Xinhua spreading rumours, unpopular military commentary, and a witchhunt: the Scarborough Shoal media wave Part III (May 11-13)Posted: May 21, 2012
I’m posting about stuff that happened more than a week ago, so i’ll start by apologizing to any readers who might have come here looking for up-to-date developments. To explain briefly, party-approved waves of media sensationalism, the Chinese public’s reaction to them, and the regime’s reactions to those public reactions, are crucial aspects of my research project, so my task is to document these in as much detail as i can. The PRC’s yearly South China Sea fishing ban, which started last week, has offered a much-needed circuit-breaker to ease the tensions, but even now that the wave has broken and rolled back, i still have a backlog of interesting conversations to discuss.
For those who mightn’t care to read all the way to the bottom to find out what might be buried down there, here’s a summary of what’s below:
- Xinhua was the immediate source of war-preparations rumours denied by Ministry of Defense
- PLA Daily’s piece on May 12 appears aimed at Dai Xu and his powerful pro-war backers in China
- Fenqing witchhunt unmasking the “organiser” of the global Filipino demonstrations, via Weibo, becomes dominant in mainstream discourse
On Friday, May 11 three of the five major portals ran “Guangzhou Military Region and South Sea Fleet in Level-2 state of combat readiness” among their top headlines. Sohu even had it as the top news story. The Ministry of Defense on Friday issued a statement denying this, or at least casting doubt on the report by calling it “不属实”, which didn’t seem a particularly strong denial (linguistic experts please correct me if i’m wrong). On Sunday the MOD posted an English-language story from Xinhua, which stated, rather more unequivocally for the international audience:
Reports that the Guangzhou military region, the South China Sea fleet and other units have entered a state of war preparedness are untrue.
This little episode has been widely alluded to in English language accounts of recent developments, but what seems to have escaped attention is that the immediate source of the sensational headlines was none other than Xinhua itself, which planted* the rumours into the Chinese media by way of a review of overseas media coverage.
[* Maybe "planted" is a bit of sensationalism on my behalf -- Xinhua facilitated and strongly encouraged the spread of the rumour throughout the Chinese media, HT @Fravel.]
Indeed, far from dying off with the reopening of China-Philippines diplomatic talks and the flopping of anti-Chinese (and anti-Philippines) protests, the stoking of online chatter continued unabated into last weekend (May 12-13). In fact, by Sunday all of the top 6 stories of the week on Tencent’s news portal were on the Huangyan issue.
Two articles in particular kept the anger and interest bubbling over the weekend — one a turgid military commentary, the other a trashy witchhunting expose.
On Saturday the PLA Daily ran this article by Academy of Military Science National Defense Policy Centre researcher Wen Bing 温冰, arguing that evil forces were hoping to lure China into an irrational war over Huangyan Island.
As people in some countries [个别国家] manufacture disputes and intensify contradictions, what the provocateurs want to see most is China losing its rationality, going into war because of anger [因怒而战]. This in turn would cause an intense conflict between China and the US and create instability and sustained turmoil in the South China Sea region. They will then attempt to turn crisis into opportunity, and chaos into profit, to achieve their sinister objectives.
One has to wonder whether the evildoers described here mightn’t have included those in China trying to provoke war. The fact that the article has not been translated into English suggests that domestic warmongers may even have been the primary target.
Five days earlier Dai Xu, once again representing the China Energy Fund Committee, which this blog has suggested is a front for powerful forces in the PRC with a vested interest in war, had argued in the Huanqiu Shibao that yes, the US and the Philippines were hoping China would attack, but that China should give them what they want and attack anyway. Wen Bing’s piece looks like a direct counterattack against this, conspicuously using some of the arguments and even phrasings (e.g. 有理有利有节) that Dai Xu had used five days earlier to reach the opposite conclusion.
(Incidentally, in that article Dai was also representing another shady think-tank, the Hainan Institute for Maritime Security and Cooperation 海南海洋安全与合作研究院.)
But while Wen Bing’s article certainly got the attention of huge numbers online readers, among the 219,000+ participants in the comment thread at Phoenix, titled “Military paper: South Sea provocateurs hope China will go to war out of anger”, few appeared to be buying Wen Bing’s argument:
America looks for excuses for war, Russia will fight if it has any semblance of a reason to, China looks for reasons not to fight. [31,965 recommends]
We’re going to war because of anger? So do we not fight when our territory is invaded? [16,440]
According to this author’s view we train soldiers just to eat and shit, with this kind of person in there, the country is in danger. [13,135]
The east is red, the sun is rising, when will China have another Mao Zedong? He protected the domain for the people, he is the people’s patron saint. [12,031]
I strongly support the Philippines occupying the China’s territory, Huangyan Island! Support the government compromising and taking backward steps, giving in to the world, leading the Chinese people to be a turtle hiding away inside its shell. [6,981]
The thread which the above responses sat at the top of was heavily censored, with the 219,000+ participants somehow only producing only 600+ actual comments. The top comments therefore likely represent what the relevant authorities — particularly the State Council Information Office — want the Chinese people to be seen as saying.
As for why Chairman Mao got a gig this time, given how dangerous as his fans have been deemed to social stability, that is a question only the censors can answer. After all, we don’t know how many Mao-worshipping posts were deleted.
Over on the distinctly un-Maoist Sina Weibo, however, the weekend’s other big Huangyan sensation was going viral:
Anti-China demonstration initiator actually got rich in China: Philippines global demonstration movement leader Loida Nicolas Lewis (below-left in first photo) is none other than the CEO and Chairperson of the Beishun Group, a US-invested company operating in China. Making big money in China, whilst setting off global demonstrations in support of the Philippines’ seizure of Huangyan Island, she must be busier than a rat. Beishun food supermarkets have already expanded from Xiamen to Chengdu, Suzhou and Guangzhou. Forward this on, let everyone recognise and thoroughly boycott her!
This Weibo, which included the pictures, was forwarded more than 80,000 times after being sent on Friday evening by a Guangdong businessperson with a just-so-so following of 10,000. I don’t know if this user was the first to put it out on Weibo, but the story seems to have been a “scoop” from m4.cn (四月网, The 4th Media in English), a “youth ideology portal” set up by the young makers of anti-CNN.com in the wake of the 2008 western media furor.
M4 posted the story on Friday morning, it was going around Weibo by Friday evening, and on Sunday that it hit the mainstream media like the Chongqing Morning News 重庆晨报 and Legal System Evening News 法制晚报.
Each of the five mainstream portals had it in their front-page lead headlines on Sunday — presumably reflecting its delicious, witchhunting appeal. On QQ.com the latter became the second-most commented story of the week, with 254,000+ participants producing a huge 42,000+ individual comments. Comments calling for Lewis to be hunted down and executed were allowed to stay in place through Sunday. The whole thread has now been deleted by QQ, but that is not the case over at Phoenix, where the 219,000+ participant thread remains dominated by the following comment:
1. Blockade all of her businesses in China; 2. Thoroughly investigate all details about her, and let the world know; 3. Global hunt-and-kill, but first use the knives on her to let her know what becomes of those who oppose China. Do not under any circumstances underestimate this woman, she could easily be the flashpoint the leads to a war. [57,580 recommends]
Although the tacit permission of the government is necessary, several factors suggest that the widespread dissemination of this story is much more the result the Chinese online community’s own initiative than government promotion.
First, it began with m4.cn, a relatively obscure, and as far as i can tell independent, patriotic youth-run news portal. Second, it spread via Weibo, which the government can of course censor, but it cannot simply manufacture trends in discussion on there, as it can on the mainstream news portals via orders about content to be placed in the “most eye-catching position” 最醒目的位置 on the front page (see the China Digital Times’ ‘Ministry of Truth’ section for examples of this — i can’t wait to see the leaked directives from the Scarborough Shoal dispute period). And third, its treatment by the portals was inconsistent, with Tencent deleting a post that Phoenix was happy to leave at #1 with snowballing support.
There’s nothing mass media love more than a big expose, and there’s nothing riled-up media consumers love more than a big witchhunt. In this case it’s not the government, but the angry youth, who provided the media event; it’s not the government, but Weibo users, who catapulted it into the mass media’s attention; and not the government but the online readership who elevated it to mass talking-point.