Constructing a Discourse of Resistance: Analyzing China’s Climate Change Narratives in English-Language News Media

Constructing a Discourse of Resistance: Analyzing China’s Climate Change Narratives in English-Language News Media

This post is based on a recent article published in the Asian Studies Review. The article can be read here and is currently available open-access to all readers.

The discussion around climate change in China has undergone a notable transformation, moving from controversy to a more proactive stance in leadership. Initially prioritizing economic development over environmental concerns, China emerged as the top carbon emitter in 2006. The turning point came in 2015, marked by President Xi Jinping’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. With the US withdrawal from the Agreement in 2019, China assumed a prominent role, pledging carbon neutrality by 2060. This study explores the language used in Chinese English-language news reports from 2015 to 2020, revealing a discourse of resistance that showcases China’s fight against climate change on the international stage.

While numerous studies in communication, sociology and political science explored how climate change is reported in China, there is a noticeable gap in understanding the role of language. Existing studies, primarily focusing on Chinese-language reports, often utilize frame analysis, with limited attention to the unique discursive strategies employed by Chinese English-language news media targeting an international audience, shaping a distinctive narrative for China’s national image in the global discourse on climate change. The current study, published in full in the Asian Studies Review, aims to build upon these insights by specifically exploring the discursive construction of resistance to climate change in the Chinese English-language news media with the discourse-historical approach (DHA) within the broader framework of critical discourse analysis (CDA).

The chosen media outlets, China Daily, Global Times, People’s Daily Online, and Xinhua News Agency, represent China’s national-level English-language news sources. Journalists cater their reports to international English speakers and educated Chinese citizens, making these outlets essential for the Chinese government to communicate geopolitical messages to the world.

An in-depth analysis of the Chinese English-language media reveals three dominant themes strategically employed to construct a discourse of resistance against climate change. This exploration delves into the various linguistic strategies, including nomination, predication, argumentation, and mitigation, shedding light on the ideological use of language for specific communicative purposes.

Climate Change as a Global Enemy

Chinese English-language news media frame climate change as a global enemy, employing metaphors like “battle” and “fight” to convey urgency and the need for collective action. President Xi Jinping’s “community with a shared future” concept aligns with this, emphasizing global responsibility in addressing climate challenges. The media strategically uses war rhetoric, portraying climate change as a tangible adversary to mobilize international collaboration.

The term “climate crisis,” controversial for its emotional impact, is examined in the context of media influence. While it can evoke urgency, there’s a risk of backlash. The media’s framing fosters a resistance discourse, positioning humans as victims and emphasizing the threat posed by climate change.

The Paris Agreement is highlighted as a monumental triumph in the battle against climate change. News articles quote world leaders, like Ban Ki-moon, to lend credibility and stress the importance of unity in implementing the agreement. China’s advocacy for combating climate change aligns with its diplomatic concept of a shared future, promoting collectivism.

News articles underscore China’s adherence to the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) principle, emphasizing different responsibilities for developed and developing nations. China strategically employs CBDR to balance economic development and climate action, presenting it as a rallying point for other developing countries in the fight against climate change.

China as a Leading Climate Change Fighter

In the pre-Trump era, the US and China were portrayed as climate change leaders in news articles, utilizing the metaphor “a country is a leader / general”. Phrases like “global leader” and “key role” depicted the US positively. However, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement altered this narrative. Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement is portrayed as prioritizing the interests of the fossil fuel industry over global climate commitments, leading to the negative categorization of his administration as an out-group opposed to climate change mitigation and global welfare.

The media highlighted Trump’s actions as detrimental, employing phrases like “not making efforts” and “withdrawn from the agreement” to negatively evaluate the US. In contrast, China’s commitment, dating back to a 2014 joint announcement with the US, positioned it as a global climate leader. Nomination strategies such as “leading role” reinforced China’s positive image, forming an in-group distinction.

To emphasize the “us” vs. “them” dichotomy, the media quoted Pulgar-Vidal, indirectly attributing negative ideologies like “denialism” to the US. While commending China’s leadership, the media minimized its pollution levels and reliance on coal. Phrases like “lags far behind” mitigated China’s per capita emission rate, presenting a positive image.

Other Nations as Allies in the Fight

In the media’s narrative on climate change action, nations, especially China, are portrayed as crucial allies united against environmental threats, guided by the metaphor “nations are allies”. French President Emmanuel Macron’s acknowledgement of China as a global ally in climate change combat is frequently cited, solidifying the bond between France and China.

Post the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference, France and China committed to joint efforts for the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement. When the US withdrew, President Emmanuel Macron and President Xi Jinping issued a joint statement reaffirming support, emphasizing the global collaboration necessary for climate solutions.

Despite China’s historical skepticism, recent media reports indicate a shift in attitude, highlighting China’s role in rallying nations globally. Positive language is strategically used to depict US allies supporting climate action, backed by statistical evidence from surveys, reinforcing the narrative that a significant portion of Americans advocate for global cooperation on climate issues.

News articles amplify President Xi Jinping’s “win–win cooperation” message, countering a zero-sum mentality. China’s commitment to contribute and adhere to the CBDR principle positions the nation as a selfless leader in the global fight against climate change.

In conclusion, this study draws on Wodak’s Discourse-Historical Approach (DHA) to explore the discursive construction of resistance to climate change in Chinese English-language news media. The analysis uncovers three central themes: portraying climate change as a global enemy, positioning China as a leading climate change fighter, and framing other nations as allies in this endeavor. Through strategic use of language, such as nomination and argumentation, the media emphasizes global cooperation against climate change. These news articles serve as a diplomatic tool, redirecting attention from China’s carbon emissions to its global climate efforts. The study illuminates the role of language in climate communication, emphasizing its geopolitical significance and underscoring state-run media’s role in shaping China’s international image amid climate challenges.

This post is based on a recent article published in the Asian Studies Review. The article can be read here and is currently available open-access to all readers.

Feature image: Photo by yaoyu chen on Unsplash

Yating Yu is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Macau.

Mark Nartey is a Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of the West of England and a member of the Bristol Centre for Linguistics.

Jieyu Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Foreign Studies at South China Agricultural University.

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