The US may investigate China on trade. Why? The news doesn’t say.
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The US may investigate China on trade. Why? The news doesn’t say.

August 2, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US Government may investigate Chinese trade practices

On Tuesday, news outlets cited anonymous sources saying the U.S. government may open an investigation into China’s trade practices. The White House has not officially commented on these reports.

The investigation would be carried out by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. It may be officially announced late this week or next week, according to unnamed White House officials.

Section 301 allows the U.S. to impose unilateral tariffs and other trade sanctions on countries that “violate trade agreements or engage in other unfair trade practices.” Media outlets reported that the USTR may investigate China for alleged theft of U.S. companies’ intellectual property.

China was the U.S.’ top trading partner in 2016 based on total trade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The New York Times reported that China’s exports to the U.S. represent more than 4 percent of China’s economy and U.S. exports to China represent two-thirds of 1 percent of the American economy.

Distortion Highlights

  • The coverage says the U.S. might investigate China’s trade practices, but it doesn’t give much information about why.
  • Instead of informing us, news outlets give more space to spin and questionable logic.
  • Find out how they do this and why it’s a problem below.

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Tensions

    Any move by the Trump administration to punish China over its trade practices would raise tensions within the world’s largest trade relationship between two countries. (The New York Times)

    The pending decision would dramatically escalate tension between the United States and China — and it could result in steep tariffs on Chinese goods. (Politico)

    That step could ratchet up tensions between the world’s two largest economies. (CNN)

  • Growing Worries

    The White House is preparing to open a broad investigation into China’s trade practices…amid growing worries in the United States over a Chinese government-led effort to make the country a global leader in microchips, electric cars and other crucial technologies of the future. (The New York Times)

  • Fuming

    Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with China in recent months, fuming in public and in private about what he views as the country’s unfair trade practices. (Politico)

  • Slamming

    Despite repeatedly slamming Beijing over its trade practices on the campaign trail, he has taken a more cautious approach since entering the White House. (CNN)

  • Harsh Rhetoric

    Despite his harsh rhetoric during the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has dangled the prospect of smoother trade relations with China in exchange for helping contain North Korea. (The New York Times)

  • Regular Huddles

    As POLITICO reported earlier this week, senior Trump aides held a series of high-level meetings in recent days to finalize the decision, which is the culmination of three months of regular huddles on trade. (Politico)

  • Loath

    But their profits from the Chinese market are large enough that many corporate executives have been loath to cooperate with United States trade officials, for fear that Chinese government ministries may retaliate against them. (The New York Times)

  • Grievances

    The United States has a long list of grievances about China on trade, including accusations of steel dumping and theft of U.S. intellectual property. (Reuters)

  • Shot across the bow

    Frustration that China is not doing more to persuade North Korea to rein in its nuclear program seems to be motivating the administration to fire a shot across the bow on the trade front, one source said. (Politico)

Did you notice something was missing from our Raw Data above? It says the U.S. might investigate China’s trade practices, but it doesn’t give much information about why. That’s because we source our data from news outlets, and they didn’t provide a comprehensive understanding of the issue. Instead, they filled their pages with sensational language and faulty reasoning. Let’s examine:

Spin: The New York Times and Politico say the U.S. is “frustrated” with China’s trade practices. This may imply China is being uncooperative or unfair, but doesn’t provide information about what it’s doing specifically. Both outlets say the U.S. has accused China of intellectual property violations, but they don’t explicitly say this is why the U.S. is “frustrated,” and don’t provide facts or sources to back this claim.

Similarly, the Times, Politico and CNN say the investigation, or its outcome, may increase “tensions” between the two countries. This suggests there will be a negative outcome, but does so through vague and dramatic language as opposed to data-based reporting.

Flawed reasoning: The Times says, “Any move by the Trump administration to punish China over its trade practices would raise tensions within the world’s largest trade relationship between two countries.” CNN and Politico have similar conclusions.

If Trump does “punish” China, presumably through something like trade tariffs, are increased “tensions” really inevitable? The above assumes as much, and “tensions” certainly seem plausible, but it’s hard to say because the outlet doesn’t define the word.

Also, isn’t it possible for the two countries to have different views and still negotiate an agreement without damaging relations? Ultimately, we don’t have enough information to assess the likelihood of this scenario or the Times’ prediction. Instead of acknowledging this, the above outlets simply refer to increased “tensions” as a foregone conclusion.

Missing information: As alluded to above, there’s some potentially useful information that’s missing from the articles. For example, a 2016 U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) report to Congress recognized China’s efforts to meet its World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments and listed a number of outstanding “concerns,” including problems with protecting corporate intellectual property. It said, “actors affiliated with the Chinese government and the Chinese military” have been accused of “infiltrat[ing] the computer systems of U.S. companies, stealing terabytes of data, including the companies’ intellectual property.”

Additional issues cited in the report include infringement of pharmaceutical patents; online piracy of music, books, movies, games and software; and the sale of counterfeit goods such as medications.

And it’s not just the U.S. that has concerns with China. According to the WTO’s dispute database, China has filed a total of 10 trade complaints against the U.S. dating back to 2002; the U.S. has filed 21 complaints, the earliest one in 2004.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 73% Spun

  • 74% Spun

  • 75% Spun

  • 82% Spun

While the above sheds some light on the U.S.’ concerns with China’s trade practices, there are still unanswered questions, such as:

1) What other information is there to support the U.S.’ concerns?

2) Is China breaking any international or U.S. domestic trade laws?

3) How might China’s trade practices impact the U.S. economy? Could the investigation or possible penalties against China affect U.S. consumers and businesses?

Answers to these questions would inform people better about U.S.-China trade relations, but unfortunately this data isn’t provided in the coverage. Instead, the outlets include the spin and questionable logic discussed above, which, to the untrained eye, may seem sufficient to give a thorough understanding of the story. Hopefully your eye is now trained!

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“But their profits from the Chinese market are large enough that many corporate executives have been loath to cooperate with United States trade officials, for fear that Chinese government ministries may retaliate against them.”

Nothing specific — some executives allegedly have not cooperated with U.S. trade officials, but the Times doesn’t say how. The rest is opinion.

The New York Times

“Still, China’s industrial ambitions — and growing frustration among American companies doing business there — have become harder for United States officials to ignore.”

None.

Politico

“The pending decision would dramatically escalate tension between the United States and China — and it could result in steep tariffs on Chinese goods.”

The U.S. may investigate China’s trade practices.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts included in all sources

The U.S. government may initiate an investigation into China’s trade practices, according to anonymous sources. (The New York Times, Politico, Reuters, CNN)


This is the main news, yet the outlets provide few details on the Chinese trade practices the U.S. wants to investigate. The Distortion section gives some information on China’s alleged intellectual property theft. A USTR report also says China is imposing export restraints, such as quotas and tariffs, that are inconsistent with its WTO commitments. The report says these practices “can significantly distort trade, and for that reason WTO rules normally outlaw them.”

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Almost spin-free

If you remove “broad,” this becomes a factual headline that also acknowledges that the inquiry isn’t confirmed.

Dramatizes something that hasn’t happened yet

This suggests there may be strong consequences for China, but what might they be? Does it just mean the U.S. may impose trade restrictions on China, or something more than that?

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • China’s trade practices are unfair.
  • The U.S. plans to investigate China’s trade practices in part to punish China for not doing enough to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • An investigation and any consequences that follow from it will likely increase tensions between U.S. and China.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Whether China’s practices are fair or unfair may depend on how fairness is being measured—and the media coverage isn’t clear on this. In terms of WTO standards, China may not be upholding all of its commitments. But this is just one standard and there could be others.
  • The potential investigation may not be a response to China’s response to North Korea. A Chinese official said there was no connection between North Korea’s nuclear program and trade between the U.S. and China. The New York Times and Reuters include this fact, though it’s not very prominent in their articles. Politico and CNN do not mention it at all.
  • It’s possible for the two countries to have different views and still negotiate an agreement without damaging relations. It’s even possible that through the investigation, the U.S. and China could improve some of their trade agreements.