Many journalists will admit that covering the Sino-US trade war can be dull. Progress is slow and information is scarce.
Which is why a recent on-air debate between two anchors from Fox Business and CGTN (the international arm of state broadcaster CCTV) sparked such interest. Here were two outspoken champions of their respective political systems. It promised to be the trade war shrunk down to 15 minutes of exciting prime time TV.
The story began with the May 14 broadcast of Trish Regan Primetime in which the Fox presenter claimed that Chinese intellectual property theft costs the American economy $600 billion a year.
The CGTN anchor Liu Xin challenged that figure when the Fox video was posted to social media and told Regan her segments on China were “all emotion and accusation supported with little substance”. Regan tweeted back challenging Liu to an “honest debate” and, perhaps to Regan’s surprise, Liu accepted.
In a CGTN interview with Liu filmed after the debate occurred she said her bosses were very supportive of the idea because it allowed Liu to speak directly to millions of American households.
In recent years Chinese state media has expanded massively overseas in order to challenge the views put forward by the Western press. Chinese leader Xi Jinping not only demanded absolute loyalty from domestic media but tasked newspapers and television channels with “telling China’s story well”.
Part of that is allowing people like Liu to run Twitter accounts. Outlets like the People’s Daily also curate English feeds on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, even though both are blocked in China.
The live debate – aired on Fox – was something of a first for both channels and also unprecedented for Chinese TV audiences. In the end, however, the May 29 face-off wasn’t all that dramatic – partly because there was a long delay on the satellite link which made the dialogue more laboured.
The 15 minute segment began with what turned out to be the anticipated show’s only real argument, as Regan questioned if Liu was speaking for herself or the Communist Party of China.
After Liu denied that she was a member of China’s ruling Party, (which controls all major media outlets) they then moved on to the trade talks – with Liu saying China need to be treated with respect – and later the topic of stealing US intellectual property. “I think we can all agree it is never right to take something which is not yours,” purred Regan. Liu, who was assured and pleasant throughout, agreed and said China needs similar protections too so it can develop its own high-end technologies.
Other topics touched on in the segment included: China’s continued insistence that it is a developing economy and Beijing’s model of state capitalism – neither of which sit well with Fox viewers.
Sadly for the Chinese audience the segment wasn’t shown live on CGTN – Liu said this was because of rights restrictions. But CGTN “tweeted” it live on Chinese social media and broadcast parts of it later.
The general feeling among her compatriots was that Liu did incredibly well – holding her own in fluent English over a terrible satellite connection.
It would be hard not to agree with that assessment. She was on top of her facts and willing to engage on whatever subject Regan raised.
“Seeing someone speaking perfect English and answering questions in an open and eloquent way is already a very different China than most Americans are used to seeing,” one expert told the New York Times.
Regan by comparison bombarded Liu with non-sequiturs that at times seemed intentionally inflammatory.
Chinese netizens were annoyed that the promised debate turned out to be more of “an interview” where Liu was grilled. Most took the view that Liu was the winner simply by appearing calmer and more sincere (that said some locals have questioned if Liu is “patriotic” enough to represent China, given her husband, who is a German, and her son both hold foreign passports).
But perhaps one missed opportunity for Liu was not to turn Regan’s attack on state-led capitalism back on her. After all, when Washington mandates that US companies cannot sell their products to a foreign firm (Huawei) and orders M&A deals reversed (Grindr) doesn’t that indicate an economy that’s subject somewhat to state direction too?
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