Promoting a Post–Cold War Agenda
Paper presented at the Fourth Annual Kent State Symposium on Democracy
Communications technology, modern transportation, and expanding economics are driving our world to globalize. As a result, the flow of commercial goods, business services, news, images, ideas, and cultural products has taken a transnational character. In the midst of all these important changes, the public is becoming ever more dependent on the media to report events and people in faraway places. Media, therefore, are wielding unprecedented power and influence in shaping how the public learns about world affairs.
Although reporters have been traditionally thought of as professionals who are trained and guided by the codes of journalistic practices, an increasing number of scholars are challenging the notion that media messages are objective accounts of what happens. Some scholars now approach journalism from a narrative and constructionalist perspective, seeing journalism as storytelling (Bennet and Edelman 1985; Gamson and Modigliani 1989; Roeh 1989) and seeing reporters as social actors as well as political agents of their own societies (Mancini 1989; Patterson 1998). More recently, scholars who examine the political economy of the media argue that the media are influenced by efficiency and profits just like other businesses (Mansell 1993).
Turning to international communication, mass media scholars are becoming more concerned with the media’s roles, practices, and their journalistic objectives. First of all, the “big four” Western news agencies (AP, UPI, Reuter, and AFP) deliver about 85 percent of total foreign news, creating an unbalanced information flow between the few Western developed countries and the rest of the world (Mohammadi 1997). Additionally, some scholars argue that Western coverage of world events often exhibits a pro-Western orientation, since international affairs are often reported through primarily the British and the American cultural lenses (Dijk 1988; Lee and Solomon 1990; Riffe and Shaw 1982). Implications of media bias cannot be taken lightly in this age of globalization when the public grows increasingly dependent on the media to inform them about world affairs.
In the late 1980s the international
political landscape was quickly changing. Between 1988 and 1989, communist
regimes collapsed in
The transfer of
Specifically, this study is interested in examining how two leading U.S. print media, the New York Times and the Washington Post, represented the competing discourses over democratic development in the pretransfer Hong Kong, and how the media representation of the issues influenced the American public’s opinions about it. In this study, I examined twenty-seven newspaper articles that were published three months before and two months after the transfer. Only articles that contributed to the topic of democratic development were examined. The two newspapers were chosen because of their prominence in the American print media and their influence on public opinions.
In the remaining section of this
paper, I first explore the historical context that gave rise to the competing
discourses surrounding the British proposal to introduce democratic development
in the pretransfer
Competing Discourses about Democratic
Development in Pretransfer
The blueprint for
However, during the thirteen years
following the treaty, the initial cooperative spirit gave way to a changing
political climate, particularly in the aftermath of the Tiananmen incident in
1989. Although the British had rejected calls for democratization by Hong Kong
residents in 1894, 1916, 1929, and 1949 (Kuen 1997),
they were under increasing pressure and criticism from democracy advocates
inside Hong Kong and from the U.S. media. Beginning in the 1990s the British
began a more confrontational posture with the Chinese government. One of the
most debated issues centered on the British proposal to introduce democratic
development in the pretransfer
Consequently, as the 1997
transition was approaching, two competing visions for
In addition, since promoting
Beginning in 1992 the British had a
change of mind as they started to push for a legislature-led system to replace
the status quo. Under the legislature-led system, the traditionally prominent
executive power would be subjected to and held accountable to the elected
legislature, whose powers were to be mandated by the public (Flowerdew 1998; Ghai 1999; Kuen 1997). As the British envisioned, representative government
would thus be introduced and implemented into Hong Kong’s future political
By pledging its commitment in the
Joint Declaration that
With millions of dollars invested
However, the British insisted that
the push for the legislature-led system was based on principles, necessity, and
good judgment. From their point of view, the move toward the legislature-led
system would allow Hong Kong citizens to participate in the political process,
and it would make the future Hong Kong administration more responsive to the
needs of the public (Ghai 1999). More importantly,
supporters for the legislature-led system argued that the absence of democracy
would leave Hong Kong open to manipulation by
After close reading and examination
of the twenty-seven newspaper articles collected from the Washington Post
and the New York Times, a persistent system of representation emerged
that resembles what Stuart Hall (1997) identifies as a “binary form of
representation” (229). That is, the contested issues surrounding the
introduction of democratic development in the pretransfer
Representing Business Groups as Prioritizing Trade over Democracy
reporters represented probusiness groups as
“prioritizing” trade over democracy, and as choosing business over democracy.
According to reporters, Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and Hong Kong’s
business elite all emphasized “the primacy of economic growth and stability
over political rights and freedoms” (Gargan, June 13,
1997); they “favored order and stability over accelerated democracy” (Richburg,
July 1, 1997); and they “favor[ed]” commercial efficiency [and] muted
democracy” (Richburg, June 30, 1997). Similarly, some U.S. reporters criticized
the pro-business groups in that they put “trade over everything” (Rosenthal,
May 27, 1997); that they “care[d] only about money” (Gargan,
June 30, 1997); that they had “little respect for democracy” (McGuire, July 1,
1997); and that they were “preoccupied with profits” (“Red star over Hong
Kong,” June 29, 1997). Other reporters saw Hong Kong’s business elite as
“unabashedly pro-China, profess[ing] faith in market
forces” (Richburg, June 30, 1997); and that they downplayed the significance of
Hong Kong’s democratic reform by noting that “Hong Kong [was] essentially about
one thing, and that was business” (Franklin, June 29, 1997). Finally, some
Representing Democracy as a Moral Issue
The debate about
Representing the Prodemocracy Group as Oppression Fighters
in the prodemocracy camp a coalition of prodemocracy advocates from inside Hong Kong and other
American groups, including human-rights activists, labor-union activists, and
social and religious groups. American reporters represented Hong Kong’s prodemocracy advocates as “democracy fighters,” whose
“anti-Communist crusade” would take on Communist China for attempting to
Given its dichotomized nature, the
binary opposition of prodemocracy and probusiness invited the audience to see the debate about
Representation and Cultural-Other Representation
Stuart Hall has written extensively on the topic of representation. According to him (1997), “representation is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture” (15). However, representation does not happen at random. In fact, there are “systems of representation” that consist of “different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relations between them” (Hall, 1997, 17). Representation, as Burke (1966) reminds us, is always a reduction that narrows the scope of meanings so that an event comes into a meaningful, clear, and coherent focus. To do so, systems of representation often select objects either for attention or inattention, emphasis or de-emphasis, and salience or absence, depending on how certain aspects of an event are strategically made present and others are made absent.
The business of representation takes on new significance when faraway cultures and events are represented to the American public, who could only learn about them secondhand. Representation of cultural others, as Lidchi (1997) argues, underscores “an active process of representation” that involves constructing one culture for another (200). Sharing the same view is Clifford Geertz (1988), who cautions that since cultural-other representation involves a process in which one culture uses its own systems of representation (for example, values, beliefs, discursive practices, and traditions) to give meanings to events of another culture, the writings of another culture become morally and politically delicate. Cultural-other representation therefore bears political implications, calling into question the media coverage of international events.
Binary Form of Representation
The world presents itself to humans as a multitude of phenomena and ever-changing events. These events are entangled, obscure, and complex. In an effort to make sense of the multifarious phenomena of the world, humans create some all-embracing ideas, categories, and concepts that give them a grasp of the world. According to Fontaine (1986–97) and Hall (1997), humans have two primary ways of sorting and grouping. Either they put those things together that resemble each other by means of analogies or they oppose objects and things that are different by means of binaries.
Admittedly, dualistic systems are indispensable for humans to capture the multitude of phenomena and events of the world in some coherent ways. Yet, as a system of representation, binary oppositions control, limit, and order how humans perceive and make sense of their world, causing three serious problems. First, dualistic thinking has generated few neutral binary oppositions. Rather, there is usually a relation of power ascribed to the poles of a binary opposition, whereby “one of the two terms governs the other, or has the upper hand” (Derrida, 1972, 41). As such, instead of a “peaceful coexistence” of the poles, there is a “violent hierarchy” where one pole dominates the other (Derrida, 1972, 41). Hebdige (1996) also recognizes the hierarchy by noting that dualistic structures tend to generate “the illusion of priority which tends to collect around one term in any binary opposition” (184). Recognizing the power dimensions embedded in binary oppositions, Stuart Hall (1997) suggests that binary oppositions should be written as “white/black, men/women, masculine/feminine, upper class/lower class, [and] British/alien” (235; emphasis original).
Second, the binary form of representation has a logic that is deeply problematic in that it gives rise to a reductionist understanding of complex issues. As William James (1986) argues, if Person A says to Person B, either accept this truth or go without it, Person A puts on Person B a forced option, as if every dilemma were based on a complete logical disjunction. Therefore, it is critical to realize that binary oppositions are “a rather crude and reductionalist way of establishing meaning” (Hall, 1997, 235), making it a problematic system of representation for issues and events that are imbued with contradictions and paradoxes (Graber, McQuail, and Norris 1998).
Third, the binary form of representation has saturated in our political discourse, giving rise to political dualism—the tendency of a group to assume that its values, social structures, practices, and beliefs are the only correct ones. According to Craige (1996), political dualism is “a model of competition, in which relationships among unlike groups are expected to be antagonistic” (3). Furthermore, political dualism can be a form of “domination” that denies “diversity” because it makes one’s own values legitimate and makes those of others illegitimate (Craige, 1996, 3). For people to have an appreciation of human society as an evolving interdependent global system, Craige argues that allegiance to men or to a group is the fertile ground for nationalism and racism. Rather, allegiance to international laws will foster a more coherent, cooperative, and mutually respectful world community in which true democracy and equality among the members of the world community is possible. Wander (1984) in fact theorizes dualism as a rhetorical frame in his analysis of America’s foreign policy discourse that often divides the world into two camps, “one side is accord with all that is good, decent, and at one with God’s will, and the other side is in direct opposition” (342). The consequence of political dualism, as Wander suggests, is that humans create a hierarchical order—there are superior and inferior nations.
As the analysis in this study
indicated, reporters tended to turn the debate surrounding
The binary opposition was consolidated by representing probusiness groups as prioritizing trade over democracy; by representing democracy as a moral issue; and by representing prodemocracy groups as oppression fighters. When the tension between prodemocracy groups and probusiness groups was consigned into such a dichotomized rhetoric, American reporters limited the audience’s understanding of the following misrepresentations—misrepresentations that clearly worked to the advantages of America’s post–Cold War agenda—promoting Western democracy globally.
Misrepresenting “Unchange” in the Joint Declaration and in the Basic Law
Many reporters from
the two leading American newspapers misrepresented the legal and technical
Equally important, many reporters
misrepresented that the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law had a specific form
of democracy in mind. After examining the Joint Declaration closely, several
scholars concluded that a fully elected government was out of the question,
because what the Joint Declaration envisioned was an executive-led government—a
narrow elite, although a democratic spirit was bestowed on this narrow elite by
their being elected (Flowerdew 1998; Ghai 1999; Ying 1998). Such a system is very close to what
some scholars consider the dominant model of democracy after World War
II—”“democratic elitism” (Kuen 1997; Hackett and Zhao
1998). However, after the Joint Declaration was signed, the British and prodemocracy groups started to push for a different model
of democracy, the legislature-led government. The push for a
legislature-led system would shift power from businesses to individual
Misrepresenting Ambiguity in the Joint Declaration and in the Basic Law
misrepresented that the debate about
By doing so, reporters denied that
there was a general consensus on theory between the British and the Chinese
that the number of elected legislative council members would gradually
increase, as it was evidenced in both the Joint Declaration and in the Basic
Law. What could not be agreed on by the British and the Chinese was more of a
technical difficulty—how many members of the legislative council should be
elected, and how fast the transition should be made so that an increasing
number of them were directly elected by
Democratic Development in Post-Transfer
misrepresented that the post-transfer Hong Kong was in fact more democratic
than the pretransfer
Although the British rejected calls
for democratization from Hong Kong residents on four different occasions, many
reporters gave high remarks regarding
Unlike many American reporters,
some critics argued that the token democracy bestowed on Hong Kong by the
British at the eve of departure may well have been
Capitalism and Democracy in Contention: An Incoherent Post–Cold War Agenda
groups and probusiness groups had their ultimate
split over how democracy should be promoted in Hong Kong and in
In contrast, prodemocracy
To understand the positions that
each took in the debate about
Many scholars have thoroughly studied capitalism and democracy and their relationship with each other, given that the two traditions of values dominate American life and shape public discussions about politics, economy, social issues, policy making on the national level, and foreign policy on the international level. First, scholars inform us that capitalism and democracy share the same historical origin. By the turn of the twentieth century, modern capitalism and modern democracy together protested against traditional societies that allowed special privileges based on birth, caste, entitlement, or social status. In addition, capitalism and democracy share many similar values. As McClosky and Zaller (1984) summarize, the two together constitute a liberal tradition that embraces such values as liberty, freedom, equality, individualism, competition, private property, free trade, limited government, progress, and rational decision-making.
Despite their common historical origin and many shared values, scholars recognize that a free-market economy and democracy have different philosophical orientations. Capitalism is primarily concerned with maximizing private profit while democracy aims at maximizing freedom, equality, and the public good (Bell 1960; McClosky and Zaller 1984; Novak 1982; Wood 1995). In fact, their different philosophical orientations are the very reasons why social space in a liberal democratic capitalism is divided into two discrete realms: “the public realm” and “the private realm”; “the economic realm” and “the political realm” (Bowles and Gintis, 1986, 17). The public realm is considered to be the state that should, according to liberal values, be limited. In contrast, the private realm houses the unfettered individualist capitalist economy that should be protected and unfettered by the state (Bowles and Gintis 1986). The division of a liberal democratic capitalist society into two discrete realms begs the question—what is the relationship between capitalism and democracy?
The relationship between capitalism and democracy has been the object of argument in political philosophy for several decades. There are those who firmly believe that capitalism and democracy are harmonious, complementary, compatible, and mutually supportive (Bernstein, Berger, and Godsell 1998; Bowles and Gintis 1986; Coe and Wilber 1985; Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens 1992). In fact, some often see democracy and capitalism as being “virtually identical” (Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens, 1992, 1). In contrast, other scholars contend that capitalism and democracy are contradictory, where socioeconomic inequality coexists with civil freedom and equality, and political equality coexists with class inequality (Bowles and Gintis 1986; Wood 1995; Coe and Wilber 1985). In fact, Novak (1982) contends that the privileged position enjoyed by business in the capitalist economic system is “the main adversary and barrier to a more fully developed democracy” (180). Many other scholars are less confident about any causal or inherent relationship between the two. Rather, they suggest that impressive capitalist achievements are possible under non-democratic regimes such as in imperial Germany, Meiji Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan after World War II.
The tension between prodemocracy groups and probusiness groups over Hong Kong’s democratic development clearly suggests that the relationship between a free-market economy and democracy is complex. Making it more complex, democratic values enjoy a higher moral status than a capitalist economy in the American political tradition (Heilman 1968). As McClosky and Zaller (1984) argue, democratic ideals are the primary inspiration for the founding of the American republic, and they are embodied in the nation’s most cherished documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Although political leaders often advocate limits on private enterprises in order to preserve democratic values, few are willing to argue in public the reverse case (McClosky and Zaller 1984). For the same reason, conservatives, Republicans, and other champions of capitalism are reluctant to attack the democratic tradition in the same way that liberal democrats criticize a laissez-faire economy (Ellis 1993). Therefore, when democratic values and capitalist values are in contention, reporters often align themselves more to the former than to the latter—they usually sympathize with labor more than they do with business on economic issues; they generally favor government regulation of business; they favor government’s policy to reduce income inequality (Lichter, Lichter, and Rothman 1990).
When the tension between capitalism and democracy was framed via the binary of prodemocracy and probusiness, reporters turned the debate from a legal and technical question concerning which model of democracy should be followed and how fast should it be introduced to a question of the moral imperative of democracy itself. The value hierarchy occupied by democratic values and capitalist values in the American political discourse impelled reporters to dictate a preferred reading of the tension between democracy and business—accepting prodemocracy agenda and rejecting profit-driven business agenda. The oppositional nature of binary oppositions eventually reduced the dynamic and complex process of democratization into an either/or option, negating the possibility for coexistence between democratic values and capitalist values.
The 1997 Hong Kong transfer from British to Chinese sovereignty happened at a time when the West had supposedly won the Cold War. Seeing the Hong Kong transfer as a continued chapter of the Cold War, reporters covered Hong Kong but they aimed at communist China (Ching 1997; Knight and Nakano 1999). For example, American reporters represented the pretransfer Hong Kong as part of the Free World, and the “post-transfer” Hong Kong as part of the Chinese communist regime. By doing so, they evoked the image that Hong Kong would experience a sudden change. The projected change created by reporters invited the readers to believe that the communist Chinese were taking over Hong Kong, an impression revealing American reporters’ obsession with the idea that Hong Kong was to return to “communist China.” Clearly, fear and distrust of communism in general and the Chinese communist government specifically hardened the debate about Hong Kong’s democratic development, politicizing it into an ideological struggle between the Free World and the communism.
Several scholars took notice that the debate about Hong Kong’s political system was overshadowed by an overriding consideration—the need to install a fully democratic system to counter communism (Kuen 1997; Knight and Nakano 1999; Lee et al. 2002). Reflecting on foreign media coverage of the Hong Kong transfer, Knight and Nakano (1999) concluded that the distrust of the Communist Chinese prompted American reporters to prejudge the outcome of Hong Kong’s democratic development in a decisively negative fashion. The concern with what the Communists would do or undo to Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom was so preoccupying that many reporters found little validity in the argument that fast democratic development could threaten Hong Kong’s economic stability, in the face of ample evidence that worried Hong Kong businesses were diverting their capital to other countries (Flowerdew 1998). Likewise, reporters’ distrust of communist China was not mollified although democratic development was a provision in the Basic Law that was approved by the Chinese government. Finally, American reporters were not convinced and persuaded by the argument that China’s self-interest in Hong Kong’s future would motivate China to take a hands-off approach. Rather, many reporters came to Hong Kong with their own “preconceived ideas” (21), and they kept building their work according to “a predetermined agenda” (106). Soon, many of them began to observe and see what they came to observe and see.
Opinion polls in Hong Kong gathered during the pre- and post-transfer period indicated a huge opinion gap between American reporters and Hong Kong residents. When asked what they thought were the most “serious problems” facing Hong Kong, respondents ranked social and economic issues to be of greater concern with them, followed by political issues (Paau 1998). Nevertheless, as Atwood and Major (1996) state, “public” opinion from Hong Kong residents did not grace the printed page. Instead, “published” opinions from the American media were asserting the post–Cold War agenda. The push for democratic development to counter the communists became so pressing that all the other concerns became less relevant, less real, less important, and less urgent (244).
As a form of constructed knowledge, the business of representing cultural others in the U.S. media calls into question the primacy of authorship—reporters as opinion leaders and as agents of their own cultures and values. As some scholars argue, American reporters, when it comes to foreign news, tend to reflect the policies, interests, and cultural values of the American society, appropriating a representation of cultural others in an American discourse inspired by American cultural values (Chomsky 1989; Said 1981; Gans 1979; Gitlin 1980). In reporting Hong Kong’s democratic development, the prodemocracy–probusiness binary opposition portrayed an extremely distorted picture of the dynamics and the complexity of the issues. Such a depiction undeniably reflected America’s post–Cold War agenda in promoting democracy in Hong Kong and in Communist China.
In the post–Cold War era, many American reporters are quick to assume the superiority of the liberal democratic capitalist system. However, their efforts to promote Western systems blind them from seeing an incoherence demonstrated by Western nations throughout world history. The British, when ruling Hong Kong as a colonial power for nearly 156 years, never allowed Hong Kong to have self-government—the fundamental feature of democracy. While crediting the British for introducing democratic development into Hong Kong, many American reporters were silent about failures of democracy at the hands of Western powers.
Debates about the relationship between capitalism and democracy are ongoing, as we have witnessed in the clash between global free trade and concerns for human rights and global environmental protection in Seattle, Canada, and Italy. The same tension was seen in the debate about Hong Kong’s democratic development. However, the assumption of the superiority of the liberal democratic capitalist system disables some reporters from recognizing that democratic values and capitalist values can sometimes be in contention, creating an uncomfortable and uncertain system. Most critically, the inherited discourse from the Cold War paradigm does not prepare many American reporters to account for a seemingly contradictory emerging reality: China is adopting a market economy, while it still retains its one-party communist rule. If the world used to be a simpler and predictable place when it was aligned along an East-West duality (“Global News after the Cold War” 1993), the post–Cold War era has not provided reporters with a clear and coherent framework. How to represent international events in the post–Cold War era is the challenge that the media have to face, particularly at a time when they are required to play an important role in our globalizing community.
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