Africa, Politics

Who’s the fool? China’s soft-diplomacy on Libya highlights Western media bias

Who’s the fool? China’s soft-diplomacy on Libya highlights Western media bias

There’s nothing particularly new or surprising in the diagnosis that the West, in its reporting on China, suffers from an acute and chronic case of bias. But with the visit of Libyan rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril to Beijing this week, the extent of such bias is being bizarrely revealed. China has oil interests in Libya? Really? Unlike, say, Nato? By KEVIN BLOOM. 

For 25 marks, please comment on the following opening paragraph from a recent news report, paying close attention to innuendo and tone, and the question of whether the presence of same might suggest bias on behalf of the journalist and/or his news organisation: “BEIJING — The chairman of the Libyan opposition’s executive board, Mahmoud Jibril, will visit Beijing for talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on Monday, in the latest sign that China is hedging its bet on the survival of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government in Tripoli.”

A second-year media studies student at Wits University would be able to hit an essay topic like that out of the park. Why? Because what anyone who considers themselves media literate might take for granted, the second-year media studies student at Wits University must learn by rote. For instance, the notion that the media re-presents reality (as in, it doesn’t reflect it); the notion that objectivity in journalism is both an unachievable ideal and a self-sustaining myth (as in, it’s set up as an authoritative safeguard by the very organ that espouses it); and the notion that interlocking spheres of influence tend to shape a news story whether the journalist writing it admits to said influences or not (as in, the unstated yet blatantly apparent ideologies of editors and owners, the institutional memories of news organisations, and the dominant sensibilities of established news readerships).

Anyway, the above opening paragraph is taken from a story that ran on 20 June in the New York Times. The header of the story was “Rebel Leader From Libya Is Expected to Visit China,” and the third paragraph was even more caustic and mordant than the first. “China has a record of insisting on international respect for the sovereignty of all countries,” Times writer Keith Bradsher noted, “including pariah governments in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar and North Korea, all of which are trading partners for China.”

Does something give you the feeling that the West doesn’t entirely trust China’s attempt at soft diplomacy in Libya? If the New York Times, America’s paper of record, doesn’t cut it for you as “the voice of the West,” perhaps we should head on over to the BBC and see what they have to say on the matter. This from a story that ran on Tuesday, 21 June, on the BBC News website: “The top foreign affairs official in Libya’s opposition has arrived in China for talks with the Beijing government. Mahmud Jibril is expected to discuss bringing to an end the crisis in Libya, where China has oil interests.”

China has oil interests in Libya? Really? In case we forget this critical fact, the BBC repeats in the closing paragraph what it kindly taught us in the first: “China has oil interests in the north African state and evacuated 30,000 of its workers at the start of the conflict in February.”  

What the two clauses in the above sentence have to do with each other is anyone’s guess, although the non-sequitur does of course serve a purpose – let’s say it again: to inform the reader that China has oil interests in Libya.

Sadly for “the West,” there’s a question that second-year media studies students at Wits University are trained to ask in return. The question goes like this: who doesn’t have oil interests in Libya? Late in February The Economist magazine published a graph answering just such a question, and that embedded in the graph are details flattering to neither the BBC nor the New York Times, both of whom saw fit to mention in their respective articles the fact that China abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote that led to the current Nato military campaign (both articles also mentioned, incidentally, that China has repeatedly criticised Nato airstrikes).

And the members of Nato whose oil interests in Libya are greater than those of China? Ladies and gentlemen, please wait while our lovely assistant Mona opens the envelope…

In first place is Nato member Italy, who in 2010 imported 376,000 barrels of oil per day from Libya. Coming in at a distant but still respectable second is Nato member France, at 205,000 barrels of oil per day. China, in total terms, is third at 150,000, closely followed by Nato members Germany (144,000 barrels) and Spain (136,000). It should be mentioned, however, that when we take the graph at face value – that is, when we look, as The Economist does, at the imports from Libya per day as a percentage of the country’s total oil imports – China comes fourth from bottom. To be specific, China’s oil imports from Libya are, percentage-wise, lower than those of France, Germany and Spain. Oh yeah, they are also lower than Britain’s, who at 95,000 barrels per day import eight percent of their oil from Libya (versus China’s three percent). So let’s do the BBC a favour and repeat their ridiculous mantra once more: China has oil interests in Libya.

The United States is also on the list of oil importers from Libya, of course, and is also a Nato member. At 51,000 barrels a day, the superpower is at the bottom of The Economist’s percentage list. Still, the very fact that it’s there exposes a questionable agenda on the part of the New York Times when it comes to reporting on China. The same questionable agenda could be heard on radio news reports in South Africa today (21 June), where almost every bulletin on the visit of Jibril to Beijing was accompanied by the standalone and unqualified statement that China has oil interests in Libya.

Shucks. Who knew? Sarcasm aside, though, it seems possible that an institutionalised bias may have blinded Western media to the fact that China is actually capable of doing good in the field of international relations. China certainly has a lot to answer for when it comes to human rights abuses and environmental degradation (and a lots more besides), but what if its commendable attempt at a negotiated solution to the crisis in Libya actually works? How will we in the West report such an outcome? Will it break our machine? Will it…  DM

Read more:

  • “Rebel Leader From Libya Is Expected to Visit China,” in the New York Times;
  • “Libya: China welcomes opposition figure Mahmud Jibril,” in BBC News;
  • “Relying on Libya: Which countries depend most on Libyan oil?” in The Economist;

Photo: China’s President Hu Jintao (L) and Premier Wen Jiabao vote for the government work report during the closing ceremony of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 14, 2010. REUTERS/Christina Hu.


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