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Bitten by a dog? Don't bother biting back

Lashing out at those one disagrees with seems to be a fad of late. There was the falling out between Chinese cross-talk star Guo Degang and his pupil Cao Yunjin, as well as the debate between two United States presidential candidates who found fault with each other.

Now, the people of China and other countries have begun lashing out online. These include Mr Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, and Mr Stanley Loh, Singapore's Ambassador to China. The spat has ranged from news reports to letters, with both men employing diplomatic rhetoric or news reporting practices to make their point in no uncertain terms. Netizens took sides, with expressions of support and taunts, behaving as if they were watching a show.

The incident began with a report in the Global Times which claimed that at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Venezuela, Singapore insisted on adding content which endorsed the Philippines' South China Sea arbitration case, but it was met with objections from several countries. The words used in the report were critical and derisive of Singapore.

Ambassador Loh swiftly issued an open letter to Mr Hu, saying that it was an "irresponsible report replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations with no regard for the facts". He pointed out that the proposal was not Singapore's but the consensus position of all 10 Asean members as conveyed by Laos, the current Asean chair. He said that the Global Times report did not accurately reflect the proceedings of the summit, and Singapore was willing to offer its record of the meeting as evidence.

The Global Times stands naturally on China's side on the South China Sea issue. Singapore's main ethnic group may share a common language and ancestry with the Chinese in China, but in terms of geopolitics and economics, Singapore is closest to the Asean nations as it is an important member of the grouping.

China and Singapore also have different systems, and both countries established diplomatic ties as late as 1990. Although the overall relationship is friendly, as the ambassador said in the letter, both countries have different interests and positions on the South China Sea. He asked the Global Times to publish his letter so readers might be accurately informed, and the close friendship between both countries would not be inadvertently affected.

It is natural for Chinese nationals to defend China's interests in the South China Sea. This article will not discuss the South China Sea dispute raised in this incident, but will analyse from the angle of professional journalism the Global Times' report and Mr Hu's reply. Another premise is that the Global Times is a market-oriented commercial newspaper. It does not represent the Chinese government and Mr Hu is not a Chinese leader.

Ambassador Loh said that he was "disappointed that an established newspaper published this irresponsible report replete with fabrications". He has overvalued the status and credibility of the Global Times. Although the newspaper is run by the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, it relies entirely on market circulation and advertising revenue, and not government funding and subscriptions from public expenditure like its parent newspaper. It seldom discusses China's domestic issues, the rights of the people and welfare demands, but focuses on foreign relations and international issues so as to fan nationalism and cater to the ordinary readers who are interested in such matters.

There are three "wonders" in China's media sector. According to the People's Daily, China is the best in the world; according to Reference News, the world says China is the best; according to the Global Times, the world is jealous that China is the best. It means that the Global Times and the other official media are singing in chorus, playing either the good cop or the bad cop to promote the rise of China and expose the containment of China by other countries. The Global Times has adopted the same method on many countries and many issues. It gets eyeballs by fabricating stories, distorting facts and writing sensational headlines.

The journalism sector has never regarded it as part of the mainstream media, but sees it as a tabloid with no professionalism and journalistic integrity. On this incident, all the news from the Global Times came from "informed sources". No other media outlet has reported on the NAM meeting. The Global Times has not been able to provide the names and posts of its so-called sources, leading many people to wonder if its report was based on hearsay or deliberate fabrication. If you read the Global Times frequently, you will find that it often mixes news and facts with views and opinions. It has few professional journalists, and most of the contributors are stringers with unknown occupations who produce copy-and-paste reports.

In Mr Hu's letter of reply to the ambassador, he did not respond to questions on whether the paper had sent reporters to cover the NAM meeting and whether it understood the procedures of the meeting. Instead, he stands on the political high ground and lectures Singapore about damaging China's interests and the need to maintain friendly bilateral relations.

In democratic societies, the media is the public's watchdog and monitors the government so as to safeguard public interests. The Global Times has run a commentary in the past with the headline, "The media should be the watchdog of national interests." The paper is using the phrase "national interests" in a country where popular sovereignty does not exist. The Global Times calls itself a dog, so if a dog were to bite a man, would it be right for the man to bite the dog back?

Ambassador Loh should keep a low profile as there is no need to help the Global Times in its sensationalism. It is just a tabloid out to make money by selling nationalism, a paper which lacks professional news ethics and does not represent the government. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official sidestepped the issue when asked about this incident, and stressed that China and Singapore should understand and respect each other.

•The writer is a professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The article appeared on his Tencent Weibo page. Translated by Lim Ruey Yan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Bitten by a dog? Don't bother biting back'. Print Edition | Subscribe