Defending China’s English Language Press

China's foreign language newspapers

Last week on a Shandong Airlines flight, I overheard someone in the seat behind me say something to his fellow traveler along the lines of the following, in reference to a front page headline in the China Daily (I think): “‘Chinese people’s feelings hurt by foreign media.’ What kind of mature country has a headline like that?”

The two of them then launched into a fifteen minute discussion excoriating China’s English language media. I was reminded of that conversation today while reading a post on James Fallows’ blog, The bright side #4: Why I’ve missed the (English-language) Chinese press. In his post, Fallows rightfully makes light of the May 1 China Daily’s lead headline, which reads “Happiness abounds as country cheers” and includes a picture of Tibetan university students rejoicing over the Olympics. Fallows’ tongue in cheek take on this story:

There are serious aspects to the enormous gap between Chinese and international coverage of the Olympics, Tibet, etc. — but for another time. For now it’s great to see these publications in top form.

All true. China’s press is oftentimes laughable. But — and please hear me out here — it is not THAT bad.
I say it is not that bad because mixed in with the sort of things discussed above, there is actually some pretty decent stuff to be found in newspapers like the China Daily and the Shanghai Daily. Their international stories are not bad and are relatively unbiased. Their business reporting is also generally pretty decent. Would I want my only news to come from these two papers? Hell no. But they do make for a nice adjunct.

China’s English language press is about ten times better today than it was five years ago and I will bet it will be at least twice as good in five years as it is today.

Ten years ago, Korea’s English language newspapers were a complete joke. I would read them on airplanes only, and I would spend no more than around five minutes doing so. You know when a country purchases 3-5 pages of advertisements in a newspaper or magazine to pitch itself as a country in which you should invest? Korea’s English language papers read just like those advertisements. Today, however, papers like the Korea Herald and the Korea Times are actually quite decent. The same was true of Japan’s English language newspapers fifteen years ago, but now papers like the English language version of the Yomiuri Shimbun are well worth a read.

So the defense of China’s English language press is that it could be worse and it is slowly getting better. Of course, the major difference between the press in China today and in Korea and Japan ten years ago is that China’s is state owned and that very well might limit real progress.

What do you think?

11 responses to “Defending China’s English Language Press”

  1. I’ll admit it, I used to read the China Daily pretty much every day, to my defence this was when I didn’t have an internet connection where I lived and was desperate for something to read. The editorials are pretty much worthless, those that aren’t just straight agitprop are usually whimsical pieces on something no adult mind could find interesting – one never sees dispassionate analysis. The international stories are mostly marked ‘agencies via Xinhua’, which basically means that what you are getting is an agency piece that has undergone censorship. Local stories seem in the main to be quite slanted. If they make the front page it is because either they involve the leadership (‘Hu listens to Hainan farmers’), or involve foreigners in some way (‘DVD smuggling ring broken, American arrested’), or are pure propaganda (‘Xinjiang progress led by. Do they carry stories which are pure fabrications? Well, the inside page which carries brief stories from around the country sometimes carries stories which I have seen repeated word-for-word months earlier in other English language papers months apart from the stories appearing in China Daily, so I somewhat dubious about the veracity of any of the stories covered. I remember a front page piece describing a ten-thousand strong anti-independence protest in Taipei – I called up a friend of mine who writes for a newspaper in Taiwan and got the real story: a large PRO independence demo had taken place that day – he had been there to cover it – no more than a few hundred mainly elderly KMT-supporters attended the counter-demonstration.
    This is, of course, what you would expect from government-owned media in a dictatorship. As for what the English language press can be, I would point to something like the Taipei Times, a newspaper I still read to keep up on Taiwanese affairs. It has a pro-green camp editorial slant, but this does not affect the reporting of local and international stories, and they are certainly not above criticising pro-green politicians like Chen Shui-Bian. The main advantage it has over the British press is its brevity, being only about 20-30 pages long, and the broad scope of its international coverage.
    Finally, it must be said that the Chinese language press in China has come a lot further than the Chinese English language press has. Although Southern Weekend News (南方周末) may not be what it was (a politically-motivated change in the editorial staff is usually blamed for this), the Modern Weekend (周末画报) has stepped into the gap – especially with its excellent photographs (which are great if you read Chinese as slowly as I do). Daily newspapers seem to consist mainly of a city newspaper which covers all the local crime stories in good fashion – and this seems to be what the people want to see, and financial newspapers which are somewhat more high-brow and statistics loaded – and frankly quite boring!

  2. Dan,
    The notorious “hurt the Chinese people’s feelings” has been ridiculed and criticized for a long, long time on the various Chinese websites and publications, even more recently. It’s one of those Chinese government’s cliche (“八股文“). It’s amazing they never change. Even Hu Jintao himself picks up the term and said so, when he recently met with French President’s envoy.
    I can understand how you feel if all you can read is China Daily – I would go nuts. China Daily is a government propaganda piece, mainly for the foreigners. Granted, much of the state-owned newspapers in Chinese are also full of propaganda and full of official cliche, but there are some reasonably good newspaper and magazines in Chinese, some as you mentioned. The business and financial publications are generally more straightforward. To really understand what’s going on in China, I think you’ll need to learn some Chinese. I don’t expect any good English newspapers emerge in China, even without state control.

  3. My major complaint with China’s English language print media is the poor writing. The headlines and stories abound with poorly translated Chinese sayings and culturally-bound metaphors, which make for a awkward read for those of us born and raised in an English speaking culture.
    I have a theory that the crummy writing and bad translation we see in official PRC documents serves to further widen the cultural understanding gap between China and the rest of the world. Much of the harsh rhetoric about recent events( Olympics and such) have been translated literally when a more metaphorical meaning was intended. This only makes the PRC look bellicose when in fact they were merely defensive. Perhaps some better editing would lead to fewer instances of Chinese people getting their feelings hurt.

  4. @Glen – “when a more metaphorical meaning was intended.”
    I wouldn’t be so sure, when you describe people as ‘wolves in monk’s robes’ and talk about ‘unspeakable aims’, ‘lies’, ‘western conspiracy’, there are few ways of translating this in a way that is flattering.
    It is the Chinese leadership’s way of speaking that is the problem, not the translators, and the only way it will change is if the leadership changes the mindset behind its agit-prop speech.
    @NT – Quality story, just loved this detail: “The cat fled the scene.”
    Somehow that just made the whole story, I wonder if she could pick it out of a line out?
    @Charles Frith – You should see the papers in Taiwan, when it comes to pure muck-raking and salacious copy papers like ‘Apple Daily’ have few equals. Not that I see much wrong with that (although a buddy of mine was on the wrong end of it – but the dude totally asked for it) I just wonder how they survive Taiwan’s lawsuit culture with its continous frivolous suits and counter-suits for libel and slander.
    Plus, I think even I could find a place in my heart for ‘hurt the Chinese people’s feelings’ style stories if they had something decent to look at on page three!
    Whilst we’re at it, does anybody know of a decent Chinese news website? I usually read the BBC Chinese site to keep my Chinese in, but I’ve recently become aware that it is sometimes poorly written and edited (writing ‘北部’ for ‘被捕’ for example), and is anyway written in language which is rather simplified.

  5. Glen,
    You’re right. More than language is at play here. Sometimes, it’s the culture differences. For example, this “hurt Chinese people’s feelings” thing, it doesn’t actually sound as terrible in Chinese as in English, although it’s still not the appropriate expression in the diplomatic and international settings. But they just directly translate the statement from Chinese to English!
    It’s not that no one in China is aware of the communication gap. During the recent events of T1bet & Olympic torch relay, people like the former Vice Editor-in-Chief of Xinghua Agency, and former ambassador to France, Mr., Wu Jianming, pointed out Chinese government and state-media’s language and communication barrier to the world.
    For some light-hearted Chinglish, check out this interesting little book: “Chinglish” (

  6. @FOARP
    “Wolves in monk’s robes” is a metaphor, and a culturally bound one at that. Looking at the whole corpus of Chinese political language, Chinese has a higher tolerance for militaristic, harsh sounding language than does English. What this means is that much of the PRC’s political jargon and other metaphors do not carry the same vividness and punch to the Chinese reader. Perhaps certain phrases have lost their freshness through repeated use over time. But for whatever reason, fiery Chinese rhetoric in literal English brims with phantom meaning that just isn’t there in the original Chinese.
    We all know that Chinese features countless four-character proverbs. What many non-native Chinese speakers don’t realize is that most of those pithy sayings are denotative. They sound mysterious and intriguing in literal English, but “drawing legs on a snake” merely means “superfluous.”
    Phrases like “unspeakable aims,” “lies,” and “western conspiracy” on the other hand, are exactly what they sound like. China was defensive and I do not dispute that. Should they have been? Maybe. Perhaps they could put a bit more effort into expressing themselves. Many a wise mother has asked her tantrum throwing child to, “use your words.” Good advice indeed!

  7. Certainly the phrase would normally be “caused grave offence”, but the way in which the emphasis is placed on each and every Chinese person being offended (where almost certainly the majority of the Chinese population will hoe their rice paddies in blissful ignorance of the offending action) and the prima donna-like way in which offence is taken lead me to believe that there is nothing all too wrong with “hurt the Chinese people’s feelings” as a translation.
    One thing I’ve often wondered about is, if the China Daily has native speaking editors (and it would seem they do) why do they keep using these translation which they know sound totally child-like to western ears? Judging by the editorials that some of them write they are firm partisans of the Chinese Communist Party, so it cannot be a conscious attempt to make the government look bad. I think they must have been instructed to write this way.

  8. Sometimes I have to speed read comments so forgive me if I’m way off.
    @FOARP My point about the ‘hurt feelings’ is that it’s such a contrast to the ‘crush and smash the splittists’ rhetoric which is pathological in some respects. I wonder if this is the range of emotions used by Chinese to convey broadly speaking anger. On the one hand a violent response and on the other a sort of faux endurance of pain?
    I don’t know but also as an aside I used to be a prolific news reader but frankly its a depressing business and one thing I like about China daily are the stories about someone finding dough and returning it to the rightful owner. Sad I know but it it keeps things positive. And there begins a whole new discussion about positive propaganda that I have only begun to think through in the last couple of months. 🙂

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