The Communist Party’s mouthpiece has joined a chorus of criticism against overblown claims about China’s strength and progress, saying media boasts that “the US is scared” or “Japan is in awe” of its achievements are hollow and leave the country open to attack.

The commentary on Monday was the first in a three-part series on the People’s Daily website and comes amid an escalating trade dispute between the United States and China over Beijing’s ambitious hi-tech industrial policies, and growing concern over the “China threat” to other countries.

“Recently, headlines like ‘the US is so scared’, ‘Japan is in awe of’, ‘Europe now regrets’ [China’s achievements] have been getting lots of clicks,” the commentary read. “But most of these apparently explosive articles … are worrying.”

It also took aim at stories with exaggerated claims that “China is the undisputed world No 1 in several areas”, unsubstantiated claims that “Chinese technological power has surpassed that of the United States”, and generalisations about China “taking the global centre stage”.

“These articles are arbitrary, they are exaggerated and they provide ground for others to criticise [China],” the commentary read.

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Reports online that tried to stir nationalistic sentiment by inflating the country’s achievements were doing the most damage and would ultimately hold China back, the newspaper said.

“Arrogance won’t make a country powerful,” the commentary read. “Deliberately trying to provoke extreme sentiment and spread bias will trap the public in a vicious circle of arrogance and self-aggrandisement [based on] fragmented information.”

The ruling party’s flagship newspaper was referring to reports in Chinese media that have been popular online, on topics ranging from technological innovation to China’s military build-up, which has been billed as dwarfing its counterparts in the West.

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It followed calls from intellectuals and other officials cautioning against overconfidence at a time when the world’s two largest economies are locked in a trade row – with technology at its centre.

One of those came from the editor of a state-owned publication, who last month said China was fooling itself if it thought it would soon overtake the United States as a world leader in science and technology.

“The large gap in science and technology between China and developed countries in the West, including the US, should be common knowledge, and not a problem,” said Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, which is under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based foreign affairs specialist with Ocean University of China, said the tone of Monday’s commentary suggested the leadership may have realised the media campaign was backfiring.

“The decision-makers might have realised their domestic propaganda to encourage people is facing a backlash abroad, and they’re starting to try to correct this sentiment,” he said.

“My guess is there could have been an order from the leaders during the meeting on foreign affairs last week.”

At that diplomatic work agenda meeting, President Xi Jinping urged diplomats and top officials to “create a friendly environment” with China’s neighbours and to approach with cool heads the country’s positioning and role in the world.

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