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MERICS research reveals that official Chinese media use events in Europe to discredit Western concepts of democracy while more market-oriented outlets offered a more differentiated assessment.

March for Europe in London

Over the past years, the European Union has been shaken by the Greek debt crisis, a massive influx of refugees, the rise of right-wing extremism, deadly terrorist attacks and just recently the Brexit vote in Great Britain. Researchers of Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) analysed how these multiple crises are viewed in Chinese media. They presented their analysis on July 12th on invitation of the EastWest Institute, an independent NGO focused on conflict resolution that is headed by German diplomat Martin Fleischer.

"How China views the EU should matter to us", said Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of the Research Area Politics, Society, and Media at MERICS. Her comment echoed the introductory remarks by Jo Leinen, the head of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with China. At a time of heated bilateral disputes over trade and investment issues, Leinen warned that the EU’s relations with China had reached a “critical point”.

For their survey, Shi-Kupfer and co-authors Jasmin Gong and Bertram Lang used software tools to search for a set of keywords relating to EU crisis events in around 75,000 articles of party-state and market-oriented media as well as on social media forums, and they subjected 300 commentaries and OpEds to further in-depth scrutiny. The result was a mixed picture, as Gong pointed out: "The Greek debt crisis and the Brexit referendum are discussed quite neutrally in Chinese media, and many reports reflect confidence in the EU’s stability. But after the Brexit vote actually happened, this confidence was disrupted."

Commentators see challenges to EU unity

The analysis, published in the series MERICS China Monitor, highlights a number of trends. Roughly one third of all analysed opinion articles (34%) portrayed the above-mentioned events as challenges to EU unity. Many Chinese commentators viewed the influx of refugees and the terrorist threat as crises the EU will eventually be unable to manage (38% and 34%, respectively). "The refugee crisis is the result of a self-righteous idea of democracy" or "China could be 'the Man of Wisdom' for the establishment of a new world order” were some of the quotes that raised eyebrows among the representatives from EU institutions and think tanks in the audience.

The study’s most striking finding was the difference between party-state media and more market-oriented outlets when it came to assessing events in Europe. Commercial media like "Caixin" or blogs like "Sohu" tried to give more differentiated accounts and took a closer look at internal European debates. Party-state media on the other hand clearly used coverage on crisis phenomena to discredit "the West" and its values. "People's Daily" or "Xinhua" described the EU and Europe as being "in a state of decay, like the West as a whole", as Lang pointed out. He added that some official commentators went a step further and took "the moral high ground to promote Chinese concepts of authoritarian rule as an alternative to Western ones".

EU’s image is not yet shattered

The researchers stressed the need for more analysis: "China’s domestic media discourse is a better early indicator of potential changes in attitudes towards Europe than diplomatic statements", said Lang. So, is the EU's image in China already in shambles? Maybe not yet: After all, two thirds of the coverage analysed by MERICS still reveals a rather neutral take on the EU's ability to confront its challenges. But should Chinese media increasingly question the EU as a haven of political stability, Europe's standing vis-à-vis China as an ever-more powerful player might be compromised.

"The development has to worry us, there might be danger for democratic systems", Jo Leinen, head of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with China said in his closing remarks. But MERICS’ Shi-Kupfer offered some reassuring advise for policymakers in EU member states. She recommended targeting China's market-oriented media and popular bloggers to convey a more positive, realistic image of the situation: “Mind you, some Chinese bloggers have 40 million and more followers. That makes for quite a bit of influence!"