A look at Singapore’s Mandarin media coverage of China
Apologies for not having a weekly wrap this Saturday; in trying to take on a few big deadlines I've overdone it and run myself down. 😢 But I'm really excited about this special issue; it covers something that I've been curious about for a long time, and I'm so glad that Sense agreed to write this!
Sense Hofstede is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. His research in international relations compares the way Singapore and Taiwan respond to Chinese nationalist claims from Beijing. You can find him on Twitter at @sehof.
By Sense Hofstede
The demographic fact that three-quarters of Singapore’s population is of ethnic Chinese descent is often rolled out to buttress the claim that, as a bridge between ‘East’ and ‘West’, the country is uniquely positioned to help the world understand China. Hagiographic descriptions of the bilateral relationship between Singapore and Beijing often point to Lee Kuan Yew’s supposed role as mutual ‘explainer’. Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean saw a special role for Singaporean media as “an ‘insider’ with an ‘outsider’s perspective’”. But, as the draw of China grows, is the country’s Mandarin press able to remain an ‘outsider’?
The country’s main Mandarin newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao, has raised eyebrows in recent times over its conservative editorials. On the occasion of the government’s announcement that it would begin a review of women’s issues in 2020, and on International Women’s Day in 2021, the paper stressed the need to respect differences between the sexes, worried about the impact of birth control on society, and explained that past discrimination against unwed mothers and homosexuals was about protecting women.
More eye-catching was its editorial on the various anti-Indian racist incidents in Singapore, which led to a petition (disclaimer: I signed) calling out its importation of the right-wing American culture war caricature of Critical Race Theory as anti-white racism to blame for discussions of ‘Chinese privilege’. Red Ants—Zaobao’s Mandarin answer to Mothership—responded to the controversy by complaining that the Chinese community in Singapore was once again under attack, asking rhetorically who was actually discriminating whom.
This has drawn the attention of younger English-speaking Singaporeans who wonder what Singapore’s Mandarin community actually reads every day. Academics such as myself, who study China in general, have long noticed something else about Singapore’s premier Mandarin newspaper. Zaobao has always been rather understanding towards China, but its recent coverage of East Asia has become decidedly more pro-Beijing than you would expect for supposedly non-aligned Singapore. Something is shifting.
A China-friendly norm
Based on its editorials alone, you get the feeling that the view in the Zaobao newsroom is rather Beijing-centric. For example, its editorial on the recent G7 summit followed Chinese talking points in describing the inevitable rise of China as the biggest challenge for the ‘US-led’ West, without complicating what the ‘West’ is, what China does, or what non-Western countries might think of that. This blindness also showed in a recent editorial on the South China Sea, which ignored Beijing’s behaviour and the neighbouring countries’ fears. Zaobao forgets it is itself based in Southeast Asia, and instead frames the issue as struggles between a rising China and a jealous US. On Taiwan, it states—using similar language one finds in PRC (People’s Republic of China) newspapers—that geography is destiny, so Taipei should not pursue risky empty dreams and avoid becoming a geopolitical pawn. It does not spend time understanding Taiwanese views on their status quo, but instead treats the US as the only player with agency.
Zaobao’s freelance editorial cartoonist Heng Kim Song—most famous internationally for a racist cartoon of the Indian space programme for The International New York Times—is another example. Given Singapore’s Out-of-Bounds (OB) markers, he tends to focus on foreign affairs, where he shows a clear preference. His comics for the paper spread misinformation narratives about Taiwan’s vaccine procurement, belittle Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, or contrast crazy America with reasonable China.
Reporting can stick rather close to views promoted by the PRC. The most egregious example is an article by Yew Lun Tian (who left Zaobao in 2019 for Reuters), who dutifully repeats what she's told during a propaganda tour of Xinjiang. During controversy over China-friendly Taiwanese pop artist Ouyang Nana performing at a ‘patriotic’ event in China, Zaobao’s reporting consisted of retelling a People’s Daily Overseas article and citing Beijing-friendly artists. A video article visits Liangjiahe village, an important Red Tourism site in Xi Jinping’s personality cult, without explaining how and why he was exiled there during the Cultural Revolution. Another article puffs up China’s photogenic ambassador to Nepal without much attention to the geopolitical struggle in the Himalayas.
This selectiveness extends to the opinion page. Due to a lack of Singaporeans writing in on foreign affairs, international issues are often discussed by Chinese commentators. There is not much diversity in views; even when a Taiwanese article is republished it might be a rant against the current Democratic Progressive Party administration from China Times, part of the media group of pro-unification tycoon Tsai Eng-meng. In contrast to the various views (re)published in The Straits Times or the critical investigation work its correspondents do in China and its neighbourhood, Singapore’s Mandarin newspaper readers get presented with a more limited view of that part of the world.
The recent shift
But there is something more going on. Zaobao appears affected by the growing self-confidence and nationalism in the Chinese public sphere since the pandemic began in 2020. We see greater conformity just as Chinese state media more eagerly uses its reporting. To understand why, it is important to know that Zaobao has exceedingly rare access to the Chinese news market. Its main website is only occasionally blocked by China’s Great Firewall, and it maintains official accounts on WeChat and Weibo, allowing it to draw in an audience from mainland China that is substantial for Singapore’s small media market. There is also a separate PRC-based website, haozaobao.com, that mirrors much of its content. Beijing is extremely wary of foreign Mandarin-language press, and thus Zaobao’s publisher, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), needs to strike a careful balancing act to not lose this unusual and precarious access to a lucrative market just as Beijing’s demands are getting stricter by the month.
One recent change shows how Zaobao deals with these circumstances. The newspaper used to have four categories: Singapore, International, Southeast Asia, and Greater China (中港台, China-Hong Kong-Taiwan). According to the Wayback Machine, somewhere after 1 April 2021, that last section has been renamed. Now it simply goes by ‘China’ (中国). Every article about Taiwan, including those about Taiwanese domestic issues, is reported by Zaobao as Chinese news, as fits the claim by Beijing that Taiwan is part of China. It is anyone’s guess if it was pressure, fear of the universal jurisdiction claimed by the Hong Kong national security law, or simple agreement with Beijing’s One China Principle that made Zaobao enact this change. Regardless of the Singaporean government’s own complicated One China Policy, the paper is not obligated to act in this way.
The contrast in coverage between The Straits Times and Zaobao of the debate over the effectiveness of Sinovac CoronaVac and its use in Singapore is perhaps not too remarkable given the different views in the communities here. What is noteworthy is that an article from 18 August 2021 (titled “绝不屈服游说压力 审核疫苗要对得起良知”), in which a Health Sciences Authority (HSA) official said Singapore would not give in to pressure to approve Sinovac’s vaccine, was removed from Zaobao’s webpage. One wonders why. Of course, in China, the newspaper already is subject to censorship on its Chinese social media accounts and (temporary) blocking of its main website. However, that it already has so much access is proof of a rare degree of trust by Beijing that the website is not a threat to the Party most of the time. Self-management has made Zaobao reliable enough.
Chinese propaganda often relies on foreigners’ credibility to strengthen its message. "Borrowing a boat to sail the sea (借船出海)" is an important tactic. When the Chinese nationalist scholar Zheng Yongnian was still Director of the NUS East Asian Institute, PRC media loved to quote him as a ‘Singapore’ academic. Apart from the white vloggers who, as highlighted in a BBC News report, have been paid to roam Xinjiang and paint a positive image of the region where a widespread crackdown on Uyghurs has been extensively documented, at least one Singaporean has also produced videos from the region. The day after the Chinese embassy announced that the first batch of Sinovac vaccines had been delivered to Singapore—despite the lack of approval by HSA at the time—the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson was already touting this as proof of Singapore’s trust in Chinese technology, eager to use the city-state’s global brand.
The irregular ‘Headline Watch’ by state press agency Xinhua on Twitter is an example of how the foreign press gets cited when it serves Chinese narratives. Zaobao has delivered plenty of material Chinese state media can use to claim foreign support. It finds itself among occasionally ‘useful’ bits of mainstream US journalism and outright sources of misinformation and conspiracy theory, such as the anti-Semitic Unz Review and Kremlin-linked Grayzone. Regardless of source, state media most often chooses to cite or amplify content with commentators who say things that Chinese propaganda likes; in Singapore, this includes the former People’s Action Party Member of Parliament Goh Choon Kang, former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, former newspaper editor Leslie Fong, and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani. But Zaobao’s own reporting can also loan itself to such citations.
Sometimes Xinhua does this in misleading ways, such as a claim that a ‘Singaporean newspaper’ reported that ‘Western’ allegations of genocide in Xinjiang were unconvincing. The piece referenced wasn’t actually a news report, but an opinion piece for Zaobao by Goh, who had previously also been given space in the paper (and later, also in The Straits Times) to spread the conspiracy theory that the protests in Hong Kong were the work of Western-supported colour revolution. In another instance, Xinhua used a Zaobao write-up of remarks by a Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson to make it appear as if the newspaper had itself reported that allegations against Chinese vaccines were lies. At other times, Zaobao’s approach makes it easier to be used, such as when it echoes Chinese language that call for ‘science-based study’ of Covid-19’s origins. Xinhua was also enthused about an uncritical Zaobao report on why young people join the Chinese Communist Party.
Why is this happening, and why is it a problem?
Given that Zaobao is the Mandarin broadsheet of record in Singapore, it—and the views it espouses—dominates the Mandarin-reading market in the country. The only serious newspaper available offers only one set of views, depriving Mandarin-reading Singaporeans of access to debates in the Sinosphere that are in fact much more nuanced. Moreover, it may lead to a perception gap between Chinese-speaking Singaporeans and other communities, which can affect public discourse and engagement. Pew Research shows that 72% of Chinese Singaporeans have a positive view of China, in contrast with 45% of Malays and 52% of Indians, suggesting a risk of foreign policy views becoming divided along ethnic lines. It is also a problem because Zaobao helps Beijing with its political objectives. When SPH transitions its media business into the not-for-profit SPH Media, its funders might want to ask what they are paying for.
Why is Zaobao like this? Of course, there are genuinely different views about China. Still, there is an awkward contrast between this newspaper and others owned by SPH, despite the fact that one can hardly accuse those of being pro-‘West’ either. There are several structural factors that distinguish Zaobao from the rest.
One is the fact of market dependency and the need to protect its fragile and rare access to mainland China, as discussed above. The second is the ideological tradition of parts of the Mandarin-speaking community in Singapore. The historical Chinese-medium schools were a hotbed of anti-colonial protests, resisting the Western powers that had dominated Southeast Asia until the end of the Second World War. This legacy combines with the legacy of alleged Chinese chauvinism and admiration of China as the ‘motherland’.
A third factor is the China Boom that began in the 1980s. In ideological terms, the rapid growth of China has re-energised dormant China-friendly sentiments in Singapore. Unlike previous decades, where students from the Chinese-medium schools saw their protests cracked down on, or faced discrimination, this time pro-China leanings have more official support, as evinced by the ‘Confucian Values’-turned-‘Asian Values’ rhetoric.
Fourthly, China’s rise means that there is now a massive media market there. Besides the economic logic, this also has implications for public discourse in Mandarin-speaking communities outside the PRC. Media professionals who work in Mandarin are increasingly drawn into a PRC bubble. What they read on social media, and the public debates in which they take part—especially if this content is written in Simplified Chinese—are often dominated by the PRC’s state-controlled public sphere. This effect is strengthened by the lack of Mandarin writers in Singapore, leading to Zaobao using Chinese reporters especially for its China reporting.
This gravitational effect is not limited to the country’s flagship Mandarin newspaper. The draw of the PRC bubble is clear in Zaobao’s ThinkChina, which was intended to make the newspaper’s supposedly insider-outsider China coverage available in English. Instead, it has become a gathering place for opinions that are, to a large degree, predictably in line with official Chinese political correctness. The most egregious example in recent times was an embarrassing interview with George Yeo that was widely spread by Chinese state press, but ridiculed by China experts. A similar effect is observed with the East Asian Institute, which got a bad reputation on the NUS main campus under Zheng but is a much-loved source of comment for Zaobao and mainstream Chinese press.
In the absence of a strong, independent public discourse in Singapore on foreign affairs in Mandarin, the way China seeks to shape the global narrative becomes important. In the first place, media, education, and entertainment in China are highly controlled and censored. In the second place, the Party promotes a certain highly ethno-nationalistic narrative of Chinese history and modern China’s place in the world. The resulting discursive arena is shaped by power, and when Zaobao simply extends that PRC bubble into Singapore’s own public debate without seeking to balance it with independent local or other non-PRC views, it loses the ‘outsider perspective’ Senior Minister Teo referred to. The ultimate risks are made clear by a recent Malaysiakini investigation that found that Malaysia’s mainstream Mandarin-language media imported PRC misinformation on the 2019 Hong Kong protests rather than present a local understanding, due to a lack of its own reporters.
The consequence is a weakened ability for participants in the Mandarin-language public sphere to understand what is happening, leading to an increased risk of falling prey to organised fake news on social media. This occasionally spills out into the English community, as became clear when misinformation by pro-Beijing social media accounts about Taiwan’s mask donation to Singapore early in the pandemic led Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-jin into posting and then quickly deleting an anti-Taiwan tweet. This impacts foreign ties.
Beyond that, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, and critical Chinese—for whom Singapore’s Mandarin media is often the first point of contact with Singapore politics—see Singapore as pro-PRC because of the worldview espoused by Zaobao. Singapore’s desired position as a bridge between worlds is thus weakened internally and externally.
As the Malaysiakini investigation points out, a few anti-Beijing activists also spread misinformation. The partisan nature of sensationalist press in Taiwan, the fake news machine that is the Falun Gong’s Epoch Times and the ways in which the (now closed) Apple Daily in Hong Kong could be at time Trumpian are clear examples. That only adds to the importance for a non-aligned country such as Singapore to have the discursive power of a serious newspaper to produce independent reporting, commentary, and analysis, based on sound journalistic practice. At the very least, the Mandarin public sphere here needs some diversity and complexity.
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