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Critical discourse analysis of 2010 China–US trade dispute in the headlines of Western newsmagazines

Damien Ng

Introduction

Concerns about a tit-for-tat trade war between the world’s two largest economies surfaced following US President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs on USD 34 billion worth of Chinese goods, which came into effect on 6 July 2018. As the Chinese government threatened to retaliate by placing punitive tariffs on US goods, the US government also responded that it would impose further levies on Chinese products should China react. Although the trade war was still ongoing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak at the time of writing this chapter, international news continued to report the latest developments of the aggravating trade conflict. These included ’Trump’s trade appeals to China still left farmers reeling’ (Swanson and Rappeport, 2020) in The New York Times, and ‘Trump turns trade dispute into an investment fight as Cold War battle with Beijing heats up' (White, 2020) in The Telegraph.

This is reminiscent of an earlier trade dispute over currency between China and the US in the year 2010. Likewise, the Anglo-American media had different news reports on China, a major non-Western country that is widely regarded to have the potential to overtake the United States as the next global economic superpower (Mahbubani, 2020; Paulson, 2016). News headlines ranged from those on China’s impressive economic development, such as ‘China passes Japan to become no. 2 economy’ (Barboza, 2010) in The New York Times and ‘Chinese economic boom has been 30 years in the making’ (Wearden, 2010) in The Guardian, to those that sounded more alarming, with an emphasis on the harmful effects of trade wars and China’s currency, such as ‘The makings of a trade war with China’ (Samuelson, 2010) in Newsweek and ‘War is hell - China’s currency’ in The Economist (2010).

As far as the research into Western perspectives on China is concerned, there is a wealth of literature in the English language (Campion, 2016; Charles, 2016; Mackerras, 2015; Cao, 2014; Pan, 2013). However, the ‘West’ - which is often represented as a single, uniform entity employed in the dichotomy versus China - referred to in these studies is limited to the Anglo-American realm of the Western world, in particular the United States (Greene, 2014; Turner, 2011, 2014; Perlmutter, 2007). This discounted the large amount of historical and contemporary scholarship on China from the perspectives of other Western countries, such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany.

This is understandable given that the United States is still the most powerful country in the world in terms of its economic, military, and political might since the demise of the former Soviet Union (Nye, 2015; Fukuyama, 2014). It is therefore in this context that the US government has both the desire and ability to toe the line, both at home and abroad, that suits its interests (Mackerras, 2015, p. 30) by attempting to thwart the rise of potential emerging powers, in particular China (Mahbubani, 2020; Mearsheimer, 2003). Although the US is also by far the leading country for the production of perspectives on China (Mackerras, 2015, p. 30), this focus on the US perspective on China ignores the effects of national economic interests, political influences, socio-cultural factors, and the historical interactions of other non- Anglo-American Western countries.

For this reason, it is hoped that this study will fill the gap in the existing knowledge on Western perspectives on China by including the perspectives of the European Union’s two largest economies, Germany and France. This way, a fuller Western perspective on China can be achieved. To this end, this study will employ critical discourse analysis (CDA), a language-based approach, to help shed light on the Western dominant representation of China through global affairs and the international economy. The backdrop under focus will revolve around the 2010 trade dispute between China and the US over currency in the headlines of four selected Western newsmagazines in France, Germany, the UK, and the US. The headlines will be analysed according to the personal translation of the author. For the purposes of transparency and clarity, the headlines are kept in their origin languages, namely English, French, and German, along with their translation wherever necessary in the tables illustrated in the Appendix.

The study aims to answer the following questions:

  • (i) What are the prevailing topics about China in the year 2010 as expressed through the headlines of Time, The Economist, L’Express, and Der Spiegel?
  • (ii) What are the dominant representations of China in Western newsmagazines?
 
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