An opinion piece originally published on the Chinese-language official paper, the Peoples’ Daily, on the 22 July 2011 and reprinted on Phoenix website (article link) on the South China Sea dispute is both interesting in what it says and in the reactions its publication generated among its online viewers on the Phoenix website that appears representative of sections of the public.
The piece, titled ‘The Time of Using Non-Peaceful Means to Resolve Territorial Dispute Has Passed’, seems to aim at addressing the sections of the public who have been angered by the dispute and insist on a more confrontational foreign policy approach and even military solution, and it is exactly this audience who have expressed their anger in their online comments.
The piece opens by saying that:
“We do not endorse transforming a bilateral dispute into a multilateral dispute, and we are opposed to the intervention of major countries from outside. This does not signify China is short of reason, nor is China afraid. We insist on this principle to avoid enlarging and complicating the problem.”
And it goes on to emphasise:
“The time of using non-peaceful means to resolve territorial dispute has passed. Sixty years ago, France and Germany settled their historical antagonism through the establishment of European Coal and Steel Community, based on which Europe gradually discovered the path to European integration.)”
“On the issue of South China Sea, China’s position is consistent and clear. In the 1980s, China proposed ‘Shelving Disagreement, Collectively Developing’. China has said and done so.”
Reiterating the familiar Chinese foreign policy line, it also signals to the public that on the specific issue of South China Sea, China is softening its approach. But what is most interesting about the piece is the following ‘assurance’:
“The monumental success of economic development has not only strengthened the Chinese nation, it also makes Chinese people more open-minded, tolerant and patient in dealing with complex issues. The regional policy of ‘Good, Safe and Prosperous Neighborhood’ has become an integral part of Chinese foreign policy thinking.”
In light of public opinions and particularly the comments following this very article, it is not difficult to conclude that the Chinese government is appealing to its own public to calm down and take a more moderate approach. While public opinions are not easily transformed into direct and tangent challenge to China’s foreign policy or the very legitimacy of the regime, the piece is nevertheless trying to persuade the public:
“What is needed now is to cool the temperature of South China Sea dispute and to comprehensively push the development of relations between China and ASEAN to create a good environment for the final resolution of the issue of South China Sea.”
Below are translations of selected comments:
2011/07/22 14:37 From Xinjiang – nukexj:
Or it should be changed to: wake up from the dream of using peaceful means to resolve dispute.
2011/07/22 17:55 From Chengdu, Sichuan – nanmian:
“The time of using non-peaceful means to resolve territorial dispute has passed” is self-deceiving non-sense. Is People’s Daily people’s newspaper? It should rather be changed to World Harmony Daily. People’s Daily at this very sensitive and critical time expressed such thoughtless, stupid comment. Does it know how serious the consequences and outcomes will be?
2011/07/22 15:24 From Xuancheng, Anhui – gudunanyan:
“The time of using non-peaceful means to resolve territorial dispute has passed”, then why do you need the military?
2011/07/22 15:21 Chongqing – xifeng:
The so-called ‘restraining principle’ means while you are negotiating with them, they are holding joint military exercise. Who are you restraining? The so-called time of using non-peaceful means to resolve conflict has passed! Then why the US, France and UK do not sit and talk to Gaddafi?
2011/07/22 16:56 Longyan, Fujian – youzhikang
The Chinese Communist Party must not hand over our country’s islands which we inherited from our ancestors to others. That would make it an external sinner.
2011/07/22 15:26 Hexi, Tianjing – fenggong
Negotiation needs to be backed up by strong military strength.
18580 People Participated with 84 Comments – accessed on 13:44pm 23 July 2011, comment link.
It is possible that most of those who commented have neither read the article (apart from the title of the article, of course) nor given much thought to it. This is reflected in the very superficial engagement of these comments with the content of article. If the aim of the opinion piece is to cool the temperature as well as the temper of sections of the public, it does not appear to be too successful and is arguably achieving the exact opposite.
As China becomes more assertive on the regional and international stage, it has a lot to learn in terms of managing public opinions, as the public – at least some sections of it – is far from the ideal of being ‘open-minded, tolerant and patient’ when dealing with territorial issues. No doubt the Chinese state itself is to blame for inflating nationalist sentiments in the first place.
So the Chinese state is now forced to walk a fine line between cementing its legitimacy based on its role as ultimate protector of national territorial integrity and making necessary compromise and charting a more sophisticated approach in international affairs. This is not easy. And if online opinion is any guide – even after allowing the bias of online opinion toward expression of extreme views, it appears very problematic for the CCP state.
On the morning of July 20, 2011 it was announced that ASEAN and China had reaffirmed their commitment to abide by the 2002 code of conduct.
The official news release from Xinhua, reposted immediately by Phoenix Online that afternoon, was titled China and ASEAN agree on implementing the ‘Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea’. Predictably it was airy and light on detail, and the response to the story on Phoenix online was an overwhelming demand for more specific information:
“Hottest comments” from 33,884 participants/227 comments as at July 26, 2011, 12.20 p.m. BJ:
aloros (Huanggang, Hebei): I strongly demand the main content of the ‘Declaration’ be made public. The Chinese people have a right to information. [8881 recommends]
曹新华 Cao Xinhua* (Dalian, Liaoning): I strongly demand to see the content of the declaration. [3384 recommends]
wangyi3695555 (Guangdong): What are the specific contents of the declaration? [2467 recommends]
预备123123 (Luzhou, Sichuan): The contents should be made public. [1941 recommends]
as636789 (Wuxi, Jiangsu): Does the South China Sea belong to China? If so, why are we discussing it with others? [1853 recommends]
weizhaochuan (Shunde, Foshan, Guangdong): “We only need not attack for now. China is getting strong. When America falls into its next crisis, China will actually control the South China Sea.” People who think like this are just unloved dreamers!!!!! If you say something does that make it come true? You’ll fall into crisis before they do! [825 recommends]
* Possible pun as it sounds like “fuck Xinhua”, but also a relatively common surname and first name.
However, if July 20 was looking like a day of decreased South Sea tensions, five Filipino MPs and the Global Times had other ideas. Just over an hour after Xinhua’s announcement of the breakthrough agreement with ASEAN came the following:
Zhong Weidong (Global Times Online): A few days ago, five Filipino MPs shrilly claimed that they would “visit” Zhongye Island in the South China Sea. On July 20 local time, they carried out their plan to set foot on the island. They claimed Zhongye Island was “Filipino territory” and raised a new Philippines flag, and encouraged local residents to start calling the surrounding waters the “West Philippine Sea”.
“Hottest comments” on Phoenix online from 41,373 participants/877 comments as at 26/7/11 1.30pm BJ:
South Sea Summer 南海之夏 (Hangzhou, Zhejiang): Countless negotiations, countless protests, countless stern [statments], and no-one has ever paid heed. This time we get it: no negotiation, no protest and no sternness. Then we won’t be a joke to everyone. [4284 recommends]
oldsoldier2000 (Shenyang, Liaoning): Enraged! China’s government and military, why aren’t you doing anything? [2673 recommends]
Tuolikushui 脱离苦水 (Xuancheng, Anhui): A bunch of old men leaning on their walking sticks have squandered the property of the ancestors. These days we don’t even dare fart. What face do we have left on this earth? [2048 recommends]
wzm73123 (Zhangzhou, Fujian): I don’t know what the Chinese government has done about the South China Sea besides protest!!! Get a dose of reality!!! The Spratly Islands are being lost one after another, when can we end this state of affairs? [1767 recommends]
efang_michael (Beijing): Quoting background information from the bottom of the news story, ” Zhongye Island. . . second largest island in the Spratlys . . . named after a ship that received sovereignty over the Spratly Islands on behalf of the KMT government in 1946 . . . occupied by the Philippines since 1971, it now has a garrison, airport, shops, power plant etc, and forms the command centre for the Philippines’ rule of the Spratlys.” Reading this, seeing the Filipino servants’ [菲佣] military planes hovering over the motherland’s territory, the rage in my heart will burn for ages, what oh what oh what is wrong with our motherland???? [1684 recommends]
IFXDD (Chengdu, Sichuan): A day of national humiliation. I will remember 2011-7-20. 
x090909 (Shenyang, Liaoning): China cannot sit and ignore this! The people of China are watching! The world’s Chinese people are watching! The whole world is watching! 
haiying222 (Hangzhou, Zhejiang): If it doesn’t affect the basic interests of interest groups, the country’s weaponry is just playthings, whatever, just let them keep screwing. 
sxxwli525 (Heze, Shandong): China’s military is a bunch of soft eggs. 
. . .
万里青山 (Tianjin): There’s nothing that can be done. The common people are worried, the elites in the capital are not. 
The message could not be clearer: for many Chinese people this is nothing less than a national humiliation, a collective loss of national face. Meanwhile the old men of the corrupt government rest on their walking sticks. The comment that the military are “soft eggs” appears to imply that they should be disobeying the weak civilian leadership and taking matters into their own hands. The Chinese government often cops international criticism for claiming that this or that country has “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, but these comments illustrate the high degree to which many Chinese people are emotionally invested in the state’s continuing upward fortunes on the “international stage”.
Chen Bingde: China and its neighbours will resolve the South China Sea issues appropriately, America need not worryPosted: July 25, 2011
China News Service/22-7-2011 (by Tao Shelan): After their meeting in Beijing, PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and the visiting Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen held a joint press conference. Chen Bingde noted that China and its neighbours had the capability and wisdom to appropriately resolve their South China Sea issues, and the U.S. should not be concerned, let alone anxious.
The article goes on to say that General Chen was pleased at the improving relations between the two militaries, though he “bluntly said that some on the American side were deliberately making trouble”, for example those congresspersons who recently met with the Dalai Lama. And, quoting the General directly:
“America has indicated many times that it has no intention of interfering in the South Sea disputes. Yet the formal and actual signals it has been putting out are just the opposite. Even though they had done it before, to conduct military exercises in the South Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam at this sensitive time is extremely inappropriate.”
The Phoenix online discussion of the story, which involved 242 comments and participation by 19,649 people, was notable for the number of readers who seem to have been impressed by the “hardness” of Chen’s comments. But the link between corrupt officialdom and foreign policy was once again on prominent display, and there was still plenty of support for Maoist anti-’reform-and-opening’ sentiment.
Wan Ye (Henan): I support General Chen. Military leaders have to toughen up. [4522 recommends]
Hu Fei (Changzhou, Jiangsu): What boss Chen said is cool. If America really likes to worry, I would ask them to send back all the corrupt officials who have fled there. But I always wonder, whether we’re selling out the country’s interest – the old wolf America never does something for nothing. Unless it’s getting a bite of meat or a sip of blood it won’t even respond. [2715 recommends]
Mainland Hawk 6 (Daqing, Heilongjiang): Chen Bingde is a real military elite. When this kind of person takes the stage, his intention and role are clear, greatly increasing our national prestige. [1706 recommends]
Xiao Cun (Shanxi): General Chen spoke extremely confidently, he is worth listening to. [1412 recommends]
Eagle Talon 12 (Beijing): History has shown time and again that peaceful methods cannot solve territorial and sovereignty disputes, and only pass on more troubles for future generations. Military means are the only way out of this situation, and military means are also the only way to great power status. The Chinese people do not fear war, and all ideas of protecting the so-called fruits of ‘reform and opening’ are just selling out the country’s territory and sovereignty. It’s the behaviour of certain interested classes, and can never represent the wishes of the broad masses of China. [1207 recommends]
Mobile Phone User (Shandong): Tactful yet still domineering, Chen is definitely a worthy Chief of Staff. [822 recommends]
Yang Tianhao (Shenzhen, Guangdong): Strongly support minister Chen. [790 recommends]
The discussion over at CNS, the original source of the story, was much smaller, with only 37 comments. One of those expressed an idea that has sometime come up in South Sea conversations with Chinese friends – that of America provoking the “little countries” like Vietnam to infringe on China’s interests. I wonder how widespread this notion really is of “little” Vietnam (pop. 90,000,000) being a mere puppet for America’s grand anti-China scheme?
Phoenix TV has brought together a highly interesting array of short video clips of South China Sea commentary from both their own satellite channel, and CCTV.
The “brief introduction reads”:
China has three strategic countermeasures [available to it]: the America card, the economics card, and the Taiwan card. ‘To capture the bandits, first go after the king’ (qin zei xian qin wang) – countering America is the most important. The economic card applies mainly to Vietnam and the Philippines. The Taiwan card could initiate cross-strait collaborative defence of the South China Sea.
The video line-up has received 23,930 ‘likes’, and 15,969 ‘dislikes’ (actually ‘tramples’), suggesting many viewers strongly disagree with the overall assessment presented in the videos, which plays down the urgency and strength of action required, with several commentators pointing out that China should try to ensure that its actions do not push neighbours like Vietnam into an alliance with the US (something which has to some extent happened already). The comments section provides some clue as to what so many viewers are objecting to:
wangdashan5658 (Hebei): [Quoting llciven (Suzhou)]: “Previous generations have told us, dignity must be fought for, merely talking is useless!!! [12 recommends]” – Looking at the domestic and overseas [situations], what dignity do we common Chinese people currently have? 
qq987645 (Yunnan): Don’t talk about cards this and cards that, other people are actually controlling [these islands]. 
wo7133998 (Liaoning Huludao): Why am I sensing the final years of the Qing Dynasty? 
ssssssssd (Anhui Chaohu): Nothing at all has happened in the South China Sea, only big-talking. It’s tragic. 
lbds (Shenzhen): It’s time to retake the South China Sea islands. 
Leader Li [Li Lingdao] (Guangzhou Panyu District): Truth comes from the barrel of a gun, let’s attack. Give the nation a bit of blood. 
Li Lü (Hebei Hedan): I miss the Great Mao very much. It was him who made the Chinese people feel proud and stand tall [yang mei tu qi, ang shou ting xiong] in the world’s orient. In those years we defeated America twice, taught India a lesson, and did not give up an inch of sovereign soil or territorial water – even for just one square kilometre, he dared to take back Zhenbao Island from the big-brother superpower the Soviet Union. 
Li Lü (Hebei Hedan): It now looks like the “shelve differences, develop jointly” approach was completely wrong. Who is going to take responsibility? 
Yi剑 (Jiangxi Shangrao): Corrupt officials running amok, unable to fight, let’s just give the South China Sea away. Others will say good things about us. 
Once again we see the CCP’s foreign-policy status quo, especially the “shelve differences” approach, under attack from the Maoist left, whose viewpoints attract strong agreement from readers. How many of these readers, or even the commenters themselves, are ‘fifty-centers’ is unclear (and even if they were it would be impossible to tell whose fifty-centers, since many agencies are known to deploy them), but we can clearly see that this kind of criticism is not being censored out by any central decree at this stage.
Perhaps more significant is that comments linking official corruption with weak foreign policy are also okay with the censors. The third comment, by wo7133998, and the last comment by Yi剑, have strong overtones of “waihuan neiluan” (“external aggression + internal chaos”), the most widely-accepted formula answering the original Chinese nationalist question: what happened to China’s greatness? Seeing China today as afflicted by waihuan neiluan appears to be a refutation of the Chinese Communist Party’s achievements, and a damning indictment of its present rule.
We have to remember though (and one of the talking heads on the Phoenix video reel actually points this out), internet opinion always tends to be more extreme than public opinion in general. As argued elsewhere, a ‘netizen’ (wangmin) is very different to a citizen.
In a side note, He Liangliang, the talking head who puts forward the ‘playing cards’ analogy in the most detail, also puts forward a theory that Vietnam’s internal problems – namely inflation, slow economic growth and corruption – mean that it might be trying to provoke conflict with China to divert the Vietnamese people’s attention. This exact line of reasoning often gets applied by outside analysts to explain China’s actions, and its possible motivations into the future.