Authoritarian Media Bias in International Context: How the Chinese State Portrays Foreign Countries and Why

In the United States, it’s pretty clear that we talk about certain countries in the media in particular ways in order to shape how the public sees international relations. The media has become a political machine, influencing opinions and polarizing the masses, especially in the era of “fake news.” But does this happen in other countries, particularly in authoritarian regimes where leaders don’t necessarily care about public opinion?

Hanzhang Liu, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, seeks to investigate this in her upcoming research on media bias in autocratic countries. She looks at the case of China, examining how Chinese state-run media portrays foreign countries and why they choose to craft such stories. Liu notes that the Chinese state is more likely to portray countries with which China trades – namely large export markets and markets from which China receives fossil fuels – in a more favorable light. 

Every night, Chinese news program Xinwen Lianbo airs about ten minutes of international news: Liu analyzed the text of this news for 186 countries over 13 years to create a sentiment index of how the Chinese media portrayed each country over time. These sentiment scores serve as a latent index, baseline attitudes that the state wants the population to feel vis-à-vis a given country. She then used surveys to get “feeling thermometer” scores for how the public feels about particular countries. The findings? Public opinion in authoritarian regimes matters more than we think it does: the Chinese state can use the media to create favorable public sentiment on important trading partners and thereby reduce likelihood of trade disruption through mobilized demonstrations. A virtuous cycle is thus created: the government has more flexible options in foreign policy which allows the Chinese economy to maintain high growth rates, which signals legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of the people, and strengthens the leadership’s grip on the country.

Liu’s talk today covered forthcoming research with Chengyuan Ji, Assistant Professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University. You can check out more of her research here.

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