The introduction to Phoenix TV host and international affairs commentator Qiu Zhenhai’s book, excerpted in Southern Weekend a couple of weeks back, reprises an important issue for everyone studying nationalism in China: to what extent should we really understand the phenomena that get labelled “Chinese nationalism” in those terms?
Qiu describes riding with a taxi driver who told him he’s longing for a war over the South China Sea or Diaoyu Islands.
“What is good about war? It could leave us broken and destitute.” I decided to have some fun with the driver.
“War is good, it reshuffles the cards. Otherwise, people like me will be driving taxis until we’re 80.” His frankness was startling, and I suddenly felt a pang of seriousness.
I decided to keep goading him. “War is really not fun. With no war, you might still be able to drive a taxi; as soon as war came, you wouldn’t only not be able to drive a taxi, you might have to go to the front line and lose your life.”
“If I lose my life, I lose my life. I’m not like those people who own property or companies. I’m even less like the corrupt officials who have riches they can steal. I am a proletarian, with nothing to care about. These days I don’t see any hope, it’s better to just take a gamble.” He was getting more and more forthright.
His answers made me feel heavy and serious. I didn’t feel the need to provoke him any more.
But what really left me lost for words was his next sentence: “I tell you, these days in China, people who think this way like me, there are a lot of us among the lower levels of society.”
At this point the issue was clear: I don’t denounce this taxi driver’s patriotic emotions, but was his enthusiasm for war really out of love for his country? Rather than expressing a patriotic emotion, I would say he was actually more venting his anxiety over his personal fate, and perhaps even about the state of China’s politics.
How many of the expressions of Chinese desire for war over remote uninhabited islands have less to do with avenging “national humiliation” or reclaiming “ancestral territory” than with a desire for something, anything, to shake Chinese society up?
The violence of the 2012 riots over the Diaoyu nationalisation provided many other indications of domestic socio-economic causes behind what appeared on the surface as “nationalist” fervour. In one case, a migrant worker named Li Zhiwei, who had never taken part in a demonstration before and who had forgotten the words to the national anthem, ended up leading the protest chants and then smashed a police riot van. In-depth interviews with Li Zhiwei after his release from detention revealed a heartbreaking backstory of self-abasement and social exclusion. His wasn’t an isolated case. As Zhu Huaxin of the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Office wrote in Caixin in late 2012:
As the suspects [of smashing during the anti-Japan protests] have appeared in court, it has become clear that the perpetrators were largely second generation rural migrants or second generation urban poor. These are groups that lie on the poverty line and struggle for recognition in society.
…This second generation of rural migrants longs to truly assimilate into urban life, but they are being shut out, leaving them to feel trapped between the city and the countryside. Their increasing struggle to get by in the cities only serves to intensify the sense that they have been deprived of their rights. Their rootless social status has made them more susceptible to a desire to overthrow the existing social order. Crucially they know how to use the Internet to release the frustration of their daily lives and to voice their demands.
Indeed, if the extremities of China’s periodic outpourings of anti-foreign anger — often the most prominent aspects in foreign perceptions — are largely the venting of the desperation from China’s underclass, then it wouldn’t be surprising if the violent nationalist rhetoric so prominent in online forums is also an outlet for this too. As a PLA officer told Susan Shirk several years ago:
“the internet is an outlet for people to express themselves. If you didn’t have it, you would have extreme action instead. It’s a way to relieve tension, but it also can arouse the feelings of a large group of people and put pressure on the government to do something.” (Shirk 2007, Fragile Superpower, p.103)
So, what bearing would these demographic indicators have for the Chinese state’s attitude towards the threat of such “nationalist” disharmony, either in the streets or online? Would the CCP have reason to take into account the views of such groups as they develop their foreign policy?
In the case of people like Qiu Zhenhai’s taxi driver, the desire for war over the disputed islands may not be directly borne of what might be termed “deep” nationalism, that is, principles regarding the makeup of the nation and how that should be realised. Instead, war — any war — appears more as a course of action that could lead to a brighter future for himself. Of course, judging by the material in the “Patriotic Education” campaign it instituted after almost losing power in 1989, as well as the ongoing ideological acceptability of the glorification of anti-Japan violence, and war-talk in centrally-controlled media, the CCP would clearly prefer that such people’s imaginings of a better future involve war rather than (counter-)revolution.
Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to assume the urban underclass is very much on the CCP’s radar as a threat to “social stability”, and intuitively, being a threat to social stability should give a group a certain degree of power. During the Great Depression last century this may have helped usher in the Nazis in Germany and the militarists in Japan. But in China today much depends on the CCP state’s approach to managing that threat, in particular balancing accommodation and suppression.
On the side of accommodation, there’s little doubt the Party’s top leadership would like to alleviate the inequality and lack of social mobility that create these feelings of desperation among the working class. However, even if the implicit desire behind outpourings of “unstable” nationalist behaviour is a fairer society, something that most Chinese probably share in principle, there is at little sign of an intellectual basis upon which these disaffected groups could rally support from other sections of Mainland society. My survey research is so far suggesting the broad base of urban Chinese thought (or feeling) on maritime disputes may be more rational, less warlike and more amenable to state influence than generally assumed. And China’s intense class consciousness, reflected in the disdain with which many urban Chinese people speak of migrant workers, means the state could quite possibly crush any proletarian-nationalist “instability” with the support of the expanding middle classes.
Intellectuals and students have constituencies that changed the destiny of China several times last century through mobilisations based on nationalist principles (e.g. 1912, 1919, 1935). The rallying of the masses of workers and peasants around the CCP in the leadup to 1949 was arguably a nationalist awakening too, albeit led by a Leninist party. But could today’s dislocated urban proletariat be an agent of history? The negative response of both the Chinese government and society to the “instability” in 2012 suggests they’re more likely to be the target of suppression than appeasement when they weigh in on nationalist issues like territorial disputes.
As always, i’d appreciate any readers’ help in untangling these issues.
Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou, one of China’s top foreign policy scholars, did an interview for the excellent new Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast last month (Part 1 and Part 2), covering a very broad sweep of China’s emerging foreign policy, regional strategy, territorial disputes, global role, and bilateral relations with the US.
His main points are noted below, starting with regional strategy and China’s maritime territorial disputes. I’ve just done this as an exercise to try to better grasp the significance of what Wang says; for most people it’s probably better to just go listen to the podcast. The italicized blockquote bits are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing.
Xi’s task: a “soft landing” for the South China Sea dispute
To those people who subscribe to this blog via email, thankyou and i’m sorry — you guys always miss out on various additions and clarifications (e.g. headings, signpost & summary sentences) to the shoddy initial versions i post. If you’re interested in the topics but find my chaotic writing confusing, i’d always recommend waiting a few hours and then viewing via the web, rather than email.
If it wasn’t clear, the point of yesterday’s typically unwieldy post was actually quite simple: Luo Yuan, and the other “hawks”, are probably in the game of military political work, rather than policy competition.
With impeccable timing, Luo Yuan has provided a lovely example to illustrate this. [UPDATE JULY 8: Not really an example at all, it turns out.]
On Thursday, only hours before AK Antony arrived in Beijing for the first visit by an Indian Defense Minister for seven years, Luo held a press briefing and told India to be “very cautious in what it does and what it says.” [UPDATE: The briefing was not about India, and Luo only commented on India when asked by a journalist to do so. I have been told Luo made no attempt to raise the topic of India. Thus, the working hypothesis this piece was written under -- that this was a carefully timed piece of strategic communication aimed at India -- is invalid. It was almost certainly just a coincidence that Luo commented on India just before the Defense Minister's visit. However, this doesn't diminish the likelihood that Luo Yuan is in the business of political communication, only that this particular action was targeted at India.]
As usual, I should be doing other things, but i couldn’t let this pass into the shadows: a chat session between Major-General (Retd) Luo Yuan and netizens from Huanqiu Wang (Global Times Website) in which Luo says the PRC’s debates between hawkish and dovish factions are “mixture of truth and deceit, real and fake”.
An English-language summary of the exchange was published on Chinascope in May, but that excluded many interesting parts, including, crucially, the ending. The more i read through the original, in fact, the more it seemed that just about everything in the article was pertinent.
Luo Yuan’s hopes for the masses
It starts almost exactly where i left off in this previous piece, discussing the strong market appeal of the PLA’s “hawkish” academic corps. The Huanqiu transcript claims to be a “actual record” of the chat, though the perfect, formal language the netizens allegedly used indicates that they were carefully vetted and edited. With questions prefaced by lines like, “Our country is currently situated in a period of complicated external circumstances,” we might legitimately wonder whether there were any netizens involved in the production of the questions at all.
Huanqiu netizen: China has always practiced peaceful coexistence, but in recent years our country has faced challenges everywhere in upholding territorial sovereignty. A significant number of the Chinese masses appeal for the coming of a “Flying General” from the poem line, “But when the Flying General is looking after the Dragon City / No barbarian horseman may cross the Yin Mountains.“ May I please ask, General Luo, how do you view these kinds of appeals?
“Flying General” refers to Li Guang 李广, the early Han Dynasty commander known for striking terror into the hearts of the Xiongnu raiders to the northwest. This raises a basic tension in China’s contemporary nationalist identity, between peaceful coexistence and merciless vengefulness and exclusion. Chairman Mao, of course, explained this away with his famous 1939 dictum, “If others do not assault me, I will not assault them; if others assault me, I will certainly assault them,” (人不犯我我不犯人，人若犯我我必犯人). Perhaps not surprisingly, that phrase became a slogan for destroying all kinds of real and fabricated enemies during Mao’s reign.
So, how does Luo Yuan view the masses’ alleged desire for a messianic “Flying General” figure to fight those fearsome Filipino raiders?
[I spent hours on this post, then WordPress kindly lost it without a trace, hence this is a bit out-of-date, sorry]
The April 20 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) carried an article by recently-retired PLA Lieutenant-General Wang Hongguang, directly criticizing the Chinese media’s hawkish military commentators.
The article is brief — indeed so brief that the obligatory preface declaring support for the pundits’ patriotic mission does not even run to a full sentence:
In recent years, military affairs experts have frequently appeared on TV and in all kinds of publications, with the positive effect of strengthening the masses’ national defense awareness and arousing patriotism, but it cannot be denied that some have said off-key things, things that have misled the audience and been irresponsible.
Lt-Gen Wang, who now serves as Vice President of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, made it quite clear that by “military affairs experts” he was referring to fellow PLA academics, particularly Zhang Zhaozhong, Luo Yuan, and of course Dai Xu.
It’s unusual to hear a PLA academic criticize his comrades in public; even more so for someone of such high rank. But most remarkable was Lt-Gen Wang’s claim that PLA academics’ war talk is “interfering” with the CCP-PLA leadership’s decision-making, citing the specific example of Sino-Japanese relations:
Some experts have inappropriately made comparisons of China and Japan’s military strength, claiming “China and Japan will inevitably go to war”, and that this “would not significantly affect our period of strategic opportunity”, [thus] inciting public sentiment and causing some interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments.
Wang Hongguang is in a position to know. Until recently he was Deputy Commander of the PLA’s Nanjing Military Region.
Over the past few weeks i’ve counted five instances of PLA General Liu Yuan publicly warning against military conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. If this puzzled the SCMP’s seasoned reporters, who described Liu as “hawkish” in a story quoting him saying, “The friendship between people in China and Japan is everlasting,” it was positively shocking for many the Chinese internet’s e-nationalists. 
Actual serving General Liu Yuan is not to be confused with retired academic “Major-General” Luo Yuan (i’ll continue to put his rank in quotes to distinguish them), who was dumped from the CPPCC this month for being “too outspoken”.
That rationale was a bit ironic given he too has been oddly conciliatory on the Diaoyu issue of late. Not only did “Major-General” Luo categorically refute a Japanese media report that he had called for Tokyo to be bombed, he also seemed to deny he had ever suggested establishing a military presence on Diaoyu. And in one of his earliest Weibos, Luo raised a historical episode that seemed to imply that the US could secretly be trying to fool China into giving it a rationale for military intervention over Diaoyu:
In 1990, as Iraq massed military forces on the Kuwait border, the US ambassador told Saddam, “We do not take a position.” On July 31, US Assistant Secretary of State affirmed that “there is no duty compelling us to use our military”. As a result Iraq invaded Kuwait, under the belief that the US would not intervene, whereupon the US gained a great number of rationales for sending troops. From this we can see, the US wields not only high technology, but also strategic deception.
This post was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog:
Between January 10 and 19 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida paid formal bilateral visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia: seven countries in the space of 10 days. The diplomatic blitz illustrates the intersection of the East and South China Sea disputes, and the impetus this has given to Japan’s policy of deepening regional engagement since the early 2000s.
Six of Abe and Kishida’s seven destination countries were ASEAN member states, and three of them were parties to the South China Sea disputes. In fact, Taiwan aside, the only non-PRC South China Sea claimant state that Japan’s leaders did not visit was Malaysia, which continues to quietly extract hydrocarbons and develop tourism in the disputed area with little hindrance, thanks to its steadfast determination to avoid antagonizing Beijing.
Abe had actually wanted Washington to be his first destination after taking office, in line with his publicly stated intention to strengthen ties with the US, but Barack Obama was too busy to host a January summit. The hasty arrangement of Abe’s jaunt through Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia — he set out on January 16, only nine days after being told Obama’s schedule was full – seems to suggest receptiveness to Japan’s advances in major ASEAN capitals.
Not surprisingly, the Philippines and Vietnam were the most openly enthusiastic about the Japanese leaders’ visits. Kishida arrived in Manila on January 9, exactly one month after Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Western media the Philippines would “very much” welcome a rearmed Japan free from pacifist constitutional constraints. This time Del Rosario took the opportunity to denounce the PRC’s South China Sea policy in probably the strongest terms yet seen from a serving minister, telling reporters after the meeting that the China was engaging in “very threatening” behaviour: “We do have this threat and this threat is shared by many countries not just by Japan.”
If the rhetoric sounded highly-strung, it was almost matched by the two countries’ actual actions. Del Rosario said Kishida had brought with him an offer of 10 brand-new patrol boats for the Philippines Coast Guard, later confirmed to be supplied under Japan’s Official Development Aid program. To put that in context, the Philippines Coast Guard only has 15 ships currently in service, plus 5 on order from France, so Japan is single-handedly increasing the PCG’s ship numbers by more than 30%.
Apologies to anyone who may have visited in hope of new material in the past few weeks. This year I need to write a PhD dissertation so posts will be even more sporadic than usual. There are a number of unfinished ones in the pipeline that I really hope to get around to completing at some point, and I will try to also post some of the summary translations of significant PRC media articles and comment threads that I normally keep to myself.
What follows is a piece I wrote for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief which came out last Friday: Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn. This version here has the addition of links to the sources at the end.
Also, since there are no comments on the Jamestown website, I encourage anyone who wants to discuss to leave comments here on this post.
Thank you for tuning in and making this blog such a temptation to write on.
Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn Towards Japan
February 15, 2013
On February 5, Japanese Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori told the world that a Chinese Navy frigate had pointed “something like fire-control radar” at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer some 100-150 kilometers north of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands on January 30. He said the same may have happened to a MSDF helicopter on January 19, though this remained unverified (Daily Yomiuri, February 7; Sydney Morning Herald, February 7).
This marked the first direct involvement of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships in the ongoing confrontations around the islands since Japan’s government purchased three of them from a private Japanese owner on September 10 last year. Accordingly, much reportage and analysis has characterized this as part of an ongoing series of escalatory Chinese actions in the East China Sea. Yet the radar incidents ran counter to a distinctly conciliatory trend since mid-January in China’s official rhetoric, diplomatic action, media discourse and even maritime activities.
[Updated 16 Jan 3.45pm BST]
On Tuesday afternoon the Chinese online media, led by Huanqiu Wang (Global Times Net), started reporting, “Japan official explicitly states for first time that warning shots will be fired at Chinese planes“.
HQW’s reporter Wang Huan 王欢 quoted the Asahi Shimbun website quoting Defense Minister Onodera, when asked about warning shots, replying that “any country would make this response if its airspace was intruded upon”.
Onodera’s comment may well have been coaxed out of him by reporters looking for a juicy headline, as it comes across as a contradiction of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s comment last week as reported by CNS (the other Xinhua) as reported by CNS that there were no plans for firing warning shots.
According to the Chinese internet media headlines that have relayed the story, Suga “denied” 否认 plans to fire warning shots, but now Onodera has “explicitly confirmed” 明确表态 that they will occur.
The news that Japan “will fire warning shots” was still the top splash on HQW’s website more than 12 hours later:
Whether Onodera’s statement has been reported accurately or not, the result is that the Diaoyu ball game now rests with the PRC, and the party-state is playing on a big-time court with a packed house looking on.