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The problem with chinaSMACK

I’ve been a reader of the blog / news site chinaSMACK for some time now, as it regularly serves up unique content on trends in China that are not reported elsewhere (although ChinaHush is also very good for this).

Recently though, I’ve been thinking more and more about how chinaSMACK isn’t actually all that great. There are three main reasons for this:

  • chinaSMACK reports almost entirely negative news from China. It really does sensationalise incidents and rarely looks at trends or wider issues.
  • It’s actually quite puerile and crude a lot of the time, almost like a 4chan for China stories.
  • It seems to have become the media source for current affairs in China; its voice has too much influence.

The combination of these three really does make me think that whilst chinaSMACK does a lot of great work in opening up Chinese news trends to the rest of the world, it could do it a lot more responsibly.

chinaSMACK’s negative focus

chinaSMACK’s success seems to come from sensational and often disturbing headlines, usually accompanied by equally shocking pictures. I remember spending a few hours going through many of its posts the first time I found it, just because most of its content is so extreme.

Most news is of course bad news, but from chinaSMACK’s coverage you could be forgiven for thinking that China is an absolute hell-hole. There’s a world of positive, interesting and just more intellectual news from China, but it’s extremely rare that this gets covered.

Actually a bit puerile

Two of the staple themes on chinaSMACK are gore and sex. I hate to play the conservative voice, but it really does seem like this sort of content dominates every time you go on the homepage, and I just don’t think it’s necessary.

I used to think that this stuff was worth passing on to the wider world, perhaps in relation to Chinese society opening up, improving its road safety or changing its general attitude to animal welfare. But now I feel like the content is only there to hoover up pageviews from idle Web users or attract attention from larger media outlets.

This kind of stuff happens in every country but there aren’t major websites dedicate to “exposing” it. I don’t really believe that it happens more in China than the world average, so there’s not any point to be made by dwelling on it.

A major news outlet

All of this wouldn’t matter if chinaSMACK was just another blog on the China circuit. If someone wants to spend most of their time tracking down photos of the aftermath of traffic accidents, animals being abused or student swimming suit competitions, they are of course free to do so.

But chinaSMACK now has a very influential position in China reporting. It seems like every foreigner I meet in China reads it, and its main stories are nearly always discussed in expat circles. “I read on chinaSMACK that … “, “have you seen that story on chinaSMACK?” etc.

On top of that, major global media outlets also use chinaSMACK coverage in their reporting. If you read something along the lines of “Chinese netizens said” or anything translated from online Chinese sources, chances are it came through chinaSMACK.

So the overall result is more fuel for the “China is a mess” fire that’s taken over a lot of Western media. I know I’m in danger of sounding like a Global Times editorial here, but as far as I can see the majority of China coverage in Western media really is either economic analysis (fine) or this sort of chinaSMACK sensationalism.

Where’s the wider analysis?

There’s far too much over-analysis and extrapolation from single events in China news coverage. People latch on to this theme that Chinese society lacks morality or other such ideas, and then cherry-pick and indulge their confirmation bias until it’s almost impossible to refute it. One event occurs, then everyone writes about how that fits in with their pre-existing conception of China.

These ideas may well be accurate, but this kind of ‘focus frenzy’ manages to avoid any attempt to wait, step back and look for wider trends and the bigger picture. Thankfully, there are people doing this, but I don’t think they get the attention they deserve compared to chinaSMACK.

If chinaSMACK is your main source of China stories, I’d really recommend having a look at these for some balance:

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