For the next three decades, the media tended to view China in a more benign fashion. During the 1970s and 1980s, China’s image in the American press was that of a useful, de facto diplomatic and even military ally of the United States against the Soviet Union. A considerable number of news stories, editorials, and op‐eds also noted that China was emerging as a significant U.S. trading partner. When the Cold War ended, the rationale for a strategic partnership no longer applied, but journalistic accounts emphasized the PRC’s rising economic importance to America. Not even the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 derailed either Washington’s cooperative relationship with Beijing or the media’s reasonably positive view of China, although there appeared to be a bump in wariness and skepticism within the journalistic community.
During George W. Bush’s administration, the roster of dissenters favoring a more hawkish policy toward Beijing began to grow. One catalyst for the media’s shift was the sense that the PRC was becoming more a serious economic competitor to the United States than an essential trading partner. Even though both countries were prospering greatly from the relationship, a greater number of stories appeared featuring allegations of “unfair” PRC trade practices, including cases of intellectual property theft and currency manipulation to make Chinese goods more competitive.
Negative media accounts were not confined to the economic arena. More journalists began to see the PRC not just as a worrisome trade competitor, but as an emerging U.S. military rival, if not an outright adversary. Beijing’s surging defense budgets and increasingly assertive behavior in such arenas as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea fed those concerns in the media. Press uneasiness about the PRC’s behavior continued to rise throughout President Barack Obama’s administration, although a majority of news stories and opinion pieces still presented the U.S.-China relationship as positive and mutually beneficial.
A more noticeable split in press coverage has developed over the past three years, with a hawkish perspective gaining strength and challenging the once‐dominant pro‐engagement view in the media. The Trump administration’s hardline trade policies led primarily to a sharp (sometimes partisan) debate, with journalistic advocates of the status quo condemning the president’s apparent willingness to wage a trade war, while economic nationalists saw the firmer stance as long overdue. However, it is Beijing’s behavior outside of the economic arena that has sparked a surge in both public and media hostility.
Two events were especially important catalysts. One was the successful move by President Xi Jinping’s regime in May 2020 to impose a new national security law that menaced Hong Kong’s guaranteed political autonomy. That move reinforced already strong condemnation in the American press about Xi’s growing repression within the PRC, including squelching even the mildest forms of political and economic dissent. The other crucial catalyst for the increasingly negative portrayals of the PRC was Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020. Complaints erupted throughout the American news media about the PRC’s secrecy and duplicity regarding the spread of the virus, as well as attempts by Chinese officials to shift blame onto the United States for the pandemic. Public hostility toward Beijing has risen sharply—as confirmed in opinion polls—and media accounts reflect that shift.
Security hawks and economic nationalists have gone on the offensive in the media. Proponents of the overall U.S.-China relationship are still active and influential, but there is now a cautious, defensive, and at times almost apologetic tone to many of their news stories and editorials. They seek to prevent fatal damage to the relationship, even as they feel compelled to criticize PRC leaders for their conduct regarding both Hong Kong and the coronavirus.
Negative press views of China seem to be reaching their highest levels since the period immediately following the Tiananmen Square crackdown. In some ways, the extent of negativity may be higher than at any time since Nixon’s outreach to the PRC. There certainly is less evidence of group think and a herd mentality throughout the media. For perhaps the first time since the communist revolution, there appears to be a vigorous debate between factions of roughly equal strength about how the United States should deal with China.