Are blogs to blame for Sino-American misperceptions?

A. Iain Johnston has the lead article in the latest issue of International Security.  It's available for free right now, and it's quite the doozy.  Entitled "How New and Assertive is China's New Assertiveness?", Johnston picks apart the claim made by many (including your humble blogger) that China's post-2008 foreign policy represented anything all that much out of the ordinary.  From the abstract

There has been a rapidly spreading meme in U.S. pundit and academic circles since 2010 that describes China's recent diplomacy as “newly assertive.” This “new assertiveness” meme suffers from two problems. First, it underestimates the complexity of key episodes in Chinese diplomacy in 2010 and overestimates the amount of change. Second, the explanations for the new assertiveness claim suffer from unclear causal mechanisms and lack comparative rigor that would better contextualize China's diplomacy in 2010. An examination of seven cases in Chinese diplomacy at the heart of the new assertiveness meme finds that, in some instances, China's policy has not changed; in others, it is actually more moderate; and in still others, it is a predictable reaction to changed external conditions. In only one case—maritime disputes—does one see more assertive Chinese rhetoric and behavior.

Johnston has forgotten more about Chinese foreign policy than I will ever learn, so I'd encourage you to give the whole piece a read.  My take is that I'm actually not that far apart from Johnston.  As he notes, China's foreign policy had its share of belligerent episodes prior to 2008.  He also acknowledges that there has been some movement by China on a couple of issues, including the maritime disputes. He also omits any discussion of some of the cases that I've highlighted on the blog, including the reaction to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the kerfuffle with Google. 

What's really interesting, however, is the second part of that abstract: 

The speed and extent with which the newly assertive meme has emerged point to an understudied issue in international relations—namely, the role that online media and the blogosphere play in the creation of conventional wisdoms that might, in turn, constrain policy debates. The assertive China discourse may be a harbinger of this effect as a Sino-U.S. security dilemma emerges (emphasis added).

Whoa there!!  Bloggers are constraining policy debates? 

Here's the relevant passage from the article itself (p. 46-47): 

The conventional description of Chinese diplomacy in 2010 seems to point to a new, but poorly understood, factor in international relations—namely, the speed with which new conventional wisdoms are created, at least within the public sphere, by the interaction of the internet-based traditional media and the blogosphere. One study has found, for instance, that on some U.S. public policy issues, the blogosphere and the traditional media interact in setting the agenda for coverage for each other. Moreover, on issues where this interaction occurs, much of the effect happens within four days. Other research suggests that political bloggers, for the most part, do not engage in original reporting and instead rely heavily on the mainstream media for the reproduction of alleged facts. The media, meanwhile, increasingly refers to blogs as source material. The result is, as one study put it, “a news source cycle, in which news content can be passed back and forth from media to media.” Additional research suggests that the thematic agendas for political campaigns and politicians themselves are increasingly influenced by blogosphere-media interaction.

Together, this research suggests that the prevailing framework for characterizing Chinese foreign policy in recent years may be relevant for the further development (and possible narrowing) of the policy discourse among media, think tank, and policy elites. As the agenda-setting literature suggests, this is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the speed with which these narratives are created and spread—a discursive tidal wave, if you will. This gives first movers with strong policy preferences advantages in producing and circulating memes and narratives in the electronic media or in high-profile blogs, or both. This, in turn, further reduces the time and incentives for participants in policy debates to conduct rigorous comparative analysis prior to participation.

And here I'm going to have to disagree with Johnston a bit.   On a day in which the mainstream media demonstrated a truly excellent ability to spread its own misinformation -- and, in response, said mainstream media blamed Twitter -- I'm highly dubious that the blogs play that much of a causal role.  To be sure, I do think blogs can sometimes perpetuate falsehoods.  That said, most of Johnston's evidence for blog effects comes from domestic policy, and methinks the foreign policy media ecosystem functions a wee bit differently. 

If I had to wager why the misperceptions about China that Johnston enumerates have emerged, I'd hypothesize, in descending order of importance, the following reasons: 

1)  Foreign affairs columnists and international relations analysts who hadn't paid that much attention to China prior to 2008 had no choice but to pay a lot of attention to Beijing after the financial crisis;

2)  Interest groups in the United States that were traditionally predisposed towards a more dovish view of China started feeling burned by Beijing on matters unrelated to security. 

3)  The media likes a trend, and a lot of the incidents that Johnston chronicles took place in rapid-fire fashion from the end of 2009 to the middle of 2010. 

4)  The Obama administration's rebalancing strategy validated the perception that China was doing something different. 

5)  Blogs acted as an amplifier for all of these other trends.

What's ironic about this is that in the article, Johnston properly takes a lot of the conventional wisdom to task for ahistoricism and problematic causal arguments in assessing Chinese behavior after 2008.  I'd wager, however, that Johnston has done the exact same thing with respect to the foreign policy blogosphere. 

What do you think?   


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