(L-R, front) President Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a plenary session during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Beijing, November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Has the Chinese government led by Xi Jinping dramatically increased anti-foreign propaganda in its official media over the past year? The New York Times made this argument in a widely cited article on Nov. 11. It cited as evidence a Nov. 9 article in the Christian Science Monitor which claimed that as of the end of October, articles referencing foreign-related “hostile forces” in the Communist Party organ, the People’s Daily, had “nearly tripled” in number over the same period in 2013. Both articles have circulated in social media, with at least 137 tweets referring to one or the other piece as of the end of November. Drawing explicitly on these two media reports, some pundits on East Asian issues have reproduced this meme of rapidly rising officially sanctioned anti-foreignism (for example here and here) as did the New York Times itself on Nov. 27. This meme feeds into an larger emerging narrative about a rising newly assertive China challenging the U.S.-dominated global order.

But is this particular meme accurate? To assess the claim of a recent surge in anti-foreignism in official propaganda, I looked at the frequency of articles that referenced foreign-related “hostile forces” (敌对势力) in the People’s Daily across time through to the end of November. Specifically, I counted articles that referenced the following commonly used terms: “Western hostile forces” (西方敌对势力), “external hostile forces”(境外敌对势力), “foreign hostile forces” (国外敌对势力and外国敌对势力), “international hostile forces”(国际敌对势力), “internal and external hostile forces” (境内外敌对势力), and “domestic and foreign hostile forces”(国内外敌对势力). (This list of terms was used in the Christian Science Monitor’s analysis, and I thank its Beijing correspondent, Peter Ford, for sharing it). I then normalized these frequencies by monthly average. I combined the first five terms into a category of “purely foreign” references, and the last two into a category of “internal and external” references. The terms in these categories should, in principle, exclude any references to purely internal hostile forces. In order to check the historical trends in such references, I looked back to the Deng Xiaoping era and started at a high point in U.S.-China relations in 1988, just before the Tiananmen crisis in 1989. This allowed me to observe the trends across four different leaders and to compare periods where U.S.-China relations were relatively stable with those that have been considered more unstable.

As the following graphs show (Figures 1-3), by far the greatest frequency of articles referring to foreign hostile forces was in the Deng Xiaoping period in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. At that time foreign hostile forces were blamed for the ideological subversion of Chinese youth. The next highest frequency happened during the Jiang Zemin period. Here the most dramatic spike in references to foreign hostile forces came during the regime’s furious suppression of the Falungong sect in 1999-2001.

If one looks at more recent history and compares the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping regimes, it is clear there has been no dramatic increase in this particular anti-foreign messaging in the People’s Daily. As Figure 4 shows, there is either a tiny increase in the average monthly frequency of articles referencing foreign hostile forces between the Hu and Xi regimes or no real increase at all. Moreover, in two years, 2009 and 2011, the frequency of articles in the Hu period was actually higher than in the Xi period for most of the terms referring to foreign hostile forces. These spikes were mainly a function of an upsurge in violence in Tibet and Xinjiang, with the regime blaming this largely on external forces.

Nor has the change within the Xi period from 2013 to 2014 been nearly as great as some U.S. media have stated. When all the terms are aggregated (Figure 1) the increase in monthly average frequency is about 50 percent. The 2013-2014 increase in the category of purely foreign hostile forces (Figure 2) is only about 24 percent. However, there has actually been a slight decline in the average monthly frequency of articles referencing “Western hostile forces” – which is by far the most common form of this particular propaganda term during the Hu and Xi periods (see Figure 3). These shifts are all much smaller than the figures claimed by the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times, which suggested that there had been a nearly 200 percent increase in references to foreign hostile forces in the past year. (The CSM also searched for “hostile forces” (敌对势力) only but then used an unclear subjective process to code whether these referred to foreign or domestic forces. I tried, but was unable to replicate the CSM’s figure for these two years).

In short, these data would seem to be inconsistent with the meme that there has been a dramatic turn toward, or surge in, anti-foreign discourse in the official media in the Xi Jinping era.

The patterns in the data suggest that the regime employs the foreign hostile forces meme in response to sharp increases in perceived internal threats (a student/worker democracy movement, the Falungong, Tibetan or Uighur separatism). That there has not been a dramatic spike (yet) under Xi Jinping implies that the regime’s perception of threat or crisis has not shifted a great deal (yet) compared to the latter few years of the Hu Jintao period.

It is clear that the Chinese Communist Party uses anti-foreign themes in its propaganda, and when doing so it sometimes supports reactionary voices, such as the young blogger Zhou Xiaoping. But the data suggest this impulse is not new nor, as of this moment, particularly characteristic of the Xi Jinping regime. One need only recall the Deng Xiaoping regime’s accusation that a U.S. “peaceful evolution” strategy was to blame for the Tiananmen movement in 1989, or the Jiang Zemin regime’s claim that the U.S. was trying to “Westernize” (西化) and “divide” (分化) China (references to alleged US ideological subversion and alleged US efforts to prevent unification between China and Taiwan), or the Hu Jintao’s charge that foreign forces were fostering ethnic separatism.

The U.S.-China relationship appears to have recently entered a period of greater instability. The frictions between the two governments seem to have captured more attention from a wider audience of media, pundits, and scholars than before. It is important that we learn more about precisely how much public discourse in both countries contributes to this instability. But given the potentially negative consequences of this instability for both sides it behooves those of us engaged in public discourse, even when participating via 140 character tweets, to be as skeptical as possible of circulating memes, and to situate any perceived changes – negative or positive – in the actual historical behavior of the two sides. Analysts need to be sensitive to the uses of xenophobia in Chinese domestic and foreign policy, but we also need to keep it in context.

Alastair Iain Johnston is the The Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs at Harvard University