two powers in which China pledged to purchase $200 billion of U.S. exports in return for relief on tariffs. Jia & Lu (2021) concur, arguing that instead of portraying Covid-19 ‘objectively’ as a public health crisis, mainstream U.S. media reports have adopted the strategy of ‘naming, shaming, blaming, and taming’ against China, thereby promoting President Trump’s America First campaign and simultaneously ‘arresting China’s ascendency’ and destroying the so-called ‘Chinese dream’. The goal of this media campaign, according to Jia & Lu (2021), is to encourage U.S. businesses based in China to return to the United states and to encourage litigation against China.

The goal of this paper therefore is to explore in a more nuanced manner the methods that the U.S. media have used to assert themselves over China since the China virus campaign. In order to do so, this paper will use theoretical insights into representing the Other (Said 1978; Bhabha 1994), into narrating the Other (Schudson 2001; Peters 2011) and into framing the Other (Entman 1993; D’Angelo 2019) in order to interpret a series of important U.S. news reports on China. These CNN and Fox News reports span the period from the Covid-19 pandemic (CNN 2020a) to the genocide in Gaza (CNN 2024).

Representing the Other

The first set of theoretical insights into the current nature of propaganda against China in mainstream U.S. news production suggest that U.S. news reports might present China and Chinese as the Inferior Other. This part of the paper contrasts two important theoretical insights into the representation of the Other: Orientalism and Othering (Said 1978) and hybridity and the interstice (Bhabha 2004).

In Orientalism (1978), the post-colonial Palestinian American scholar Edward Said critiques negative colonial representations of the East. His insights into negative stereotypes are based on ‘the net of racism, of cultural stereotypes, of political imperialism [and] of dehumanizing ideology’ that surrounded him in the United States (Said 2005).

Said’s notion of Orientalism represents the Oriental Other as the eternal outsider (13-16). He argues that negative portrayals of the East strip Eastern people and cultures of their humanity. They are based on assumptions that the United States and Europe have the right to own and drain ‘the majority of the world resources’ because only he ‘is a true human being’ (Said 2003: 108).

He argues that the West views the East as inferior with populations that are ignorant, savage and immoral, ‘Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook- nosed, venal lechers whose underserved wealth is an affront to real civilization’ (ibid). He concludes that Oriental stereotypes reflect a perceived right and will to power over the East, an intent to ‘control, manipulate, even incorporate, what is a manifestly different world’ (Said 1978: 12).

Homi Bhabha (2004) challenges Said’s claim that the East is the passive object of the hegemonic colonial control of the West, arguing instead that the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, the East and the West is a reciprocal relationship. In The Location of Culture (1994), Bhabha introduces the concept of interstice to explain the hybrid nature of cultures, ideologies, and identities. The interstice is a hybrid space that permits people of the East to transcend stereotypes.

This paper therefore explores current mainstream news stories on China to measure the extent to which such stories might disseminate (Said 1978) or transcend (Bhabha 2004) dehumanizing Orientalist discourse and stereotypes of the eternal Asian Other– the extent to which current U.S. propaganda seeks to ‘control, manipulate, even incorporate’ (Said 1978: 12) China in its hegemonic neo-colonial empire.

Narrating the Other

The second set of theoretical insights into the current nature of propaganda against China in mainstream U.S. news production suggest that U.S. news reports might create a discourse of objectivity (Schudson 2001) in order to support its claim that China is illegitimate, unreasonable and unjust.

Theories of narration contrast two types of news discourse. The first type of news reports disconnects so-called facts from opinions and present these supposed truths in a ‘cool, rather than emotional’ tone (Schudson 2001: 150). This style of reporting adopts a critical, impartial, objective, unbiased, rational tone based on a sense of political and emotional detachment (Sims 2007). The second type of news report uses emotion to craft engaging stories that appeal to the hearts and minds of audiences (Peters 2011). This style of reporting in contrast to the first adopts a partial, subjective, biased tone based on political partisanship and emotional involvement (Pantti 2010: 169).

The Digital Resource Center (2023) traces this debate between objective and subjective, factual and emotional reporting to the transition from newspapers that belonged to political parties to newspaper businesses that derived their profits from advertisement and sales. For example, Horace Greeley, the owner of The New York Tribune in 1841 separated news reports from opinion pieces, and labelled the opinion page ‘Editorial Page’, thereby segmenting the presentation of facts and opinions. This separation between so-called objective impartial truth and emotion is an important characteristic of

U.S. mass media. On the other hand, researchers such as Wahl-Jorgensen (2013) have argued that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism uses a mixture of objective and subjective discourse, outsourcing emotion by attributing it to sources.

This paper suggests that U.S. mass media news reports are rooted in both objective and subjective discourses, and that these parallel discourses contribute to current understandings of Truth,

‘The types of discourse which [society] accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true’ (Foucault 1980: 131).

This paper therefore explores current mainstream news stories on China in order to measure the extent to which such stories separate (Schudson 2001; Peters 2011) or blend (Wahl-Jorgensen 2013) objective and subjective styles of narration, the aim of these discourses being to delegitimise and control the designated political, economic and ideological threat of China (Lai 2016).

Framing the Other

The third set of theoretical insights into the current nature of propaganda against China in mainstream U.S. news production suggests that U.S. news reports might frame China, the target of their interest in power and profits as illegitimate, unjust, insidious, and undeserving.

These insights into framing are based on Entman’s claim that journalists select political information in order to promote ‘a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation’ (1993: 52). Framing provides insight into ‘the imprint of power’ in political journalism. This imprint of power provides insights into ‘the actors or interests that competed to dominate the text’ (p. 55). It is at the same time important to understand that these political frames do not dominate meaning and interpretation of political texts (Hall 2011). Texts are interpreted according to the political attitudes (Iyengar 1991) and memories (Pan and Kosicki 1993) of individual members of the audience.

D’Angelo (2002: 873) argues that insights into framing should transcend the mere identification of frames. Framing research should also investigate the conditions that

produce frames and the influence of frames on both the individual and on public opinion in general. He also suggests that context is crucial, the influence of context on audience beliefs, attitudes, and practices (D’Angelo 2019). Ooi & D’Arcangelis (2018) provide general insights into ‘discourses of othering in US news and political rhetoric,’ identifying three salient elements in U.S. news reports on China, ‘China as cheat: currency squabbles,’ ‘China as thief: cyber battles,’ and ‘China as lawless bully: maritime disputes.’ Their insights into framing reflect the view that ‘American images of China are inextricable from the formulation and enactment of Washington’s foreign policies toward China’ (Turner 2014).

This paper therefore explores current mainstream news stories on China to measure the extent to which such stories frame (Entman 1993; D’Angelo 2002, 2019; Ooi & D’Arcangelis 2018) China as illegitimate, unjust, insidious, and undeserving on both sides of the political spectrum (Democrat and Republican).

Multimodal discourse analysis

This article uses multimodal discourse analysis to investigate the interconnected role of language, sound and image in constructing current U.S. news reports on China. This approach to the analysis of news reports is based on insights into ideational, interpersonal and textual meaning (Halliday 1978): insight into people and objects, into social interaction, into structure, and into the connection between text and context.

These insights into news reports are in turn applied to a broad range of modes and genres, using language, text, image, audio and video. Multimodal discourse analysis therefore explores polysemy (Kress & Leeuwen 2003), the interweaving of semiotic resources to capture the interest, minds and hearts of the public.

In the next part of this paper, multimodal discourse analysis will be used to explore the polysemy of mainstream U.S. news production and propaganda against China. This research is based on two important news outlets (CNN and Fox News) and on two samples of news reports. The first sample of news reports is about China in general and the second is about the Belt and Road Initiative in particular.

The sample of 14 news reports on China in general spans the period from the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic (CNN 2020a, February 14) to the spiralling genocide in Gaza (CNN 2024, January 26). It both reflects and reflects on official U.S. policy towards China, and is based on the Council on Foreign Relations ‘Timeline of U.S.-China relations’ (2024). The sample of 14 news reports on the Belt and Road Initiative in particular spans the same period of time. The rationale behind the selection of news outlets and reports is provided in the next part of this paper.

CNN and Fox News

This paper uses two powerful news channels to investigate the use of multimodal discourse to narrate and frame China in general and the Belt and Road Initiative in particular as illegitimate, unjust, insidious, and undeserving.

This paper has selected CNN and Fox News as prime sources of U.S. propaganda regarding China because these two news corporations have the largest audiences and revenues in the United States. CNN Press Room (2024) portrays CNN as ‘the most honoured brand in cable news, reaching more individuals on television and online than any other cable news organization in the United States’. CNN International broadcasts to more than 200 countries and territories. CNN Digital is the number 1 online news platform, and has ‘more unique visitors than any other news source’. CNN reaches around 80 million households in the United States, 347 million households worldwide, and registers more than 150 million unique visitors to CNN Digital. The U.S. telecommunications giant AT&T owns CNN, HBO and Warner Bros (BBC 2021).

The Fox corporation owns Fox News, and Disney owns 20th Century Fox (BBC 2020). Fox News dominates prime time with more than two million viewers whereas CNN has around 60,000 viewers (Pew Research 2022). The revenue of CNN stood at $1.8 billion in 2022. The revenue of Fox News in contrast soared to $3.3 billion. Both news conglomerates have a strong profit orientation (Pew Research 2023). CNN and Fox News represent the bipartisan political nature of mainstream news production in the United States. CNN has strong Democrat support and Fox News has strong Republican support (Pew Research 2020), but CNN and Fox News are merging politically, because John Malone, one of the leading shareholders in both CNN and Fox News has strong Republican orientation.

This paper suggests that powerful U.S.-based global investors such as Vanguard, SsGA and Black Rock, and powerful U.S.-based global advertisers such as insurance, pharmaceutical, private healthcare and communications industries influence the ideological orientation of both CNN and Fox News and their negative discourse regarding China and the Belt and Road Initiative.


This paper explores 1) a sample of 14 CNN and Fox news reports that spans an important period in U.S.-China relations, beginning with a CNN report on the Covid-19 pandemic in February, 2020 and ending with a CNN report on the genocide in Gaza in January, 2024, and 2) a sample of 14 CNN and Fox reports related to the Belt and Road project, beginning in February, 2020 and ending with the Belt and Road summit in China in November, 2023. This timeline of mainstream U.S. news reports reflects the timeline of crises outlined on the Internet platform of the United States Council on Foreign Relations (2024). This Council is an ‘independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher’ that has been designed to help its members to understand and support United States policy regarding China and the rest of the world. The mainstream

U.S. news reports on the Belt and Road project run parallel to this timeline of designated media-generated crises.

The next part of this paper therefore provides a multimodal discourse analysis of mainstream news reports on the issues highlighted in the official timeline of the United

States Council on Foreign Relations (2024) and on the issues highlighted in mainstream news reports on the Belt and Road project. This timeline dates this designated trade war to the President Trump administration that imposed tariffs on several Chinese clothing and electronics in 2018 and to the Chinese government that responded in kind. Ha et al. (2022) have claimed that the U.S. media tend to use combative rhetoric in their representation of these battles for products and profits. China, in contrast presents trade between these two powers in terms of mutual interests. This paper uses this so-called trade war between the United States and China to contextualise the battle for power and the U.S. propaganda against China that are embedded in this sample of 28 CNN and Fox news reports.

Multimodal discourse analysis of mainstream news reports: Timeline of the United States Council on Foreign Relations (2024)

News report no. 1 (CNN 2020a) frames the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of the heroism, tragedy, and irony of the Chinese doctor who ‘tried to warn the world’ about the pandemic, but sadly, ‘In a matter of days, Doctor L. Wenliang went from treating patients to becoming one, dying less than a week later.’ The caption introduces the direction of the narrative, ‘Wuhan coronavirus kills doctor who warned of outbreak,’ perpetuating the stereotypical connection between China and the Chinese regime in general and Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province in China in particular and the deadly Covid-9 pandemic that is threatening to engulf the world. Being Neo-Liberal in its political orientation, this report blames the regime rather than the individual, thereby reinforcing the political construction of China as autocratic and bureaucratic. This report promotes a ‘dehumanizing Orientalist discourse’ (Said 1978) that suggests that China ‘is’ the virus, but suggests at the same time that the individual can transcend (Bhabha 2004) this oppressive regime.

This report therefore blends objective and subjective styles of narration (Schudson 2001; Peters 2011; Wahl-Jorgensen 2013) to create a factual report that contrasts the injustice of the Chinese regime and the heroism and martyrdom of the doctor. Doctor L. Wenliang is foregrounded, addressing the audience directly, behind a green mask, then on a ventilator, holding his personal ID. This report bears witness to the tragedy of Dr. Wenliang who tried to warn the world but was silenced by the regime. The CNN voice- over judges and blames China, claiming that ‘if action had been taken while he and others were sounding alarms the severity of the outbreak might have been understood earlier.’ CNN presents itself and the U.S. as oases of Freedom in contrast to the repression and censorship in China, ‘Struggling to communicate he spoke with CNN by phone on January 21st.’

This portrayal of Chinese oppression is intensified through sound and vision. Dr. Wenliang tells us, ‘I can barely breathe,’ and coughs. CNN shows us the security outside the hospital, the red barricades across the street, and the metal fence around the exotic local Chinese market. The voice-over tells us that instead of being praised, the doctor got silenced. He himself declares that he feared that he would be detained by the Chinese police. The report suggests that the local Chinese authorities covered up the scandal,

maintaining that ‘there was no evidence for human-to-human transmission’ and that the central Chinese government, ‘struggled to contain a rapidly spreading virus with a rising death toll’. None of this helped Dr. Wenliang, because ‘for many including Lee and his parents, it was too late. They all contracted the Corona virus.’

News report no. 2 (Fox News 2020a) perpetuates the Chinese coronavirus label, and criticises the hypocrisy of ‘the media and … the Left’ that condemn the label ‘after using it themselves’. The report displays evidence of both President Trump and opposition candidate, Joe Biden calling it a foreign virus. The caption provides evidence of its deadly spread, ‘31 deaths, 1.000 confirmed Corona virus cases’. The official source on Chinese matters, director of a centre of Chinese strategy, talks of the move to ‘develop vaccine in China with American partners,’ and the problem of ‘trying to dampen down the hard line Chinese nationalism, trying to undermine us [the U.S.] around the world with their disinformation campaigns’. This news report then reinforces the stereotype of China as nationalistic and insidious.

News report no. 3 (Fox News 2020b) denounces China, kicking ‘out U.S. journalists amid coronavirus pandemic’. The split screen highlights the current battle between the national interests and flags of the U.S. and China, and informs its audience that the Chinese Foreign Ministry is requesting that New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington post journalists ‘hand back their press cards within ten days’. The report reminds us that this is a logical reaction to President Trump’s referral to Chinese media abroad as ‘foreign missions’ and his subsequent dismissal of Chinese journalists. This report confirms the stereotypical claim that the Chinese media (unlike media in the United States) are censored, and presents this as ‘yet another step towards depriving the Chinese people and the world of true information about China’.

News report no. 4 (CNN 2020c) glorifies the strong actions of President Trump against China regarding Hong Kong. The opening line, ‘Trump takes aim at China over Hong Kong’ uses a military metaphor to reinforce the concept of a trade war between the U.S. and China. The CNN Hong Kong suggests that such sanctions might ‘jeopardize tens of billions of dollars of trade’ and ‘create uncertainties for the 13,000 American companies that operate’ in Hong Kong, but confirms the neo-Liberal nature of the relationship between the U.S. and the U.S. news conglomerates and China.

News report no. 5 (Fox 2020c) defends the U.S. decision to revoke Hong Kong’s special status and trade preferences, and avails itself of this opportunity to invoke Cold War references to ‘Communist China’s laws and power’. News report no. 6 (CNN 2021a) designates China’s abuses of Uyghurs as genocide, reinforcing the illusion that the United States has an interest in the human rights abuses and unprotected labour upon which its capitalist empire is based (Mares 2022) This report coincides with the ‘democratic’ transition between President Trump and President Biden (2021), suggesting that the U.S. is, and always has been in control of the world and ‘tough on China’. CNN presents this accusation as ‘the conclusion of a scathing first of its kind report from an independent group of human rights and legal experts’. This report portrays China as a place of concrete

blocks, perimeter walls and barbed wire behind which ‘as much as two million people have been forcibly detained, facing atrocities ranging from sexual assault to psychological torture to cultural brainwashing to death’. This CNN report gives China only a few moments to defend itself, ‘China’s Foreign Ministry calls the allegations preposterous,’ before presenting tis crimes in bullet points, ‘Government mandated homestays [communists], mass internment, mass birth prevention, forcible transfer of Uyghur children to state-run facilities, eradication of Uyghur identity, community and domestic life, selective targeting of intellectuals and community leaders.’

This report supports the claim that mainstream U.S. news reports on China tend to present themselves as factual, unbiased truthful narratives (Schudson 2001). CNN provides a bare info-gram of Xinjiang 10-year birth rate and natural growth rate rather than harrowing stories of unbearable human rights abuses, suggesting that the purpose of such news reports is to ‘control, manipulate, even incorporate’ (Said 1978: 12) China in its hegemonic neo-colonial empire, rather than create awareness and critique of the evils of capitalism.

News report no. 7 (Fox News 2021) similarly charges China with committing genocide against Uyghurs, creating a sense of urgency that can pressure China’s access to U.S. markets by ‘accusing China in the last hour and a bit of committing genocide in its repression of Uyghur Muslims’. Fox News provides an exclusive interview with U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who has ‘determined that the PRC under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party has committed genocide and crimes against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs.’ The U.S. therefore presents itself as judge and jury, attributing ‘forced labour’ and ‘forced sterilisation’ to China, and associating Communist China with Nazi Germany. The only other source is the white Counter-intelligence Chief who reinforces an insidious stereotype of Chinese influence on the United States, and arguing that ‘we have to educate America so they know what malign influence tastes like, smells like, looks like, so when they see it, they can call it out.’ Controlling China is therefore one of the duties of the United States. U.S. Secretary, Mike Pompeo patriotically portrays the U.S. as ‘the most exceptional nation in the history of civilization’.

News report no. 8 (CNN 2021c) explains the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, in a list of bullet points, ‘Beijing Olympics; US protesting treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China; There will be no delegation from the White House, Bipartisan support for boycott’. The only sources once again are the white columnist and author of ‘The Coming Collapse of China’ (typed in red letters, representing communism and blood) and the White House press secretary who talks about the need to take a stance against ‘the People’s Republic of China’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang’. News report no. 9 (Fox News 2022a) pushes the issue further, threatening to boycott the game entirely, publicising a Republican Congressman who ‘is going after the Chinese government as a brutal dictatorship with no regard for human rights’. He goes into China’s human rights abuses in a little more detail, referring to ‘control of religions in China, repression of information about Covid-19, and genocide and mass internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang’.

Once again this narrative is factual and objective (Schudson 2001), providing a case against China but with little or no emotional insight into the horrors of genocide and human rights abuse upon which its profits are based (Mares 2022).

News report no. 10 (CNN 2022a) spotlights tensions flaring over the projected U.S. visit to Taiwan, beginning with a warning from the United States regarding ‘unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’ and an official statement from China’s Xinhua News Agency, opposing separatism and telling the

U.S. side in no uncertain terms to ‘abide by the One-China principle’. The report ends with a show of Taiwanese military force, of fighter jets scrambling, helicopters hunting submarines, destroyers opening fire and tanks moving through sand,’ stereotyping China as a military threat to the rest of the world, and providing no historical context to the feud.

News report no. 11 (Fox News 2022c) similarly presents the visit of Nancy Pelosi to China as an altercation with China. The China-state affiliated media responds by threatening reprisals and ‘unbearable consequences’ to the Taiwanese authors. The flight plan of Pelosi and the Twitter photo that foregrounds President Biden calling the President of China suggest that the U.S. is pressuring China and the Chinese expert in the Hudson Institute provides evidence that China should be seen as a military threat to Taiwan. News report no. 12 (CNN 2023a) reinforces the stereotype of China as an intelligence threat to the United States as it responds to the question of ‘How China responded after US shot down suspected spy balloon’. The Chinese Defence Ministry is quoted as saying that China will respond in kind to U.S. actions. A transportation analyst in Anchorage, Alaska is then interviewed on the prospective success of the salvage operation to find out what kind of information China is attempting to extract about or from the United States.

News report no. 13 (Fox News 2023a) in contrast uses this incident to prod the democrat President into taking action against the insidious China. President Biden is caught on camera, getting into his car, promising that ‘we’re going to take care of it’. Fox News then presents live flight tracking graphics that show the spy balloon being shot down, portraying China as a security threat that has on this occasion been neutralised, and confirming in the words of their China policy advisor that ‘this is a very terrible reminder that the China threat is constant and it is real’.

News report no. 14 (CNN 2024) suggests that China is not a suitable agent of peace in the world, because a ‘flood of anti-Semitic hate is going unchecked on Chinese social media’. Reminding the audience for the nth time of ‘the deadly October 7th terror attack on Israel’ that has been used ever since to justify an all-out genocide, CNN once again criticises censorship in China and the autocratic rule of the President and the communist party. It uses strong language and images to nullify China’s claim to the moral high ground in the discourse of international relations by referring to ‘doctored photos of Israeli flags combined with swastikas’ and claiming instead that ‘some are buying Israeli flags just to stamp on them or post online’. Rather than respond to the genocide and the horrors on the ground in Gaza, CNN claims that ‘China is exploiting the hateful content [in order] to hurt the United States. CNN presents Chinese reactions to the injustice in Gaza as ‘a

hornet’s nest of hateful content’ that criticises ‘Israel’s response in Gaza to the terrorist attacks’. The German Embassy then intervenes to claim that the images are ‘degrading to human dignity’ and to call the posters, ‘ignorant idiots or shameless bastards’.

Multimodal discourse analysis of mainstream news reports: The Belt and Road project

News report no. 15 (CNN 2020b) compares the President of China (Xi) and the President of Russia (Putin), claiming that the leaders of China and Russia are both autocratic, that they have similar geopolitical interests, and that there is ‘a strong personal relationship between the two leaders,’ although President Xi’s hold on power is much more secure. The visual framing of this threat to the global power and even survival of the United States involves a photograph of President Putin in the foreground and a Russian General in the background and a caption and hyperlink that reads, ‘Hear Putin discuss nuclear weapons.’

News report no. 16 (Fox 2020b) launches into a seemingly impartial objective narrative that purports to explain the nature of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, ‘a planned multitrillion-dollar infrastructure program that is intended to link China with more than 100 countries through railroad, shipping and energy projects,’ thereby recreating the Silk road, an old network of trading routes between the East and the West’. The map of the New Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road plays an important role in the coherence and credibility of this report. The report adopts an impartial tone (Schudson 2001) by presenting two points of view. Proponents argue that the project might strengthen ties ‘between Beijing and emerging markets’, thereby ‘lifting developing nations out of poverty’. Critics, on the other hand portray the initiative as ‘part of China’s desire to achieve trade dominance and control in order to compete with the United States’.

This report therefore reinforces the Othering of the Orient and Edward Said’s suggestion that the United States seeks to ‘control, manipulate, even incorporate’ the East in its hegemonic neo-colonial empire (Said 1978: 12). This report presents the Belt and Road project as unjust and insidious, arguing that ‘much about the project remains shrouded in secrecy’ and that China is engaged in ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. It then connects the project to the China virus, suggesting that the virus has hampered the initiative.

News report no. 17 (Fox 2021b) highlights the claim that China’s Belt and Road Initiative threatens global U.S. interests. It pits two white heavyweights (‘The Council on Foreign Relations’ independent task force, chaired by former chief of Naval Operations’ and a former Obama Treasury Secretary) against this latest manifestation of the Yellow Peril. It alerts its audience to the insidious geopolitical nature of Chinese influence, permeating digital infrastructure in countries around the world, and characterising China as a perpetrator of ‘serious human rights abuse against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’.

News report no. 18 (CNN 2021b) provides evidence that the Belt and Road project is failing, informing its audience that Australia is scrapping ‘Xi’s signature project’ and

predicting a backlash from this dangerous opponent. The report begins with a voice-over that claims that China is blocking exports, imposing tariffs on its agricultural products, and pressuring Australian journalists and a caption that states that Australia is ‘bearing the brunt of latest coercion from China’. Two smiling white Australian journalists are linking arms, smiling, and challenging this media-generated pressure from the East. The Australian Minister of Defence then appears on screen to express his determination to defend ‘our values’ and ‘our sovereignty’. The report states that Australia refuses to participate in China’s plan to build ports, roads and railways because China is using leveraging Australia’s trade in ‘wheat, barley, coal, wine and even lobsters’. It also claims that Australia angered China by questioning the origins of Covid-19.

News report no. 19 (Fox 2022c) returns to the United States and associates China with communism, claiming that ‘the Communist Party of China is actively seeking to make the Chinese currency supplant the U.S. Dollar’ and simultaneously ‘using debt to essentially take over other countries’ infrastructure’. The photograph reasserts the United States as the ruler of the world, by foregrounding President Biden in the middle, superimposed against a U.S. flag, stretching a hand towards an invisible Chinese Premier. Their Taiwanese source provides the example of Laos in which ‘China took control of the power grid because officials could not repay a loan from Beijing’. News report no. 20 (CNN 2022c) refers to Beijing’s ‘sprawling’ overseas development initiative that ‘has poured billions of dollars’ into ‘corrupt and coercive’ infrastructure projects’ that are ‘poorly built or environmentally destructive’. The U.S. Secretary of State argues that China imports or abuses labour and produces crushing debts. It then proposes its solution, ‘to unleash

$600 billion in investment’.

News report no. 21 (Fox 2022d) is an opinion piece that uses its panel of five self- proclaimed experts to berate Hunter Biden, son of the incumbent President, accusing him of ‘tax crimes and for lying about his drug use on a federal gun form’. The ‘Big Five’ accuse the Presidential family of being the American face of the Chinese Belt and Road and collaborating in ‘their imperial commercial strategy to supplant the United States as the number one world power’. News report no. 22 (CNN 2022b) reinforces the claim that China is a negative and oppressive influence on the world, because it is operating ‘more than 100 so-called overseas police stations across the globe to monitor, harass and in some cases repatriate Chinese citizens’. The picture of the bars around the Chinese embassy reiterates the notion of ‘Prison China’.

News report no. 23 (Fox 2022e) returns to the Cold War, representing the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) as the ‘greatest threat to the United States’. Images of two resolute white representatives of President Trump and the Republicans denounce progressive policies that have ‘welcomed China into the international system’. China has responded ungratefully by ‘exporting totalitarianism, aggression, and ideological control’. The Belt and Road initiative is dismissed as ‘debt trap diplomacy’.

News reports no. 24 and 25 (Fox 2023; CNN 2023b) support Italy’s sabotage of the Belt and Road Initiative. The blond blue-eyed image of the Italian Prime Minister supports its rejection of the ‘improvised and atrocious’ China project. News report no. 25 (CNN 2023b) begins with a map of the members of the Initiative, with the oldest members (2013-14) in the darkest tone of red and the latest in pink (2019 or later). The choice of the colour red suggests passion, blood or communism (Fagerholm 2009). The report marks the 10th anniversary of the project, and Italy ‘must decide if it will remain a member’. The presenter quotes the Italian Defence Minister who described the scheme as ‘wicked’. The Italian Prime Minister is once again broadcast, claiming that good trade can exist with China without embracing the Initiative. News report no. 26 (CNN 2023c) claims China has poured billions into Africa’s infrastructure but suggests that the Initiative is running out of steam.

News report no. 27 (Fox 2023c) asserts that ‘Russia and China have forged an informal alliance against the United States and other democratic nations’. It supports ‘the pummelling of the Gaza Strip with retaliatory airstrikes’ because ‘Hamas’ surprise Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli civilians prompted Israel to declare war against the Gaza-based terror group’. It also characterises the Belt and Road project as a geopolitical threat to U.S. dominance. Finally, News report no. 28 (CNN 2023e) describes the Belt and Road Summit as China’s ’most important diplomatic event’ because it touts China’s ‘outsized’ geopolitical role in development, thereby promoting U.S. exceptionalism. suggesting that the United States has an exceptional role. Once again China is represented as a usurper, dedicated to subverting a world supposedly based on ‘the norms and values promoted by liberal democracies’. Once again, it rejects their support for Gaza that runs counter to the legitimising narrative and ‘outpouring of support for Israel from leaders across Europe and the U.S.


This paper has explored mainstream televised U.S. news reports regarding China in general and the Road and Belt Initiative in particular in order to provide insight into patterns of U.S. propaganda, beginning with the trade war (2018) and the allegation that the Road and Belt Initiative is a threat to the United States and to the rest of the world (2020) and ending with the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing (2023) and the allegations of anti-Semitism against China (2024). It uses an official report published in the Washington Post (2021) to contextualize this propaganda campaign. This report represents China as the most important geopolitical threat to the United States, claiming that the U.S. and China are entwined, and suggesting that the United States has to assert its power against this insidious enemy. The news report argues that President Xi’s display of solidarity with President Putin at the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in 2023 underscores the deepening division between the world’s major powers, the U.S. and the Rest.

The paper then explores the history of U.S. propaganda against China, ranging from the Yellow Peril stereotype (Wu 1982; Shim 1998; Lee 2007) to the stereotype of the model minority (Shim 1998; Mukkamala & Suyemoto 2018), before ending with current social media stereotypes of China and the so-called China virus.

The paper uses a broad range of theoretical insights into current U.S. propaganda targeting China, beginning with the structural assumptions inherent in the propaganda model (Herman 2020) that suggest that mainstream U.S. news conglomerates such as CNN and Fox News engage in propaganda campaigns that reflect and operationalize their elite political interests and profit orientation. It uses theoretical insights into representing the Other (Said 1978; Bhabha 2004), narrating the Other (Schudson 2001; Peters 2011) and framing the Other (Entman 1993; D’Angelo 2002, 2019) to construct a nuanced interpretation of the current nature and role of propaganda in mainstream U.S. news production.

This multimodal discourse analysis of 14 mainstream news reports on China in general and 14 on the Road and Belt Initiative in particular confirms the Orientalist hypothesis that current U.S. propaganda seeks to ‘control, manipulate, even incorporate’ China in its hegemonic neo-colonial empire (Said 1978: 12). These news stories portray China as illegitimate, unjust, insidious, and undeserving. Both CNN and Fox News engage in these negative stereotypes, suggesting that interests on both sides of the mainstream political spectrum in the United States (Democrats and Republicans) converge.

The 14 mainstream news reports on China in general use factual impartial narrative techniques (Schudson 2001) and a narrow circle of official all-white sources (representing the Executive Branch, the State Department, and the centres of Chinese strategy in the United States) to provide a pretext that supports the strategic diplomatic and economic interventions that the U.S. uses to promote its global interests in power and profits. These pretexts are based on stereotypical narratives about censorship (of doctors and dissidents), about human rights abuses (against the Uyghurs), about interference (in Hong Kong) and about threats to the security of Taiwan and the United States. There is a little emotion in the tale of Dr. Wenliang, standing up against the bureaucratic oppression, but not too much. There is little to no emotion in the tale of the Uyghur genocide.

The 14 mainstream news reports on the Belt and Road Initiative in particular use similar narrative techniques and stereotypes to provide parallel insights into the threat of China, claiming that the leaders of China and Russia are both autocratic, that they have similar geopolitical interests, and that there is ‘a strong personal relationship between the two leaders’. These reports also reinforce the Othering of the Orient, presenting the Initiative as unjust and insidious, as a debt-trap. Subtle references to the Yellow Peril and the China virus reverberate through these reports. Once again, the all-white experts and sources– the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chief of Naval Operations, Fox’s Big Five of diehard Republicans and patriots– are wheeled out to give the audience the so-called facts about China, to reinforce stereotypes of communism, digital infiltration and behind-

the-scenes genocide, and to accuse it of ‘exporting totalitarianism, aggression, and ideological control’ (Fox 2022). These reports are all understated. There is little visual evidence besides maps and diplomats, because the goal is to manipulate China and to maximize profits and to mute public outrage.

This paper concludes that the main role of these news reports (including the ones that refer to the designated genocide in Xinjiang) is to promote a ‘dehumanizing Orientalist discourse’ (Said 1978) that suggests that China is autocratic and bureaucratic but a good business partner nonetheless. The role of this discourse is to leverage the political and economic interests and profits of the United States. The United States uses China to promote U.S. interests, by always criticising China but never too much, and this is the current nature of United States mass media propaganda regarding China and the Belt and Road Initiative.


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