BEIJING — One is a star of one of President Trump’s favorite television networks, Fox Business; the other is a polished debater on Chinese state media known for her confidence in China’s rise and scorn for “biased” Western media.
After weeks of back-and-forth sniping on television and Twitter, Trish Regan from the Fox Business Network and Liu Xin from China Global Television Network are facing off Wednesday night on Regan’s show to argue on behalf of their respective governments about tariffs and technology.
The debate might be just another weeknight segment for Fox Business, but it’s eagerly anticipated in China, where nationalism and distaste for the United States are running high as the White House tightens the screws on Beijing in their ongoing trade dispute.
“With anchorwomen like her, and companies like Huawei, why would China need to worry about its rise?” read a typical patriotic comment on Chinese social media praising Liu, who is one of China’s best known faces despite her regular show appearing on an English-language channel.
Hashtags about the upcoming debate have been viewed upward of 150 million times, with some Weibo posts retweeted tens of thousands of times.
Nearly all of China’s tightly controlled state media outlets have covered the Liu vs. Regan showdown, often framing the anchor as a symbol of Chinese toughness and rationality. Liu’s employer CGTN — the international division of China’s all-powerful China Central Television network, or CCTV — has hailed the clash between the two anchors as nothing less than a “historic first.”
From the Chinese government perspective, the debate may be a small victory before Liu even utters a word on Fox Business. Over the past decade, the ruling Communist Party has invested heavily to push its state media into the global conversation and shape international discourse.
“Just think how many Americans see the Chinese narrative on CGTN versus how many will be viewing the debate on Fox,” said Yuan Zeng, a lecturer at the University of Leeds School of Media and Communication. “At least in terms of exposure, it’s good for China.”
While many Western outlets have shrunk, Chinese organizations like CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency, once the key cogs of the domestic propaganda machinery, have turned their attention outward and expanded aggressively. The state organizations have spent millions on state-of-the-art hubs in New York, London, Cairo and Nairobi, where hundreds of its journalists work.
Newspapers like the party-run People’s Daily these days curate English-language feeds on Facebook and Twitter — services banned inside China — that share everything from Foreign Ministry statements to panda videos.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has demanded state media pledge “absolute loyalty” to the Communist Party and, above all else, “tell China’s story well” to the outside world.
Now with Chinese state media getting bigger and bolder — so are its reporters.
Chen Weihua, the former chief Washington correspondent for party-owned China Daily, an influential English-language newspaper, said it was “healthy” that someone like Liu was going toe-to-toe with Regan. Unlike in previous generations, Chen said, some Chinese state media reporters are increasingly happy to tangle with Western reporters, for instance on Twitter.
“The influence of Western media is disproportionate, and you can’t avoid their overwhelming disinformation about China,” said Chen, now China Daily’s Brussels bureau chief. “That’s why China wants its news organizations well-represented so China’s story is told by Chinese journalists, not by Western journalists.”
Liu and Regan first squared off two weeks ago, when Regan argued on her show that U.S. tariffs were a necessary response to China stealing $600 billion worth of technology. Liu then took direct aim at Regan on her talk show, “The Point With Liu Xin,” and criticized the Fox Business anchor’s argument as “all emotion” and “little substance.”
The two exchanged more salvos on-air. They traded tweets. Regan invited Liu to debate. A date was set: May 29.
Regan, who isn’t exactly known for her adversarial stance toward the Trump administration, will face off Wednesday with a woman who is unapologetic about championing China.
An English major from eastern China who speaks flawless English, some French, German and Turkish, Liu became the first Chinese student to win an international public speaking competition in London in 1996. She joined CCTV after graduating and became one of its highest-profile correspondents, covering events like President Barack Obama’s state visit to Beijing, the Iran nuclear talks and the conflict in Syria.
Liu, who is married to a German man of Turkish descent, said she spent 10 years telling “the China story” to her husband and children and found them swayed by negative Western media portrayals of her country.
“They respond by saying, ‘Oh, Mom is praising China again,’ ” she told Thepaper.com in 2017. “The same is true for my job: I need to lay out the facts and speak with reason. I want to win over the foreign audience.”
When she speaks to Chinese peers, Liu urges them to be more assertive and self-confident.
In January 2018, Liu told Chinese reporters in Beijing that “China has always been the subject of Western media criticism, often downright bashing based on falsehoods.”
The country’s economic rise reflected “the validity and rationality of its development path, showing its confidence in its path, theories, institutions and culture,” she said. “It reinforces reporters’ confidence in telling fantastic Chinese stories based on China’s successful practices.”
Liu’s profile is soaring at a time when her employer is increasingly scrutinized by the U.S. government — precisely for its advocacy. Last year, the Justice Department ordered CCTV’s U.S. division to register as an agent of foreign influence.
Zeng, from the University of Leeds, said events like Liu’s debate could offer more proof to the network’s critics.
“Everything about it is in line with serving the national interest and the party line,” she said.
Particularly as China’s stature rose in the last decade, some CCTV correspondents have embraced overt displays of nationalism.
In 2011, Rui Chenggang, a young CCTV star, famously asked the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, if he flew economy because it was a reminder that the United States owed China money.
This year, a CCTV London correspondent, Kong Linlin, was charged with assault by British police after she slapped a man twice at a political conference in a heated argument about China’s role in Hong Kong.
If CCTV reporters are increasingly engaging their peers outside China, they’ve also taken occasional aim at Western correspondents at home.
In 2012, the anchor Yang Rui celebrated China expelling a female American correspondent for Al Jazeera with a derogatory comment, saying those who demonize China should get lost. (Yang later apologized.)
In 2017, a CCTV reporter went on a lengthy on-air jeremiad criticizing the BBC’s coverage of China’s Communist Party Congress as inappropriate and unfair. Shortly after that, China’s Foreign Ministry punished the British broadcaster by temporarily holding up visa renewals.
That reporter’s name? Liu Xin.