Joy and Fear: Chinese Media and the Taliban’s Victory in Afghanistan

by Fengming Lu

THE 2021 FALL OF Kabul, marking the almost complete take-over of Afghanistan by the Taliban, probably represented the most spectacular failure of US policy and military action abroad since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Given the current tensions and rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), many might assume the Chinese media — run almost exclusively by the state — would have gloated at the US failure and the Taliban victory. The Chinese media, which had limited resources in Afghanistan and relied heavily on second-hand materials, did mostly cast a negative light on the US withdrawal, blaming the Americans for leaving a mess in Afghanistan after twenty years of war. However, its tone was carefully modulated to match Beijing’s contradictory response to the Taliban’s victory.

On the one hand, the fall of Kabul and the deaths of almost 50,000 civilians in the years since the US invasion in 2001 have served to illustrate the broader failure of Washington’s efforts to export American-style democracy. Towards the end of 2021, the Chinese government increasingly and strategically exploited the case of Afghanistan in news reporting and propaganda to counterbalance the international Summit for Democracy hosted by US President Joe Biden on 9–10 December ‘to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad’ and the related rhetorical offensive on democracy versus autocracy.

Under the pen-name Zhong Sheng 钟声 (a homophone of ‘Voice of China’), for example, the People’s Daily published a series of editorials under the title ‘The Twenty-Year War in Afghanistan as a Warning to the United States’ 二十年阿富汗战争给美国的警示.1 They were representative of state media rhetoric on Afghanistan. Consistent with China’s foreign policy and domestic propaganda, the main point of the editorials was that the US military’s intervention and efforts to implement Western-style democracy in Afghanistan were a complete failure. The editorials argued that those policies cost the US billions of dollars and left a total mess — not just in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and Syria.2 Yet they — and other aspects of Chinese press coverage and interpretation of the events in Afghanistan — do not simply replicate earlier reportage; they also are customised to fit the contemporary US–China rivalry. In one of the editorials, the author(s) argues: ‘The United States claims itself to be the defender of “the rules-based international order”, but in fact, it has been the biggest destroyer of international rules and international orders.’3 This directly counters US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s claim about defending the ‘rules-based international order’ at the March 2021 US–China Summit in Anchorage, Alaska.

While painting the Taliban victory as the overwhelmingly negative outcome of American actions in Afghanistan to reinforce the credibility of its anti-American domestic propaganda, the Chinese leadership is at the same time trying to maintain a reasonably good relationship with the Taliban regime. The Chinese Embassy stayed in Kabul throughout the turmoil. State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi 王毅 has met with delegates of the Doha-based Taliban Political Commission several times. In Tianjin, China hosted a high-level delegation from the Taliban in July, about a month before the takeover, and another in September, following it.

Chinese news media left out key details from the Taliban’s December decree on women’s rights, such as women’s rights to go to school and work
Source: Marius Arnesen, Flickr

Not surprisingly, the Chinese media has been restrained in covering negative news related to the Taliban takeover. For example, when reporting on the Taliban’s December decree on women’s rights, Chinese news media, unlike their Western counterparts, did not mention what was left out of the decree, such as women’s right to go to school and work.4 At the same time, the government is concerned about the Taliban’s and other groups’ potential to promote religious extremism or even terrorism in Xinjiang. The Communisty Party of China is careful to not trigger discontent among the thirty million Chinese Muslims, nor does it wish to fuel rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. When discussing the anti-Taliban Islamic State–Khorasan Province (ISK), state-run television stations such as CCTV refer to it as ‘the Khorasan branch of the extremist organisation’ to avoid using the term ‘Islamic State’.

China’s involvement in Afghanistan is quite limited. The PRC shares only a short, 92-kilometre border with Afghanistan at the eastern end of the rugged Wakhan Corridor. The flow of people, including alleged terrorists, across the land border is extremely sparse and difficult, especially given the tight control over travel and mobility within Xinjiang; there is quite a low risk that terrorists or terrorism will enter China that way, at least in the short term. Chinese firms and state-owned enterprises have committed to only a few large-scale investment projects in Afghanistan — totalling US$630 million by the end of 2020. Most of these, such as the Mes Aynak copper mine, have been indefinitely paused for years. Thanks to China’s limited interests and involvement in Afghanistan, as mentioned earlier, Chinese media has insufficient resources and capabilities to cover news there. As a result, in recent years, when covering US military atrocities outside Kabul, such as drone attacks on civilians, CCTV needed to rely on footage and even whole programs from RT — Russia’s state-controlled international television network. The Chinese media’s tone and agenda in Afghanistan have thus largely — perhaps reluctantly — aligned with those of Russia. The only Chinese reporter from the state-run CCTV/CGTN channel in Kabul withdrew right after the fall of the city. For almost three months, CCTV relied on local employees in Kabul or reporters in Peshawar, Pakistan, to cover the news. The first CCTV reporter returned to Kabul only on 15 November, three months after the fall of Kabul.5

Towards the end of 2021, as the situation in Afghanistan became less dramatic, Chinese media, like other international media, gradually lost interest in covering the daily events in Afghanistan. Increasingly instrumental and strategic in their coverage, they focused on the ideological quarrel with the United States, arguing that American efforts to export Western-style democracy have produced many more disasters than achievements. They also blame the United States, which has frozen Afghan assets since the Taliban’s takeover, for the humanitarian crisis unfolding there.6 Such observations reinforce Beijing’s long-standing, and ironically nihilistic, rhetoric that contends that any attempt to change an authoritarian status quo — through democratisation or liberalisation, for example — will lead to chaos and catastrophe. A recent livestreamed program by CGTN called ‘A reality check — Exporting war under veil of democracy’, posted on 11 December, illustrates the difficulty of such rhetoric achieving any impact overseas: the 29-minute video from China’s main outward-facing media outlet garnered fewer than 20,000 views on YouTube in its first week on the platform.7 It is also hard to judge how well the official line on Afghanistan is received by the Chinese domestic audience as any online push-back or criticism would be heavily censored.

Four months on from the fall of Kabul, Chinese state media reports on Afghanistan are marked by contradictory emotions of joy and fear, and its coverage continues to serve as a proxy for the ideological contest between China and the United States. Yet how the relationship between Beijing and the Taliban will pan out is uncertain, partly because, as of year’s end, Russia had not made its intentions clear, and it remains to be seen whether the Taliban is credibly committed to not export jihad to Xinjiang. In the meantime, the policy contradictions are likely to be reflected in the Chinese media’s portrayal of current affairs in Afghanistan.