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.
“Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!”: triumph, grief and human interest with the fisherfolk of TanmenPosted: June 13, 2012
This year the PRC media have published a succession of detailed stories on the plight of Chinese fisherfolk through the South China Sea disputes.
On February 22, for example, the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News 羊城晚报 published ‘More than 95% of licenced Chinese fishermen have withdrawn from the Spratlys, afraid of detention by foreign gunboats‘.
There was no joy in 2011 for Spratly fishing boat captain Chen Songhan 陈松汉 of Taishan in Guangdong Province. He said that harassment from foreign gunboats had led to greatly increasing costs, declining fisheries resources, and decreasing benefits. And on May 9 last year, Beihai (Guangxi) fisherman Li Rixi’s 李日喜 fishing boat was siezed by foreign gunboats, causing economic losses of 1.23 million RMB, and he told the Yangcheng Evening News he was still a long way from recovering his strength.
Following the Chinese fishing boats’ escape from Philippines authorities at the start of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in mid-April, Xinhua put out some rather more rousing stories of triumph. There were numerous interviews with the returnees, apparently all from Tanmen town in Qionghai City, Hainan Province, such as this one, for which a version is available in English here under the headline, ‘Chinese fishermen recall clash with Philippine navy‘.
In early May there emerged the tale of more Qionghainese fishermen who had come home to avoid a typhoon, then turned around the very next day and gone straight back to Scarborough Shoal to “participate in the standoff”. That story contained the rather unforgettable line, as one fisherman’s wife recalled hearing her husband saying:
Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!
This was splashed across the special total-coverage page in the May 4 edition of the Zhengzhou Evening News seen at the top. According to that story, it was originally taken from the Legal System Evening News 法制晚报.
Mid-May saw the return of Xu Detan 许德潭, the skipper of one of the Scarborough protagonist vessels, Qiong-Qionghai 09099, and who had featured prominently in Xinhua’s stories the previous month. This time he was telling CCTV that he’d just brought back a bumper haul of fish, and that it was all thanks to FLEC and the State Oceanic Administration’s China Maritime Surveillance force. According to the English version (here), Xu said:
Our boats are everywhere around the island, and we are afraid of nothing. The Chinese Marine Surveillance ships kept in contact with us around-the-clock.
Actually, Xu sort-of uttered words to that effect, but he didn’t name either of the agencies. Instead, their names were inserted by a CCTV editor as the subtitles in this frame show:
It was as though they were playing tag-team† in a WWF wrestling show. Just as the China-Philippines tensions started to diminish, who should pop up to disturb China’s peaceful claims? Why, “a certain neighbouring country”, of course.
On May 24 the Vietnamese held another press conference at which spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said that China had detained two Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracel Islands on May 16 (for some reason this VietnamNet report says the incident occurred in the Spratlys), and held the 14 crew until May 21. As soon as China officially advised Vietnam about the incident on May 21, according to spokesman Luong, the Vietnamese side lodged a strong diplomatic protest against the “severe violation of the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictions of Viet Nam”.
There are plenty of details in this English-language Vietnamese media report…
Vo Minh Quan, 42, the captain of QNg 50003TS boat, said the fishermen went to sea on May 2. Fourteen days later, at 9 am on May 16, a Chinese ship coded 306 suddenly appeared and seized the boat and the crew.
The foreign ship later captured the QNg 55003TS boat piloted by captain Tran The Anh and then escorted the two boats with all their crewmembers to Phu Lam [永兴, Woody] island for detention.
The Chinese authorities confiscated all fishing tools, maritime equipment, 2,000 liters of oil, five diving cylinders, and a large amount of sea products.
Total value of the seized items of both fishing boats is estimated at VND900 million (US$43,200). Quan said.
At 12 am on May 21, the Chinese captors released all fishermen and the QNg 50003TS but kept the other boat in detention.
….but i have failed to find anything at all in the Chinese media about the incident.
Just two days later, precisely the opposite was the case. The May 19 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao ran an exclusive story headlined ‘Three foreign gunboats pursue and harass Chinese fishing boats, rescued by Yuzheng 310‘, which doesn’t appear to have been reported in the international media. It’s dramatic enough (and strange enough) to translate in full:
From Huanqiu Shibao‘s specially-dispatched journalist in the South China Sea: On May 18, China’s Yuzheng 310 vessel successfully deterred three gunboats from a certain country from pursuing and harassing 追袭 five Chinese fishing boats, protecting more than 100 Chinese fisherfolk from financial loss and personal harm.
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), as PRC-Philippines tensions eased with the reopening of diplomatic dialogue, the emphasis of Chinese media was very much on the small size of the touted “anti-Chinese” protests in Manila. But they were positively huge compared with the protests in Beijing the same day.
Phoenix’s Manila correspondent described the scale of the Manila protests as being “far from the scale the Philippine side had previously said”. However, many other media, including the official CNS news agency, specifically contrasted the small gatherings with the PRC Foreign Ministry’s ominous warnings.
After noting the arrest of a protester in Manila who tried to burn the Chinese flag, the short CNS report also carried, in its second paragraph, the Philippines government’s comment that the protests were initiated by ordinary people and were not encouraged by the government. Other reports also emphasised the non-official (“民间”) nature of the protests, which also contrasted with the continuous official rhetoric accusing the Philippines government of whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment.
NetEase’s editors almost seemed to be implying that the government had overemphasised the threat posed by the protests. The top headline cluster on Friday ran:
Philippines people hold small-scale anti-China demonstrations
More journalists than demonstrators | Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag | CCTV report on “large-scale anti-China demonstrations” not proven correct
But the NetEase comment thread on “Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag” was full of wild rumours, stated as fact, of Chinese casualties in Manila — complete with shops torched and deaths in the dozens.
Today the little Pippos demonstrators torched the Chinese market! 18 people dead! The Chinese media is swindling people! [17,362 recommends]
Report from Manila, 11/5: Philippines anti-China forces rampage, burning Chinese shopping malls, killing at least 24 (delete this comment and I’ll kill 9 generations of your family!!) [14,412]
If it was an anti-American rally, “itching-to-death 痒死” [CCTV] would definitely say there were more than a million there. [5,618]
The third comment suggests why the top two comments were so popular, and why the Chinese government has to sometimes take drastic action to curb rumours: when people start really caring about an issue, one of their first instincts is to disbelieve whatever the official media says.
If the regime knew about these explosive rumours doing the rounds, however, it appears to have seen them as useful rather than harmful. Like the calls for human-flesh searches in previous days, they were not censored, and in fact they remain in place today, six days later.
But if the online-commenting public had been given carte blanche for their outrage, the same privileges certainly did not extend to the real-world public. At the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing, a handful of patriotic Beijing residents actually stared down the heavy policy presence to attempt to inform the Philippines that Huangyan Island belongs to China.
Their actions were barely reported by the Chinese media. A correspondent from China Radio International did make it down there, and found:
On North Xiushui Rd, where the Philippines embassy is, there were a certain number of police vehicles parked and four or five police officers on duty. A few men came and protested in front of the embassy. One male wearing a shirt with, “Protect Huangyan, diplay our country’s prestige,” written on it. He unfurled a banner with his fellows that read, “Huangyan is China’s historic territory, do not challenge China’s bottom line,” on one side and, “When one can restrain no more, one cannot keep restraint, 忍无可忍不会再忍” on the other.
Around 3.30 a male surnamed Li was preparing to protest when an embassy car drove in. Standing across from the main gate, he immediately pulled out and raised high a white paper sign with the slogan, “Love China, Love Huangyan,” written on it.
This report was certainly not widely publicised; it’s been deleted from the CRI website, and NetEase has done the same to its version. On Saturday morning 21cn posted a stub and the full article was posted on Phoenix, where it remains available, but it hasn’t been given any prominence at all judging by the mere 300 or so participants on its heavily-censored comments thread.
There is a certain logic in the general paucity of coverage — after all, the PRC media were all reporting on the lack of protesters in Manila. The few hundred who gathered in Manila were still roughly 100 times more numerous than their counterparts in Beijing. The CNR article even began with the observation that:
On the Huangyan Island issue the Philippines has incited its people’s emotions and encouraged its domestic and overseas populations to launch demonstrations aimed at China. But the Philippines’ actions have certainly not caused the Chinese masses any great worry, and there were definitely no large-scale gatherings at the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing to oppose its unjustifiable conduct, [just] sporadic protests by the masses.
It would probably have been more accurate to say that the Chinese government’s campaign to focus media attention and public anger on the issue, and its dire official warnings about large-scale anti-Chinese protests, have not caused large-scale gatherings.
With a leadership transition just around the corner it is unlikely that the regime would want to see any kind of street protest anywhere, least of all in Beijing. It could just be my skepticism about the degree to which Chinese people care about the South China Sea issue (for a fascinating individual case-study that vividly illustrates why, read the “Confessions of a patriot-used-to-be”), but surely the security forces must have been expecting a bit more than this feeble show of patriotism. Maybe most people who might have protested just knew better than to try in 2012. Photos found here.
That doesn’t mean the Chinese public, particularly the public when reading news and interacting online, did not or does not care about the Huangyan issue. I’m really just stating the obvious: that all the media attention and anger online has failed to translate into offline protest.
But the internet’s systems of collective expression amplify extreme voices, while at the same time its anonymity can also prompt people’s voices to become more extreme. The question i’m left with is: was the feebleness of this protest, in particular the fact that so few even tried to make their outrage heard, the result of government suppression, a reflection of Chinese people’s knowledge of the cycles of CCP politics, or is it just the result of not enough people actually caring?
It’s still early days, but my money would be on the latter. If my hunch is right, then the government will struggle to credibly play the audience-costs nationalism card on this issue because for that strategy to work, CCP China must convince its international adversaries that it genuinely beholden to public pressure. In the case of Scarborough Shoal, it has demonstrated just the opposite.
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”.