As the U.S. and China ratchet up political tensions, media consumers should be wary of the spate of news stories that sell us on the need for the United States’ violent foreign policy.
The Cold War is Back
Reboots of popular franchises are all the rage right now in U.S. pop culture, and the U.S. security state wants in on the action. The Wachowski sisters making us break out our dusters and wraparound shades from the attic is enough — can we be spared a reboot that could result in countless deaths and international devastation? Not Marvel-variety explosive disaster-porn, but large-scale conflict between two global hegemons.
The Cold War is a franchise only the most craven unelected defense officials and contractors want to see brought back. The original was no fun in the first place, and its return — with a series of proxy wars and conflicts — might literally result in global destruction.
With the withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, the U.S. is facing growing uncertainty around its current place in the world. Across the Middle East, two decades of conflicts fought in the name of anti-terrorism and the resulting millions of deaths, mass displacement, forced privatization and mismanagement of basic utilities, and the installation — and destabilization — of several corrupt U.S.-backed regimes have called into question whether the U.S.’s projection of power is a positive presence in the world.
Simultaneously, the U.S.’s lackluster response to the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing racial and ethnic discrimination have led to growing domestic tension, damaging the brand of exceptionalism so dear to this country’s heart.
Now, as one conflict has come to a close and the U.S. becomes more unsure of its global role, we are seeing the results of the defense sector’s pre-production on the country’s next blockbuster: Cold War Reloaded, a reboot casting China as the main villain. And while the characters may have changed, many of the same dynamics and clandestine efforts to manufacture consent are in place.
The U.S. pushing for renewed conflict is no surprise. Since the Second World War, the Department of Defense has consistently pushed for simultaneous ongoing conflicts, with McNamara, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, famously having laid out the “two-and-one-half war” requirement: The U.S. should simultaneously fight two major wars and one limited conflict. Now that the U.S.’s position on the global stage is waning, its longtime on-again, off-again adversary China — currently in a stage of rapid industrial development and market expansion — might provide the perfect kick to pull the U.S. out of its late-imperial ennui.
However, in the wake of withdrawal from twenty years of tearing Afghanistan apart, the appetite for a new conflict among the U.S. population is decidedly not at its highest. How does one sell escalating tensions in what could result in another potentially decades long conflict so hot on the heels of failure in Afghanistan? Enter: the intelligence state and U.S. corporate media.
Problems with the U.S. Media’s Coverage of China
Much analysis has considered how U.S. media’s coverage of the sweeping surveillance state, use of forced labor, and vaccine distribution programs in China has been fundamentally hypocritical and sensationalist. The demonization of an enemy on the global stage, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, and this coverage hides a deeper dimension. Let’s look at one of the biggest controversies currently being discussed in the mainstream media.
The most recent development in coverage of China came a couple of weeks ago with news that a supposedly independent watchdog group, the Uyghur Tribunal, had ruled that the Chinese government was committing a genocide in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslim minority. The report found, “on the basis of evidence heard in public, the tribunal is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the People’s Republic of China, by the imposition of measures to prevent births intended to destroy a significant part of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as such, has committed genocide.”
This served as supposed confirmation of the Trump State Department’s same assertion in January of 2020. The ruling inspired stern condemnations across the political spectrum in the United States and the European Union as well as calls for — and subsequent approval of — further sanctions on products manufactured in the region.
In an October 2021 article, Grayzone delved into the ties of the Uyghur Tribunal, the so-called independent body conducting the investigation. The piece raised doubts about the tribunal’s claim that it had no government backing and was acting independently:
“On the Uyghur Tribunal’s own official website, on a page titled ‘About,’ the event admits that the U.S.-government funded World Uyghur Congress launched the tribunal through Sir Geoffrey Nice, a British jurist whose services have been contracted by the government of Qatar … The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), for its part, is funded by the U.S. government through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Washington’s funding arm for political interference worldwide and admittedly the inheritor of theCIA’s regime-change activities…”
The CIA and Defense Department’s involvement in reporting about China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority makes it increasingly difficult to understand what is actually happening in Xinjiang.
For the U.S. media’s part, many reports parroted accounts from the likes of Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) — entities of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), whose mission explicitly states “our networks’ program decisions reflect the U.S. national interest…” and has a $909 million federal budget for FY 2021. It should be noted with part amusement and part tragedy that, up until 2013 when it was quietly amended, the Smith-Mundt Act forbade entities of the agency (referred to by its previous name The Broadcasting Board of Governors) from being broadcast or published within the United States on the grounds of it being considered propaganda.
The notion that the United States engages in explicit propaganda is not a huge revelation. Radio Free Asia was originally a product of the CIA from 1951 to 1955, broadcasting anti-communist propaganda in the Philippines, Pakistan and China,and others. After officially being terminated in 1955, it was quietly resurrected during the Clinton Administration. And whether or not it is explicitly the same program in its current form as it was in the 1950s, in true neoliberal fashion, RFA’s namesake has been outsourced to the private non-profit United States Agency for Global Media with the stated goal of promoting U.S. national interest — not journalistic practice.
Explicit propaganda is only half the game, however. Many of the articles published in mainstream outlets, including The New York Times, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press, beyond using direct quotes from Radio Free Asia and the Uyghur Tribunal report, have included “expert” testimony from Adrian Zenz, a German researcher and Christian fundamentalist as well as virulent anti-communist. Zenz works with the neoconservative Jamestown Foundation, which was co-founded by Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director, William J. Casey. Zenz is quoted as a primary source in the Uyghur Tribunal report.
In another article published February 2020, Grayzone raised doubts about the validity of Zenz’s findings that have been the basis of much western reporting about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Much of the data published by Zenz, which he says is public data from the Chinese government, purportedly shows that the government is engaging in an active genocide. This was supposedly demonstrated by evidence of the Chinese government “preventing births,” which Zenz says is demonstrated in the data. There’s a bit of a problem with this conclusion, however:
“Zenz’s figures shows an increase in Uyghur population from 10.1 million to 11.8 million from 2010 to 2018, while Chinese government figures demonstrate an even larger increase from 10.1 to 12.7 million. That means the Uyghur population in Xinjiang grew by a staggering 25.04 percent.”
Other stats provided show similar contradictions. This appearance of overwhelming consensus in media coverage is based on data that often shows more incongruities with the findings themselves than demonstrate any sort of damning conclusions. This reporting precludes deeper looks intosubstantive issues, instead relying on questionable anecdotes taken at face value.
This also wouldn’t be the first time that such anecdotes have been trotted out by CIA- and Department of Defense-backed groups in the name of human rights, acting as a justification for U.S. intervention or sanctions. This has happened on several occasions.
In the lead-up to the Gulf War, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus hosted a young Kuwaiti woman named Nayirah, whose harrowing testimony was uncritically heralded and repeated by U.S. media outlets for months leading up to the eventual vote to invade Iraq in 1991. Infamously, it turned out that her testimony had been completely fabricated, and that she had been coached by a lobbying firm that shared close financial ties with the caucus chairs. Furthermore, it turned out that Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family and the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States. Despite eventual retractions, the damage had been done: we’d gotten our war.
By now you probably aren’t surprised to discover that the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, ironically named after one of the same caucus chairs who hosted Nayirah in the leadup to the gulf war, has adopted a hardline stance on U.S. involvement in Uyghur affairs. Going further, the commission hosted a briefing titled “Uyghur Human Rights in China and Abroad” in 2017 that invited the director of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service to testify. The briefing memo boasts of his work appearing in The Washington Post, CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, FOX News, and PBS.
The use of exile accounts like Nayirah’s by news media and State Department officials doesn’t seem to have stopped, with a slew of questionable figures and narratives being paraded out to cable interviews and “independent” inquiries into the problems in Xinjiang. This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems in Xinjiang or other autonomous and minority populated regions in China. When such problems are weaponized for political propaganda and war-making, dialogue is not possible.
With the United States once again openly pushing tension with China, the weaponization of human rights language is a dangerously useful tool to the national security state. Laundering its objectives through the filters of legitimate-sounding organizations and outlets, the defense industry knows from previous experience that in the rapid-pace of the corporate media landscape, nuance, and deeper dives into claims of genocide will be diluted, and anyone who dares challenge any facts surrounding a genocide verdict can be neutralized with some proper pearl-clutching — cast off as a monster and genocide-denier without having to answer to the substance of the challenge.
Given this history, any stories involving national security interests need to be viewed through an analytical lens that centers this key context: politicians ultimately benefit politically from jingoistic unity and the national security state profits fromwar and conflict. Congress just passed a $768B defense budget with most of it earmarked for private defense contractors. For those keeping a tally, that is a billion-dollar propaganda arm supporting the strategic interests of an almost trillion-dollar defense budget, not to mention the unfathomable wealth created from the publicly traded stocks of those same defense companies.
The Consequences of this Propaganda
Let us not forget, that though we technically characterize this impending conflict as a cold war, that the policies carried out within the framework of the conflict cause mass violence and death.
Sanctions are pawned off as innocuous, diplomatic measureswhen, in reality, they routinely cause mass death and downward social mobility. U.S. sanctions were the cause of at least 40,000 deaths in Venezuela from 2017 to 2018. Sanctions were found tohave severely hampered Iran’s COVID-19 response and increased the death toll. And the decades-long economic embargo on Cuba has a well-documented deadly history on the island. The drop in demand in conjunction with the sanctioning of products manufactured in Xinjiang will undoubtedly lead to economic despair for the people in the region who the U.S. claims to be so concerned about.
International tensions, spurned by obtuse media coverage, routinely means increased hate crimes targeting those living within the U.S. territorial borders who share the same faith, nationality, or general resemblance as our stated enemies. From 2000 to 2009, hate crimes directed towards Muslims increased by 500 percent. Anti-Asian hate crimes rose 73% from 2020 to 2021 due to violent rhetoric that played out in U.S. media blaming China for the COVID-19 outbreak. Most notably, a gunman opened fire at three spas in Atlanta in March of 2021, killing eight people — six of whom were of Asian descent.
Internationally, agitating in this information war effectively chills diplomatic efforts, leaving only a pathway to conventional war. In the context of a more formal cold war, the chances of monoculture stereotypes pervading increase — such as tropes suggesting that any Chinese person may be an enemy agent —reminiscent of the World War II era language that led to large scale internment of Japanese Americans.
Finally, achieving the goal of asserting a perpetual threat to our national security primarily through our news media justifies the continued existence and increase of the country’s mammoth defense budget. This allows the defense industry to maintain and expand its footprint in every corner of the world, spelling danger for any civilians who might dare to live in the trajectory of any blossoming military ambitions.
When the defense industry and DOS is writing the informationwe use to understand the rest of the world, no one will be able to examine a situation critically. This use of propaganda falls into a greater pattern of U.S. media coverage obfuscating sources for information used to justify or motivate conflict, posed to the U.S. public as simple talking points on the TV screen or “independently sourced” quotes in national newspapers devoid of any serious context or nuance.
Increasing awareness of this pattern can guard against an uncritical trust that all coverage is the result of hard-nosed journalism and allow the public to recognize that it could be composed of talking points read, at times verbatim, from U.S. intelligence statements. Rejecting the effort to assert this perpetual threat and demonize the U.S.’s competitors on the world stage could lessen the death and harm that results from this propaganda and us to understand these issues with greater nuance.