| David Bandurski

A cartoon from the state-run China Daily criticizes “hype,” depicted as colorful balloons sent through the computer screen by a devious “online pusher.”

Over the past few decades, references to “hyping” (炒作) in China’s official discourse have been central to attacks against negative reporting from international media — and particularly US and Western media — that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards as a challenge to its political reputation and legitimacy. The term can also be used to broadly target critical discussion on the internet and social media inside China, linking such chatter to alleged foreign plots by nebulous “hostile forces.”

Furious at a wave of reports in September 2023 about the weakness of China’s economy, the official Xinhua News Agency alleged that Western journalists for media such as The Economist had “fundamentally lost their capacity to view China objectively” as a result of “longstanding ideological prejudice” and the “desire to gain readers through hyping and mudslinging.” Citing for support a source it did not bother to name, the news agency tossed out a familiar accusatory phrase:

An executive at a financial organization in Hong Kong told the Xinhua reporter that the methods used by Western media to hype negative information about the Chinese economy were excessively exaggerated, and spread a climate of panic.

This use of the term “hype” (炒作) to characterize fact-based coverage by Western media of the Chinese economy, which according to a broad consensus by economists and professional analysts faced numerous challenges, is a good example of how the term “hype” — and related phrases such as “media hyping” (媒体炒作) and “news hyping” (新闻炒作) — is routinely used by Chinese state media to attack factual coverage on key issues that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards as damaging to its interests.

China Youth Online goes after Newsweek for a light analysis of a trending social media debate about the economy in Shanghai, and makes the whole story about Western media bias.

In a similar vein, a September 2023 report by China Youth Online, the official website of the Chinese Communist Youth League, singled out Newsweek for a September 5 report about China’s economy that dealt with online rumors posted to Twitter (X) that usually bustling venues in Shanghai were now empty, a sign of a flagging economy. Rather than simply amplify these rumors, the Newsweek story challenged them, presenting online accounts that contradicted the original online post before adding background: “While many residents disputed the notion that Shanghai has turned into a ghost town, economists have raised concerns about the state of the Chinese economy as it has experienced slow growth following the end of the country’s COVID-19 policies.”

While not necessarily great journalism, none of this was untrue. Nevertheless, the China Youth Online story built up the simple Newsweek summary of a social media controversy into a full-frontal attack on the West and its media. The headline read: “Shameless American and Western Media” (不要脸的美西方媒体).

If you think that sounds like anti-Western hype — well, you’re not wrong.

Hostile Hype

In many instances, accusations that stories about China are being hyped come alongside vague allegations of nefarious interference from the outside, to destabilize China or its leadership. In such cases, “hyping” may be paired with the hardline term “hostile forces” (敌对势力), a phrase that for decades has been used by the CCP to broad brush perceived enemies both internal and external — often with the suggestion, apart from any justification, that the two are in collusion. 

In early 2020, as the global pandemic worsened in the wake of the first documented outbreaks in Hubei province and its capital city, Wuhan, China Military Online (中国军网), a portal operated by the Central Military Commission mouthpiece People’s Liberation Army Daily, alleged that hyping was being done by “hostile forces harboring evil intentions,” who “seize the opportunity to make trouble,” and “even attack our political system.” The site singled out the BBC in 2020 for “forcing a link” between China and COVID-19 to disparage Beijing for its mishandling of the crisis. 

As in the case of “hostile forces,” which throughout CCP history has been operationalized by the leadership (including Mao) to target political enemies within the Party who must be purged, the term “hyped” can also be used to suggest that critical domestic public opinion (however indigenous it actually is) arises from foreign meddling.

On any issue the CCP regards as being of strategic importance, the Party itself gets to decide what is factual — and anything less or more is all just hype.

In an August 2015 article, Xinhua broadly addressed “unprecedented challenges” to social governance in China, pointing to “the subtle impact of two factors.” These were 1) “the helping hand of external forces” (suggesting foreign governments and other nebulous forces were quietly but insistently infiltrating Chinese society with their agendas), and 2) “the hyping of domestic public opinion” (suggesting that Chinese might themselves become infected with these agendas and join in the chorus of criticism). 

For anyone observing Chinese media coverage of international affairs in particular, accusations of hyping are never far behind. On December 4, 2023, alone, for example, one report accused “certain Western media [of] hyping Vietnam distancing itself from China,” while another said Western media had “hyped the issue of Chinese military support for Russia,” and yet another said Western media had hyped China’s plans to invade Taiwan between 2027 and 2035.

The bottom line? On any issue the CCP regards as being of strategic importance, the Party itself gets to decide what is factual — and anything less or more is all just hype.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

The CMP Dictionary