“Made in China 2025” Unmade? Visualizing Beijing’s Response to US Pressure Through Media Analysis
- The sudden purging of “Made in China 2025” coverage in Chinese official media was likely a direct response to the escalation of US-China trade tensions after March 2018.
- Media analysis of MIC2025 shows how the ebb and flow of coverage can be deliberate and calculated, particularly as Beijing responds to pressure and backlash from abroad.
- Official media is inherently a political tool, so the fact that Beijing proactively dialed back media coverage of its cherished MIC2025 may be considered a modest concession of sorts. But Beijing’s move appears to be more of a “concession in perception” rather than meaningfully weakening the policy.
- Continued references to MIC2025 in media coverage of China-European relations throughout 2018, as well as frequent usage of related catchphrases, suggest Beijing is still pursuing some version of the industrial policy as part of its foreign relations.
- More similar cases and data are needed to better determine how China manages its media when confronting external pressure and to offer some predictive utility of Chinese behavior in these instances.
Methodology in Brief
Articles in Chinese and US media were sourced from People’s Daily, Xinhua, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and The Hill, with dates ranging from the earliest mention of “Made in China 2025” to July 1, 2019. The total sample size is 2,975 (CN = 2,542; US = 433).
On the US side, sentiment analysis was conducted on the contents of each article using the AFINN lexicon to pair each word with an integer score on a positive-negative scale of 5 to -5. Chinese articles were not subject to sentiment analysis because tools are still insufficient to properly and accurately conduct such analysis on Chinese language content.
A full explanation of the methodology can be found here.
When China launched its 21st century industrial policy under the banner of “Made in China 2025” (MIC2025) in May 2015, few in the United States were paying attention. While China specialists may have examined MIC2025’s contents and analyzed its significance, it took about three years before the plan became a focal point of US-China trade tensions.
One factor that changed significantly in those three years was the intensity of US media coverage of MIC2025. The spotlight that was eventually placed on the plan got Washington’s attention: from think tanks and business groups to Congress and policymakers, MIC2025 quickly became short-hand for China’s “Sputnik moment” aimed at surpassing and then replacing US technological leadership.
The timing also aligned with a shift in China strategy under the Trump administration, where MIC2025 became the embodiment of Beijing’s unfair competitive practices that included subsidizing state enterprises and crowding out foreign competitors.
The outcome of the convergence of US mainstream media and policymakers’ intense focus on MIC2025 is now well known. MIC2025 became a central target of the US Trade Representative’s Section 301 report in March 2018 that effectively launched the trade war. On the Chinese side, shortly after the issuance of the report, all coverage of MIC2025 in domestic official media virtually disappeared.
But when exactly did China kill all mentions of MIC2025? And why did Beijing take this action? Was it a response to US pressure?
This case study seeks to offer some preliminary answers, in part by reconstructing the sequence of events that led to the eventual outcome on both the US and Chinese sides. Based on a first-of-its-kind dataset, this case captures both the blow-by-blow and the scale of US and Chinese media coverage of MIC2025 from 2014 to 2019. The data is complemented by sentiment analysis to determine whether the extent of negative or positive US media coverage may have also factored into Beijing’s response.
Media analysis can be a useful approach that yields insights on how behaviors and perceptions could affect policy actions and responses. Existing literature has shown how media coverage, headlines, and public discourse can shape mutual perceptions and influence elite opinion. Elite opinion, in turn, tends to affect policy actions. For instance, research has shown that foreign affairs coverage in US media tends to mirrorthe current administration’s preferred policies.
My analysis attempts to quantify and explore the correlation between American elite perceptions and whether they affected Chinese responses specific to MIC2025. The findings offer some inferences of this relationship, but additional case studies and data are needed before general conclusions or causal linkages can be established.
Nonetheless, this approach can potentially be applied to other areas of policy interest in the future, particularly where media has a disproportionate impact on how particular issues are viewed and characterized.
What Happened to MIC2025, and How Did It Happen?
MIC2025 (中国制造2025) first cropped up in Chinese official media at the end of June 2014, and then steadily picked up in 1Q2015, expanding significantly after the plan’s formal launch in May of the same year. From 2015 to 2017, Xinhua and People’s Dailypublished over 1,400 articles referencing the plan, with the coverage peaking in 4Q2015. During that period, MIC2025 was referenced in more than four articles a day.
By contrast, US media coverage of the plan was minimal over the same period. All told, the five media outlets from 2014 to 2017 published just 17 articles that mentioned MIC2025. When coverage finally shot up in 1Q2017 (up 50% compared to the previous quarter), negative news reports of the plan also began to emerge. The change in quantity and tone of coverage followed shortly after Berlin-based think tank MERICS published its 76-page report on MIC2025 in December 2016.
One of the first major criticisms of the plan actually came from the European Chamber of Commerce, which cited the MERICS report. Senior Chinese officials then responded and publicly defended MIC2025 for the first time. This sequence underscores how American media outlets appear to be rather slow in recognizing the significance of Chinese policies, even a plan as expansive and exhaustively covered in Chinese media as MIC2025.
At this point, the US media’s attention intensified. Coverage of MIC2025 saw mostly continuous growth from 2017 to about the end of 2Q2018. That quarter marked peak MIC2025 coverage, likely directly related to the issuance of the Section 301 report that referenced the Chinese plan a full 116 times. For the first time in 2Q2018, US media coverage of MIC2025 surpassed that in the Chinese official media.
Notably, the sentiment of the US media’s coverage began to tilt negative at this time as well. My data show an increasing amount of negative coverage referencing the plan emerged after the Section 301 report, suggesting that the tone of media’s coverage started to converge with the critical view of the Trump administration.
However, net sentiment was still in positive territory in the aggregate, even after the release of the Section 301 report. While this may suggest that the tone of MIC2025 coverage had little effect on perceptions, it’s worth noting that negative sentiment articles spiked dramatically and suddenly from essentially zero. As a result of the low-base effect, policymakers that began paying attention to MIC2025 coverage around this period would likely feel bombarded with negative coverage of MIC2025 even if the aggregate is net positive (see Methodology for further explanation of sentiment analysis).
For the rest of 2018, US media coverage of MIC2025 remained relatively consistent before petering out in 2Q2019. This could be due to the fact that for the previous three quarters, mentions of MIC2025 basically vanished from Chinese official media.
Why Did Beijing Scrub MIC2025 from Official Media When It Did?
Based on this data, MIC2025 coverage in the Chinese official media basically disappeared on May 17, 2018, more than a month before US newspapers began reporting on its suspension at the end of June 2018.
The timing of this cutoff is noteworthy, because it followed a flurry of activity in US-China relations, including the release in March of the Section 301 report, the Trump administration’s April announcement of slapping tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods, and trade negotiations from May 2-4 that ended with no deal.
It’s curious why Beijing chose to make the move of preventing all mention of MIC2025 in Chinese media. Although it’s impossible to know exactly what transpired during trade negotiations, this retreat from Beijing on the domestic front did not seem like one of the major demands from the US side. Washington instead wanted Beijing to halt subsidies to MIC2025 industries and to accept US restrictions of Chinese exports from MIC2025 industries.
Although difficult to infer correlation, the week that MIC2025 coverage ceased in Chinese media was the same week the US President announced on Twitter that ZTE would get amnesty. Just two weeks earlier, China had pressed the US to relax its ban on the supply of American components to ZTE, which had been punished for violating US sanctions on Iran.
A subsequent leak of an official directive in June 2018, picked up by China Digital Times, re-emphasized that the media should not report on MIC2025, confirming that China’s Central Propaganda Department had earlier issued a media gag order to not mention the plan. While the timing of the gag order may have been mere coincidence, it’s possible that Washington’s leniency on ZTE factored into Beijing’s response on MIC2025 at that time.
What Coverage of MIC2025 Remained?
Coverage of MIC2025 in Chinese media did indeed decline significantly after May 17, 2018. What little remained–about 40 articles over an entire year–were mostly stories about factories launched or new schools built to further MIC2025 goals. More than a quarter of these articles were editorials or op-eds, often condemning the US position in the trade war.
At least one article, published in both Xinhua and People’s Daily, stands out because it incorporated MIC2025 as part of a historical account celebrating the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening Up. The fact that MIC2025 is being directly linked to Reform and Opening Up suggests that Beijing continues to attach significance to the plan, if not in name then in substance and spirit.
Of some note are the five out of the 40 articles that mention MIC2025 in the context of China-European relations. These articles date from mid-2018 to spring 2019, and include pieces about strengthening ties with Italy, cooperative dialogues with the EU, and a meeting between President Xi and French President Emmanuel Macron. The latter pieces were published in both Xinhua and People’s Daily with identical headlines and content, suggesting that the inclusion of MIC2025 was no accident but a deliberate move.
Even though a major European business group was the first to criticize the plan, Beijing appears to believe that MIC2025 is not nearly as controversial or sensitive in China-EU relations. It’s possible Beijing believes that some EU countries would be more willing to work together on MIC2025.
Is MIC2025 Really Dead or Just Replaced?
The term MIC2025 may have been put on the “endangered terms” list but its spirit seems to live on under different guises. To determine whether the spirit of MIC2025 is still alive, I looked at relevant phrases often associated with MIC2025 to see whether there was any corresponding increase in their usage after May 2018.
Two terms that relate to MIC2025 are “indigenous innovation” (自主创新) and “core technology” (核心技术). These are not new—the former has been used officially since the Jiang Zemin era (1989-2002)—but analysts believe they have gained renewed significance under President Xi’s new development priorities and are closely associated with MIC2025.
The data show that after the official retirement of MIC2025 in mid-2018, mentions of “indigenous innovation” remained steady, while references to “core technology” actually saw an uptick on average. But 2Q2019 saw a spike in both terms, up 200% and 400% respectively since April, suggesting that these terms could again dominate discourse on industrial policy priorities, with or without MIC2025.
In fact, even MIC2025 may be seeing a mini revival since May 2019, following the abrupt end of yet another round of US-China trade negotiations. References to MIC2025 have resurfaced in Chinese official media not only in spirited denunciations of the US trade war position but also in the type of regular domestic news that were common before May 2018.
The Remaking of MIC2025?
The sudden purging of virtually all coverage of MIC2025 in Chinese media was likely a direct response to escalating US-China trade tensions after March 2018. However, rather than conceding to US demands to significantly weaken the policy, Beijing’s move appeared to have been more of a “concession in perception.” That is, the term may no longer be discussed much, but the industrial policies around which MIC2025 is built have not disappeared, as evidenced by the continued referencing of “indigenous innovation” and “core technologies.”
More broadly, media analysis of this particular policy shows how the ebb and flow of coverage can be deliberate and calculated, particularly as Beijing responds to pressure and backlash from abroad. This points to the possibility that media coverage is more than just a blunt instrument of propaganda—it is often used tactically for marketing policy priorities and to manage perceptions, both domestic and foreign. Since official media is inherently a political tool in China, the fact that Beijing proactively dialed back media coverage of its cherished MIC2025 can be considered a political concession.
Whether this is sufficient to permanently shift the spotlight away from MIC2025 in trade negotiations is a question that needs further investigation. Moreover, to move beyond the preliminary insights contained in this analysis will require examining more cases of Chinese policies that are considered controversial in the West.
Some of these cases may include the Belt and Road Initiative or the notion of “self-reliance.” With more cases and data, a pattern may emerge in how China manages its media when confronting external pressure and may even offer some predictive utility for Chinese behavior in these instances.