Mainstream Western news outlets have twisted themselves into knots with their disappearing tricks
Magicians are not the only ones who use legerdemain to make things vanish. Politicians also know a thing or two about making things disappear, dissolving vexing narratives with sleight of words. And some media can be just as adept.
On Jan 6, a mob of Donald Trump supporters launched a highly violent assault on the US Capitol Building proclaiming that victory in the presidential election on Nov 3, 2020, had been "stolen" from him and that this must be put right. The assault was underway by 1 pm and ran for around seven hours until 8 pm. Five people died and many were injured. It was aptly labeled as an insurrection in the United States and around the world.
Very soon, however, the project to render this insurrection invisible began.
In July, this year, The New York Times summarized how Republican Party members were "spinning a new counter-narrative of that deadly day". They had, the paper said, "concocted a version of events in which those accused of rioting were patriotic political prisoners and the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was to blame for the violence". Republicans had already described the assault as "a peaceful protest" and "a normal tourist visit".
The Associated Press, in May, headlined their story on this brazen rewriting of history: "What Insurrection?" In July, The Economist, pointedly argued that the "Republican delusion about the Capitol riot hits a dangerous new low", rebuking the party's revisionism as "a big step down a dark road."
Global condemnation by the liberal media of these many moves to drastically revise the Capitol insurrection narrative has been scathing and insistent.
Yet this same media has also worked tirelessly for over two years to render all but invisible the insurrection which began in Hong Kong in June 2019. This has required serious effort. Hong Kong's insurrection was not a swift seven-hour affair: it was a multi-month campaign of intimidation, involving colossal levels of continuous destruction. Institutions gravely affected included the legislature, the entire public transport system, countless businesses, police stations, the law courts and universities, even the Central Government's liaison office. It is a very grim catalog which massively overshadows anything that happened in Washington on Jan 6 this year.
Six months after CNN classified the attack on the Capitol as an insurrection, they still labeled the extended, intensely destructive period which brought Hong Kong almost to its knees in 2019, as pro-democracy demonstrations. The New York Times has repeatedly referred to the "sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong" since 2019, while stifling any serious examination of the terrifying, extended insurgency that those same forces, with offshore support, incubated and unleashed. Abundant, further bold examples can readily be found across the dominant, Western media.
So, crucial narrative number-one says, forget the evasions and mendacity－there was an insurrection in Washington. Period.
Meanwhile, crucial narrative number-two insists that there has been nothing insurrectional to see in Hong Kong; while stressing the continuing vital need to denounce China for irrationally crushing freedoms in Hong Kong.
What on earth is going on here?
First, as the US writer Gore Vidal noted in a 1995 interview with The New York Times, the primary media, political, academic and other relevant actors all essentially think in the same way in the US.There is thus no need for them to conspire. The power of the globalized Western legacy media, led by the US, is such that it can determine the world view of most in the West and well beyond by deciding what is left out of the news and what is emphasized. This is acutely so when they feel frightened in the same way. The common Western media fear-trigger today is not an invasion from Mars (as in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells) but a more earthbound, deeply alarming encounter: the rise of China.
Context is also crucial to understanding how the mainstream Western media has worked its way into this singular fix. The US has transited, over the last century, from being benignly concerned about China, to zestfully embracing China-based trade around 40 years ago, followed, over the last decade, by indignant glowering as China's rise as an emerging superpower has drawn both concern and admiration in equal measure from different political spheres.
Then there is the need for enemies. Tom Engelhardt, a US writer and editor, recently noted that the US cannot even pretend to do without them. Writing after the fall of Kabul, Engelhardt observed that the US is "pivoting from a war on terror to provoking China… which all adds up to an enemy-filled future in which Congress must invest ever more staggering sums in the military-industrial complex".
This latest Sino-scowling phase is favorably embraced by many influential US commentators as a new Cold War. Whatever it is called, it is plain that Washington is fixated on containing the rise of China by all means at hand, and the mainstream global media, particularly those partial to the West, are anxiously keeping in step.
Prior to these ascendant media organizations being struck by their distorted fear of China, it was rather different. Just five years ago, The Economist said that, "Feb 8, 2016, began as a day of celebration in Hong Kong: it was the start of the Chinese New Year. It ended in the worst outbreak of rioting since the 1960s."
Today, though, a new, collective, misshapen perspective dominates. Leading global media outlets esteem, vilify and sanitize as they see fit in support of the fervent project to contain China.
The author is a visiting professor at the Law Faculty of Hong Kong University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.