China vs US elections: no contest for Dutch media

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The Dutch media have faithfully followed every step of the US presidential election which climaxed this week with the re-election of Barack Obama. But there’s been barely a mention of China’s 18th National People’s Congress which will be anointing a new president. A leader who will determine the course of one of the world’s great powers for the next ten years. 

by John-Boy Vossen

Journalist Hans Moleman says this is due to the vast information gap between the two countries: “The race for the American presidency is an open one”, says the former China correspondent for Dutch daily De Volkskrant. “The Chinese transfer of power is opaque in comparison. This means the Dutch public can identify much more easily with Obama than with Xi Jinping, the successor to current president Hu Jintao.”

Remko Tanis agrees with his former colleague. The freelance correspondent says the American elections are much more media-friendly: “There you see two men fighting it out in front of the cameras for months. In the end, Dutch media consumers know more about the US presidential candidates than they do about their own parliamentarians.

“In contrast, the choice of a new Chinese leader is the result of almost continual scheming behind triple locked doors. No one knows for sure what goes on at the heart of power in China, who’s fighting who or what people stand for. That makes it a lot more difficult to follow and report on than the straightforward American battle for power”.

Political scientist and writer Uwe Becke, whose books include 'The Obama Experiment', says the difference in media interest is purely to do with entertainment value. “Dutch media go for viewing figures. They choose topics they believe viewers are interested in. It’s just like football getting more viewers – and more coverage - than rowing. Media professionals just assume that those with minority interests will take care of their own information needs.”

Obama himself is also a factor according to Becker: “The Dutch have an enormous affection for America….and on top of that, many Europeans virtually fell in love with Obama in 2008. He has a certain glamour factor”.

Stories a-plenty
Moleman believes Dutch media should be paying more attention to China’s change of leadership: “Good, analytical stories that examine what’s going on behind the scenes. But I’m guessing that correspondents are being held back by their editors in the Netherlands. Let’s face it, most people still just aren’t that interested in China”

Tanis is quick to agree with his former colleague. “Correspondents are bursting with stories… Not so much about the Congress itself, but about the current situation and the fact that China is at a crossroads. But the Netherlands remains an Atlantic-oriented country, and it’s much harder to persuade people to look to the East”.

Business as usual
However, the three China-watchers don’t believe we should expect any dramatic changes to come out of the Congress. “Some cautious reforms will gradually be put into place, but always within the limits of the one-party system,” believes Moleman.

Tanis notes that Xi Jinping has spent decades rising through the party structure and hasn’t made it to the top by upsetting people: “It’s very difficult to pin this kind of politician down to any particular idea or vision. The last highly placed official to develop a strong individual role and image was Bo Xilai. And he’s now in prison.”

“And China just wouldn’t be China if it had leaders like Obama”, adds Becker. “If there’s a major upheaval or revolution then of course there’ll be international media attention. But I don’t see that happenning any time soon.”