As fears mounted this week about a possible (and now, it seems, averted) U.S. government default, the U.S. press stumbled upon an Oct. 13 editorial in Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, calling for a “de-Americanized world” in light of Washington’s fiscal dysfunction. News outlets including CBS, USA Today, and Bloomberg picked up the editorial, while the Los Angeles Times ran a story with the headline “Upset over U.S. fiscal crisis, China urges a ‘de-Americanized world.’” CNBC emphasized that Xinhua was a “government voice,” and that the editorial was “government propaganda” intended for local readers. The op-ed hit something of a sweet spot for shutdown-traumatized Americans, touching on, as Max Fisher at the Washington Post put it, “the dual American anxieties that we are letting down the rest of the world and that China is finally making its move to replace us as the global leader.”
But what much of the coverage failed to mention is that the article appeared on Xinhua with the byline Liu Chang, indicating that the editorial more likely represents the views of Liu (who is identified simply as a “Xinhua writer”) and his colleagues rather than China’s top leaders, or “China” itself. The op-ed does not claim to reflect broader Chinese views, and just because an article appears in Xinhua does not mean it represents the views of the Communist Party (which, as an organization of tens of millions of people, does not speak in one voice). China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued its last official comment on the fiscal showdown in Washington on Oct. 9: “China and the U.S. are economically intertwined and inseparable. We hope that the U.S. can resolve this issue and ensure the security of Chinese assets in the U.S.” Admittedly, “Xinhua Journalist Calls for a ‘De-Americanized World’” makes for a less compelling — if more accurate — headline.
Xinhua also published the editorial in English only, which suggests it was directed at an international rather than a domestic audience. In fact, there was virtually no mention of the article in Chinese — until, that is, U.S. media began responding to the provocative op-ed. By Oct. 16, there were at least 15 articles in major Chinese-language media outlets on the international response to the piece. Xinhua published one titled, “Incisive wording of Xinhua’s call for ‘de-Americanization’ surprises American media,” and the Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times‘ top headline on Oct. 16 was “Washington Worried by ‘de-Americanization’ editorial run in China’s state-run media.” In other words, for Chinese state-run media, the international reaction to the editorial was more newsworthy than the editorial itself.
Despite all the international attention, the call for global de-Americanization didn’t make a big splash among Chinese readers. China’s criticism of America’s role in international affairs is nothing new, and many Chinese readers felt the Xinhua editorial was unremarkable. As one user of Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, wrote in response to the Xinhua editorial, “The articles of certain media outlets are like the farts of a dog: There’s no need to pay them any mind.”