China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new

China's Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

China’s Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.

The subject, in summary:

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.

Read the rest of this entry »


Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

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Latest Jamestown China Brief piece, with links to sources:

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Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

 By Andrew Chubb

The regular appearance in the Chinese media of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) figures calling for aggressive foreign policy causes controversy and confusion among foreign observers. The most sensational remarks usually are made by academics at PLA institutions. Foreign media routinely pick up sensational quotes from these military officers—such as Major General Luo Yuan’s repeated suggestion for declaring the Diaoyu Islands a Chinese military target range or Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong’s recent call for a blockade of Philippine outposts in the Spratly Islands (Beijing TV/Huanqiu Wang, May 27)—and attribute them to senior military leaders, as their ranks seem to suggest (New York Times, August 20, 2012; TIME, Februrary 20; Tea Leaf Nation, February 25; South China Morning Post, March 6; Reuters, March 17). Operational commanders, however, seldom comment in public on policy issues. Prominent foreign policy analyst Wang Jisi has publicly complained about “reckless statements, made with no official authorization” which had “created a great deal of confusion” (Asian Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2012). In April, recently-retired deputy military region commander Wang Hongguang wrote military pundits had “misled the audience” and caused “interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments” (Global Times, April 20). This two-part series assesses who these outspoken PLA officers represent and the implications of their hawkish statements through an evaluation of their backgrounds, affiliations and statements on their work.

Debate about belligerent public remarks from military personnel often surrounds the extent to which they might represent the voice of hawkish PLA constituencies, pressuring the leadership to adopt more aggressive policies. Some analysts tend to dismiss such bluster as largely irrelevant on the basis that military media pundits have no operational military authority, despite their high rank. Others, however, emphasize how continued outspokenness by military figures presupposes high-level party or military support, and that they thus give voice to behind-the-scenes political struggles. A third view proposes that the hawks are the voice of the PLA as an institution, pushing the military’s policy preferences [1]. Analysis of scattered biographical information on the most prominent hawkish PLA media commentators, plus comments regarding their own work, suggests each perspective is partially right. None is a general in a conventional military sense, yet they are far from irrelevant. Their backgrounds, affiliations and positions, however, indicate their role probably has more to do with the regime’s domestic and international propaganda work objectives than political debates.

Read the rest of this entry »


Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn toward Japan

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As seen on TV…well, not quite but almost

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

China Brief, Vol 13, Issue 4

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.

Read the rest of this entry »


“Evacuate all Chinese people from Japan”: warning shots in the East China Sea, or just media war?

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[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:

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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.

Read the rest of this entry »


How does an average Chinese migrant worker become a “nationalist” rioter?

Shenzhen rioter Li Zhiwei appears on CCTV

How does a normal migrant worker who doesn’t even know the national anthem suddenly become a nationalist rioter? One of the great things about the Chinese media is how they are willing and able to interview suspects under arrest, or in this case out on bail, to get some direct commentary on their own actions.

Henan migrant worker Li Zhiwei was one of the 20 most-wanted from the violent anti-Japanese protests in Shenzhen on September 16. According to his interview with CCTV, and the extraordinary China Youth Daily story that follows, he was the first to surrender.

This is one of many stories from the PRC official media in the past few days that appear to be aimed at lowering public animosity towards Japan, specifically:

  • The People’s Daily’s [ZH]October 23 edition running the news that the Japanese Coastguard rescued 64 Chinese sailors from their burning freighter on page 3, and the Global Times’ claim that “all netizens praised Japan’s actions”;
  • Global Times [ZH] and CCTV reports on October 22 emphasizing that Japanese Deputy PM Katsuya Okada had “recognized the sovereignty dispute over Diaoyu”, and the subsequent CCTV report on Okada having donated 100 million yen to the Wenchuan earthquake relief effort and had been labelled “China’s spokesman”;
  • A separate CCTV story on the same day explaining clearly the view that the right-wing Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara had created the whole dispute by moving to purchase three of the Diaoyu islands and build infrastructure on them;
  • Global Times [ZH] October 21 and 22 reports on the warm welcome for 2,200 Shanghai tourists who visited Japan on the weekend, which sparked an uproar (unintentionally?) from readers across PRC’s major news sites, which in turn prompted the official media’s most strident attack on anti-Japanese nationalism…
  • …’Forcing others to hate Japan carries a dangerous logic‘, published on a page 2 of the October 23 CYD, which brought together most of the above to defend the Shanghai tourists and forcefully attack anti-Japanese nationalism, going so far as to equate China’s “extreme anti-Japanese figures” with Japanese right wingers. The headline even sounds like a veiled attack on the patriotic education system that does so much to demonize Japan.

In humanizing Li Zhiwei as a downtrodden battler, simple and good-hearted, the CYD story shifts the blame for the violence primarily onto the social ills of exclusion, money-worship and corruption. But, in the context of the latter article on the above list, i think it can also be read as a warning of the dangers of deliberately inflaming public sentiment in China. Since it is the official mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League, could this be a sign that Hu Jintao did not entirely approve of how the PRC media handled, or were instructed to handle, the issue? [NB on reflection 24 hours later, another strong moral of this story seems to be that there was insufficient guidance of the protests by the authorities, given that people of low educational levels (and by implication low suzhi) were taking part.]

As a case study in the nature of “nationalist” violence in China, Li’s story really speaks for itself, but for the benefit of those who don’t have time to read it start-to-finish, in the translation below i have bolded what i found to be the crucial sections.

Read the rest of this entry »


The halting of the anti-Japan protests (and bagpipes in Beijing)

Last night i tweeted, ill-advisedly, that since the official media remain in saturation-coverage mode over Diaoyu, i thought the protests would continue today. I quickly found i was emphatically wrong.

I knew my hunch was mistaken even before i arrived at the embassy area this morning. A glance over some of the newspapers suggested a qualitative shift in the coverage, which i had missed last night: while the quantity of Diaoyu news remains overwhelming, the emphasis is now on good news much more than the ghastly deeds of the Japanese.

The Beijing News (pictured above), for example, led with “12 [Chinese] official boats patrolling at Diaoyu“, and put the “Two Japanese right-wingers, falsely claiming to be fishing, land on Diaoyu” on page 8. Likewise, the Huanqiu Shibao had “12 Chinese boats approach Diaoyu” (image not available online at present) , and i have failed to find the Japanese landing story anywhere in the paper.

This pattern echoed precisely what happened in the online news sector yesterday. The Japanese right-wing landing was a dominant headline (ie. large-font at the top) on all of the top five PRC news portals as at 4.30 yesterday afternoon — understandable given the story’s sensationally provocative nature as summed up in the text of the headlines, which all slapped the move with the “serious provocation” tag. But by 8.30pm the story had been relegated to the sub-dominant headlines (ie. small-font, still at the top) in favour of the presence of China’s government ships patrolling in Diaoyu waters, which at that point numbered eleven (it’s now up to 14).

When my buddy and i arrived at Yanshaqiao, the embassy area, we were greeted with the following text message from the PSB:

Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau alerts you: In recent days the broad masses have expressed their patriotic enthusiasm and wishes spontaneously, rationally and in an orderly way. Protest activities have now concluded, and the embassy area has returned to normal traffic conditions. It is hoped that everyone will express patriotic enthusiasm in other ways, will not come again to the embassy area to protest, and will cooperate with relevant authorities to jointly uphold good traffic and social order. Thankyou everyone for your understanding and support – Beijing City Public Security Bureau.

SMS text message from Beijing PSB, automatically sent out near Japanese embassy, September 19, 2012

It doesn’t get any clearer than this. The protests were acceptable, indeed laudable, to the authorities until today. Now they are banned.

Sure enough, when we reached the street corner i had to check the road sign to know whether i was in the same place as i had been the past few days. It was full of fast(ish)-moving traffic, and there was not a single five-starred red flag in sight.

We walked up towards the embassy, and quickly encountered a marching column of about 100 police. Beyond, individual police officers were stationed approximately 3 metres apart for the next 800 metres or so.The People’s Armed Police and barricades in front of the Japanese embassy remained, and in the carpark of the International Youth University opposite the embassy we found busloads of PSB officers waiting in reserve.

The scene at the Japanese embassy, approximately 9am, September 19, 2012

All up, there appeared to be approximately as many police as there had been over the previous days of thousands-strong protests. That is to say, there were probably less plain-clothes officers and roughly the same number of uniformed ones, whose function had changed from facilitation and crowd control to prevention of any sign of protest whatsoever. In 45 minutes of wandering up and down, in and out, literally the only Chinese flags i saw were those covering up the signs on the Japanese restaurants.

One of many Japanese (and even Korean) restaurants on Beijing’s Chaoyang Park Rd, diagonally opposite the Japanese embassy, September 19, 2012

To (hopefully, temporarily at least) end this dark chapter on a happier note, check out this 特牛 bagpipe-player, kilt and all, filmed during the massive demonstrations yesterday. William Wallace’s military spirit, or a fiercely patriotic Chinese Scot — who knows? Also the police presence.

Apologies for the appalling jerkiness of the video (i blame the police and their determination to keep everyone moving), but for me it would be worth copping that just to catch a glimpse of him:


“An issue of social stability”: the CCP’s Scarborough Shoal media blitz, Part II (May 10)

Yin Zhuo 尹卓 and Song Xiaojun 宋小军 recommend “violence” towards the Philippines on CCTV’s Huanqiu Shixian program, March 9, 2012

Whatever doubts i might have had regarding the effectiveness of the CCP’s campaign to focus Chinese people’s attention on the Scarborough Shoal standoff, they had disappeared by Thursday (May 10), when several Chinese friends here in Perth, Australia — whose usual attitude towards the South China Sea disputes ranges from tolerance-of-my-babblings to complete lack of interest — actively contacted me to say they thought China was about to go to war with the Philippines.

Thursday was probably the day the multimedia swell on Scarborough Shoal peaked, but the mechanics giving rise to it were in motion the evening before.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei had already taken the encouragement of public outrage to a new level on his Wednesday afternoon press conference when he stated that the Philippines’ behaviour had “triggered strong reaction and concerns from the Chinese people at home and abroad”.

Then CCTV News’ 10.30pm Huanqiu Shixian (World View) current affairs program hosted “special commentators” Song Xiaojun (宋小军) and Yin Zhuo (尹卓), who recommended violent action (暴力行动) in response to the Philippines’ alleged renaming of Huangyan as Panatag Shoal and plans to remove all signs of China’s presence. Said Yin:

Now if they use force to remove our sovereignty markers, that is taking violent action, and we have the right to take equivalent action.

As far as i can tell, both of these serious-sounding provocations by the Philippines are non-stories. First, the Philippines has not renamed Scarborough Shoal — it still officially refers the feature as Bajo de Masinloc (and has certainly never called it Huangyan Island). Second, as the Sohu photo tour translated here a couple of weeks ago clearly shows, there are no sovereignty markers on Huangyan for the Philippines to remove.

Late on May 9 the Huanqiu Shibaoreleased a report on Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin’s May 9 comment that he he had interpreted remarks made by Hillary Clinton during the 2+2 meeting on April 30 as indicating the US would protect the Philippines from any attack in the South China Sea. After being reposted on the People’s Daily’s website (with Gazmin wrongly referred to as “Foreign Minister” 外长), this became a prominent headline on the front pages of all 5 news portals on May 10.

Contrary to at least one western analyst’s claim, among all the inflammatory coverage there was actually little in the way of official criticism of the US — hardly surprising given Defense Minister Liang Guanglie was on an official visit Washington. In fact, the official media gave plenty of play to the idea that America had refused the Philippines’ requests to step in, an approach that might well have been intended to make Chinese military action appear more feasible.

The Phoenix online video site was particularly enthused, leading with “China meets opportunity to retake Huangyan Island: will China and Philippines go to war?”.

Phoenix Online Video lead story, May 10, 2012: China meets opportunity to retake Huangyan Island, will the Philippines and China go to war?

I frequently saw and heard the line that “the US is maintaining a neutral stance” on Chinese TV and radio on May 9 and 10, and the PLA Daily stated that “even [the Philippines'] backers are not convinced” of its claims. (Here are some English-language examples from Xinhua and the China Daily.) On May 10 NetEase chose to include “America refuses to take sides on Huangyan Island issue” on its front page, just below the main headline linking to Gazmin’s comments, “Philippines: US guarantees Philippines will not suffer any attack in the South China Sea“.

While Liang’s visit and the need to downplay the Philippines’ international backing probably dictated that the US connection had to be largely limited to online media, the offline media nonetheless had plenty of material to work with. And judging by the apparent injunction to promote Huangyan-related reports, they needed it.

The May 10 China Youth Daily‘s front page headlines included “Four points about the Huangyan Island incident” and “Philippines incites population’s emotions, seriously harming bilateral relations”. The Beijing Morning News had “Overseas Filipinos to hold anti-Chinese rally on May 11″ and “Hard to be optimistic on Huangyan Island incident: China claims to have made all preparations”.

China Youth Daily front page, May 10, 2012

Huangyan even made the front page of the apparently (i’ve never read it) entertainment-focused Beijing Star Daily (北京娱乐信报), which led with, “Philippine newspaper article says Huangyan Island indeed belongs to China”.

Many, possibly even a majority, of the regional papers had the issue on their front pages too, including the Southeastern Business Daily 东南商报, City Evening News 城市晚报, the Chutian Metropolitan News 楚天都市报, and the Chuncheng Evening News 春城晚报 (those examples were obtained just by glancing through the Bs and Cs on ABBao). Shandong’s Weifang Evening News (Shandong) had one of the more dramatic splashes. The yellow headline reads “Trampling over China’s bottom line, Philippines miscalculates”.

Weifang Evening News 《潍坊晚报》 (Shandong) front cover, May 10, 2012. Headline: “Trampling over China’s bottom line, Philippines miscalculates”

The People’s Daily had a page 3 commentary, synthesizing most of the recent official Chinese comments, talking up the Philippines’ provocations (including the apocryphal renaming and removal of sovereignty markers). But most importantly of all, the People’s Liberation Army Daily came to the party with a foreboding piece that called Scarborough Shoal “an issue of territorial integrity, national dignity and even social stability“. Social stability is of course official code for popular protest (or lack thereof), so the implication was that China could be forced to attack the Philippines because the Chinese people are so angry.

This article was publicised in the main headline clusters on the front pages of all the 5 news portals except NetEase (for some reason consistently the least sensationalistic over the past few weeks), and it became the most-read news story on Sina that day, as well as the most commented-on (rankings here). The top comments, predictably, called for military action. Phoenix’s thread, involved more participants (62,000+) but Sina‘s were slightly more interesting:

“If [China is] not a paper dragon, please retake all the claimed islands that the Philippines is occupying.” [495 supports]

“Not taking active hardline measures in response is just verbal kung-fu. Protest protest protest, territory  needs protecting, protests cannot possibly address the root of the problem. What is a great power? One that can steadfastly uphold sovereignty and territory, protect its people’s life and property security, and not be subject to encroachments.” [399]

” ‘We resolutely oppose! We strongly protest!’ —- is this a dragon or an insect, we common people can tell at a glance, the Philippines understands quite clearly too. China’s current situation has gotten to the point where it is being bullied, we have been bullied for 100 years by Western imperialist powers, now even the running dogs of imperialism can come into our backyard and bark their heads off. At a time when we think we’re strong and powerful, can yelling out a few ‘opposes’ and ‘protests’, as we’ve done for the past 30 years, really scare away these wild mongrels? Chairman Mao once said, even the poorest man has a dog-whacking stick; now we’re not poor,our whacking sticks are thicker and more numerous, so i don’t understand why we’re covered in bruises and bite marks. Are the dogs just too fierce, or are we too cowardly?” [351]

The latter comment was deleted sometime between Friday and today. Why? Hard to say, given its only difference with the comments elsewhere was that it was more entertaining and better-written. Actually that could be one possible explanation.

More seriously, though, one clue may be the general lack of “treasure the memory of Chairman Mao”-type comments in comment threads of late. They were absolutely dominant last year. If the portals have indeed received instructions to reduce Maoism in the public discourse on this issue, that would support Jeremy Goldkorn’s suggestion that the Scarborough Shoal media frenzy has been an attempt to shift public attention away from domestic politics and the Bo Xilai affair.

That explanation is quite compatible with the one repeatedly put forward here, namely that the leadership is promoting domestic expressions of outrage, including criticism of its own stance as weak, in order to improve its position at the international negotiating table……something about two birds, one stone……single arrow, pair of eagles……etc. The Chinese ruling party is good at that.


“A golden opportunity to use force”: mysterious China Energy Fund Committee attack-dog


UPDATE 6/10: Some interesting tidbits about Long Tao’s name 龙韬 here. Prof. June Dreyer points out that it refers to one of the Six Secret Teachings, which may make it a veiled call to cast aside officials who stand in the way of the suggested plan.

UPDATE 30/9: The Global Times has now posted an English version of Long Tao’s article. Possibly a response to the Japanese- Philippines “strategic partnership” and Japan’s further “wading” into the South China Sea dispute.

Tuesday’s Global Times carried an opinion piece titled ‘The present is a golden opportunity to use force in the South China Sea’. I thought the title would have just about said it all, and was therefore only going to offer some juicy excerpts, but as i read through it i found almost every sentence too good to leave out:

The internationalization of the South China Sea issue is perfectly clear, but it has not completely taken shape yet. The author believes now is a golden opportunity for China to coolly assess, grasp the opportunity, and take swift and definitive action.

At present every country is engaging in an arms race, procuring long-range maritime control weapons. Even Singapore, which is not part of the South China sea dispute, is preparing to introduce advanced stealth fighters. Australia and India’s military plans are in order to make world-class preparations, and Japan doesn’t want to be left behind either. America is energetically selling armaments with one hand and pouring petrol on the fire with the other, and at the same time is preparing to intervene militarily.

[. . .] One should not be afraid of small-scale wars, for they are a good way to release fighting potential. By fighting several small wars one can avoid a large war.

Speaking of war, we can look first at who should actually fear it. The South China Sea region has more than 1,000 oil and gas wells, but none of them belong to China. There are four airports in the Spratly Islands, but Mainland China does not have one. China has no other important economic installations. Leaving aside the issue of winning and losing, as soon as war commences the South China Sea will inevitably become a sea of fire. When those towering oil drilling platforms become flaming torches, who will be hurt the most? As soon as the fighting begins, all those Western oil and gas companies will inevitably withdraw, so who will lose the most? Read the rest of this entry »


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