Much of the Chinese coverage of the Paris shootings over the past week has been very different from, and critical of, Western coverage of the event. While they all condemn terrorism, they do subtly infer that the West's unreflective presumption that its norms and values are universal may have a connection with religious conflict.
The Chinese media has focused particularly on how the West has reported on what the attack at Charlie Hebdo should mean for press freedom and freedom of speech. The Chinese press argues that freedom of the press is not a value with automatic social benefits, and that the West promotes what it considers to be 'universal' values with little consideration of how applicable they are in other cultural contexts.
This reflects some genuinely deeply held beliefs in China about freedom, culture and universality that are very different from those held in the West.
Chinese media does acknowledge that there have been heated debates in the West about the Paris shootings. For example, state news agency Xinhua mentions pieces from the Financial Times and New York Times (David Brooks' I am not Charlie Hebdo).
However, two key themes in the mainstream Chinese-language press are that freedom is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, and that the West greatly overestimates the universality of its presumed 'universal values'.
Xinhua published a piece on 9 January arguing that while press freedom is a core element of the West's political and social system, in these globalised times, when Western behaviours contradict the core values of other societies, the West should have the awareness to ease conflicts instead of heightening them by relentlessly pursuing its own values. The article concludes that while international support for the victims of the Paris shooting is inspiring, it would be even more admirable if the West could be milder in its expression of its values, and consider the feelings of others.
On 11 January, Xinhua ran an article emphasising the 'vulgar', 'malicious' and 'combative' nature of Charlie Hebdo's comics and publications. The article argues that Charlie Hebdo's comics may have brought laughter to some, but a prerequisite for laughter is that others are not hurt. The piece concludes with an appeal to use 'respectful listening' as the guide for interacting with people of different beliefs or religions, and notes that there would be less tragedy in the world if we could put limitations on the notions of 'freedom' and respect others more.
The Chinese-language edition of the tabloid Global Times likewise ran articles discussing how there is inevitable friction in pluralistic societies, with a high likelihood of religious and ethnic conflict which the West could be more vigilant in managing. An editorial in the same newspaper on 13 January, the day before Charlie Hebdo printed one million copies of its latest edition, argued that the decision to print the exceptional number of extra copies may symbolise a new 'clash of civilisations' in Europe. The author went on to note that the diverse range of values in today's world is a serious issue. He argued that the suggestion by some that the so-called 'universal values' promoted by the West are already widely accepted around the world 'is rubbish'. Rather, actual circumstances reveal that the current clash of different value systems is more profound than at any other time in history.
This reflects a strong belief among many Chinese people in the logic of a 'clash of civilisations' – Samuel Huntington's work is extremely popular in China – based on the idea that cultural characteristics are inherent and immutable.
These pieces add up to an argument that freedom of the press, and free expression overall, are Western values that are unreflectively presumed to be applicable across all cultures. The Chinese press reflects the view that such freedoms should not automatically be assumed to be positive and beneficial. Rather, public expression should have the wellbeing of the public as a whole as its key guiding principle. It should be limited if it causes tension and exacerbates cultural differences – that is, freedom of the press should be seen as a means to a greater end.
My experiences living and researching worldviews in China suggest that this media coverage accurately reflects many average Chinese people's views. It also reflects a sense of some degree of solidarity with other non-Western cultures which are seen to be marginalised and battered by the West's presumption that its norms apply to everyone.
In response, many Chinese feel that it is important to fend off foreign cultural influences as they pose as much of a risk as physical incursions. Indeed, in 2013, the Chinese Communist Party circulated a document to all levels of government outlining the Western political, philosophical and ideological ideas that are considered a threat to Chinese interests – including media independence. It warns that Western anti-China forces and internal dissidents are actively infiltrating the Chinese ideological sphere and challenging China's mainstream ideology, and recommends various actions to prevent this infiltration.
When Chinese actors engage on the world stage they bring with them these deeply-held views of how the world works, and where China sits within it. The narrative expressed in these newspaper articles betrays broader feelings of persecution and marginalisation by the West. These beliefs fundamentally colour how Chinese people understand and respond to global affairs, for example, policies such as Washington's 'rebalancing strategy' in Asia.
While the West may not agree with this worldview, it does help to make sense of some aspects of China's international behaviour.
Thanks to Jessica Tang for her research work on this piece.