A manic-depressive day in the Chinese internet media: Aquino’s threat, Vietnam’s law, and China’s Three Sands City

Chinese internet users dare to dream…of touristifying Woody Island (永兴岛, Dao Phu Lam). The news that the island would become the home of a prefecture-level city government was received with some excitement.

Scarborough Shoal was back in the headlines today (June 21), via a Huanqiu Shibao report on Aquino’s promise to redeploy the Philippines’ law enforcement ships there this weekend (if China’s remain there, which they will). It was a rough start, and the PRC’s media seas would get even darker before the gloom suddenly gave way to the shining light of China’s new Three Sands City 三沙市.

Philippines president threatens to redeploy ships‘ was the lead headline all day on 3 of the 5 major news portals. All but one had it among the large-font clusters that form the very top echelon of their front-page headlines, the exception being Netease. Every portal’s version of the headline contained the word “threatens”, with Netease once again the exception.

I’ve noticed before that Netease seems to be the least inclined to emphasise the South China Sea isSue. Maybe it’s to do with their target demographic and therefore their preferred company image (likely), the individual personality of its news editor/s (probable), or their board’s political preferences (unlikely but possible). There’s nothing conclusive on Alexa suggesting Netease’s audience is particularly different from its competitors’ in terms of age, gender or education, so perhaps it’s something to do with Netease’s gaming heritage.

Or maybe they just think the Chinese reading public has, by and large, had enough of the Huangyan Island story. They may be on to something there, because despite the heavy hype on the other four sites, it didn’t provoke any big discussion threads. The biggest one that i found was on Phoenix (only 26,000+ participants) where, sandwiched between the standard war-calls, a reader interestingly connected the South China Sea issue to the recent issues with westerners in China:

The Philippines’ provocations of China already represent a substantial potential threat: why have there recently been so many laowai flagrantly provoking [us] within China’s borders, on trains, on the streets, on the subway? The Chinese people need to reflect on this. [4,263 recommends]

One person who found Aquino’s statements interesting (without linking them to sleazy national scandals) was Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, the Director of the PLA Navy’s Informationisation 信息化 Expert Committee. Admiral Yin declared during an “exchange with netizens” on the People’s Daily website that Aquino’s “threat” is part of a plan to help coordinate the US return to Asia whilst attacking domestic anti-American and pro-Arroyo forces in the Philippines.

CNS (the other Xinhua) then put out a second story from Admiral Yin’s internet chat, emphasising his suggestion that China’s law enforcement should from now on “raise the force” used against “Filipino vessels that hang around in the lagoon and don’t leave”.

However, Sina and QQ news chose to base their headlines for that story on Yin’s assertion that the ‘Philippines has not yet returned 24 Chinese fishing boats it is holding‘. Yin appeared to be raising the issue of the dinghies seized in the Spratly Islands last October. That incident provoked a minor flurry of online anger and government rhetoric back then, but has barely been discussed since.

Then suddenly, mid-afternoon, reports of a new and dramatic provocation from Vietnam arrived to knock Aquino’s threat off the top of the headlines, and goad the online population out of their apathy: ‘Vietnam passes legislation claiming ownership of Paracels and Spratlys, China expresses strong protest‘.

Of course, it was the perceived weakness of the Foreign Ministry’s “strong protest” that proved the most provocative, and the story rapidly rose to become the second-biggest comment thread of the week on Tencent’s news portal, with 135,000+ participants.

Among Netease’s 36,000+ participants and at Sina, where 28,000+ participants was enough to make it the top news thread of the day, many of the top comments claimed that Vietnam’s latest muscular move was the result of the PRC government’s mishandling of the Scarborough Shoal, which, the commenters asserted, had been interpreted all over the world as a show of Chinese weakness.

Yet the Vietnam story lasted less than an hour as the leading online headline before it too was bumped off by a terse, one-paragraph announcement that swung the mood once again: ‘China establishes Three Sands City to administer Xisha, Zhongsha, Nansha archipelagos‘.

Readers seem to have been genuinely heartened and even excited by this news. I watched the reactions to this administrative adjustment roll in on Weibo, where thousands of users were re-forwarding the news with positive remarks and playful added comments about becoming a resident of the new city, about going there as a tourist, and about what a great job the Three Sands City chengguan are going to do on the occupiers.

“Three Sands City” is currently sitting in 8th spot on the most-searched list; a search for the same brings up more than 100,000 results; and the topic page ‘Our country establishes Three Sands City in the South Sea‘ already lists almost 50,000 weibos.

The top comments on Netease’s 50,000+ strong comment thread on the story ‘China establishes Three Sands City to administer Xisha, Zhongsha, Nansha archipelagos‘ mirrored Weibo almost exactly:

The only city mayor with no fat to skim off, tragic for the leaders [7512 dings]

There definitely must be a chengguan team [6507]

Can I migrate? [5924]

“China” has at last done something worth the people praising! [4114]

Set up a South China Sea Special Administrative Region (SAR) and a regional military post! [3969]

It would normally be suspicious to see comments in praise of anything the government does in the South China Sea, short of taking all the islands back with zero loss of life and perhaps a few trillion in indemnities. Even then there would be people complaining that the government was weak on the “Vietnamese monkeys” and “Filipino maids”. But as mentioned above, i watched the same comments appear before my eyes live on Weibo earlier, so i actually have no doubt that they are real. The dry humour that many of the wiser readers approach the South China Sea issue with remains, but in place of the usual pained and confused outbursts there are cheesy-grins and winky emoticons.

There is surely some interesting mass-psychology here; i’m obviously a complete hack, but there seems to be a sense of relief that the government has actually made a move. But more than that, it’s a cool move, one that has opened up the Chinese people’s imaginations, prompting some to dream of the future. The name Three Sands 三沙 has got a great ring to it in both Chinese and English. In an instant this piece of news shifted the PRC internet’s South China Sea discourse away from its usual themes of wounded apathy, victimhood, rivalry, humiliation, power lust, inadequacy, violation, isolation and the daily defence of the indefensible.

A non-rigged, positive thread in favour of the government’s actions on the South China Sea….? Strange, yes, but strangely fitting on this manic-depressive day in the Chinese internet media.


“Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoff

Yuzheng-310 – the PRC Fisheries Law Enforcement Command ship at the centre of a wave of domestic criticism of the Chinese government

It’s one of the great puzzles of Chinese foreign policy in the 21st century, and particularly when it comes to the PRC’s behaviour in the South China Sea: which of China’s actions are co-ordinated, intentional, directed by the central leadership – and which are the result of individual agencies, political factions, and other actors in competition for resources or policy supremacy?

The International Crisis Group released a report on Monday this week emphasising the former, the “lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies” leading to an incoherent policy on the South China Sea. The same day, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College published a piece that argued China’s “small-stick diplomacy” strategy in the dispute – principally the use of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies – is likely to succeed.

One of the problems is there are very limited ways of working out what’s actually going on, and one of the principal windows we do have is the Chinese mass media, including online media like news portals, the content of which we know to be shaped by the directives of the State Council Information Office and Ministry(s) of Propaganda. However, the Chinese mass media also operate to a large degree on commercial premises, so it’s a constant challenge to work out whether their coverage is best explained by sensationalism or political direction.

Watching the PRC’s media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff over the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of bewildering. In one particularly strange example this week, the China Youth Daily, online news portals, and decision-makers combined to create a veritable firestorm of outrage against the government – all based on what appear to be false reporting.

Read the rest of this entry »


“Their bottom line is Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road”: reactions to the Philippines Navy – Chinese fishing boat incident

[Updated October 25 - see bottom of post].

From the Global Times this morning: Philippine warship rams Chinese fishing boat in South China Sea, Filipino Dept of Defense says apology already issued to China.

An incident has occurred between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. On October 18, a Filipino gunboat rammed a large Chinese fishing boat that was towing 25 smaller boats near Liyue [Reed] Bank.

In fact, the Filipino boat didn’t ram the large Chinese fishing boat, but rather became entangled [en] in – read: deliberately cut – the ropes of the 25 small boats, and confiscated them. No one was hurt, but China is now demanding the unconditional return of the 25 boats.

The story had actually been reported yesterday evening by the GT and Phoenix on the basis of foreign agency reports, but at that point they were using the less sensational term “collide with” (pengzhuang 碰撞) rather than “ram” (zhuangji 撞击) in the headline.

A pattern seems to be emerging in the recent treatment of South China Sea-related stories. Phoenix News is again paying the most attention, currently running the incident in the #1 lead headline story position, with Netease and Sina also running it on their front pages, but much further down, among the hundreds of normal-sized links.

Netease certainly seems to be into the spirit of sensationalism, running with the juicy “Filipino patrol boat rams Chinese fishing boat” [zh] line. The story may well have been further up among the headlines earlier in the day, because it is on Netease that the biggest and most interesting discussion [zh] has taken place so far, with nearly 2000 comments and more than 65,000 participants – and the latter figure has shot up by about 15,000 in just the last hour.

This is good to see. The Philippines’ shameless-whore nature has come out – I’ll ram you on purpose, then play completely innocent. Accidental? This is a case of testing China’s bottom line – if you don’t retaliate this time, I’ll go further next time. Foreign Ministry, let’s see how you react this time, you couldn’t possibly just fart and let it go, could you? [11,020]

Do the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense have anything to say? [7007]

Our Foreign Ministry is currently deciding whether to express regret, condemn or strongly condemn, based on the degree of fermentation of interest from netizens . . . no, that won’t do, just send China’s magical, brave and utterly incomparable chengguan over to discuss the matter with the Philippines . . . you know [6424]

Fuck, hurry up and denounce, I strongly demand that they be denounced to death, fuck [6205]

[ . . . ]

Actually we could make some “tiny” incidents happen, then issue “sincere” apologies, but we don’t have the guts [3075]

[ . . . ]

Calling ourselves a righteous country, being bullied everywhere, apologizing is just lip-service, compulsory, weak and cowardly Chinese nation, when will you step up? [4319]

Actually, the Philippines is now denying [en] that it even apologized:

“No apologies were necessary and none was given,” the Foreign Affairs chief [Alberto del Rosario] said in a statement.

After going through the top-rated comments in the above Netease discussion, I looked at the most recent comments as they flowed in at a rate of several per minute, and in came this sardonic exchange:

Commenter 1 (Heilongjiang):  The deliberate ramming just one side of things – isn’t it more important that the Philippines Navy was violating China’s territorial waters?

Commenter 2 (Sichuan): No, their [Beijing leaders'] bottom line is Beijing’s Second Ring Road.

Oh dear. I actually feel sorry for Jiang Yu and the Foreign Ministry.

=========

UPDATE 25/10: Over the weekend NetEase managed to stir-fry the issue even further by translating a Filipino newspaper article taunting Chinese diplomacy for being a “toothless tiger” [zh], discussion of which prompted 4840 comments, with a staggering 275,000 participants weighing in. The top comments all expressed agreement with the Filipino article, along a spectrum from bitter to hearty (“The Filipino media has given voice to exactly what ordinary Chinese people are thinking”).

Although the story’s source is specified as Xinhuanet, the source link is to the page’s own URL, and I can find no trace of it on any other news sites, including Xinhua’s. This raises the question as to what hidden agendas NetEase might have for pushing the story where its competitors have not, but without in-depth research into the company’s ownership and control structure i’d be getting out of my depth there.


“Use warnings, not protests”

Early last month, President Aquino returned from his state visit to China with a swag of new Chinese investment deals and promptly set about consolidating the Philippines’ presence in the South China Sea with a new radar station and patrol boats. (Regarding the reaction in China’s media and internet, see here.)

Late last month the Philippines followed up by staging a couple of serious diplomatic moves. The first of these was arranging a meeting in Manila of legal experts from ASEAN countries to discuss a proposal to clearly demarcate what areas are in dispute and what aren’t. From China’s perspective, this meant a proposal to clearly divide the South China Sea among ASEAN countries, in addition to forming a united front against China.*

The AFP called it the Philippines’ “plan to blunt China’s claims” (“to blunt China” in the headline).

MANILA — The Philippines on Thursday sought backing from its Southeast Asian neighbours for its plan to blunt China’s claims over disputed areas of the South China Sea and ease tensions.

Vice President Jejomar Binay made the appeal at a meeting of maritime law experts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where he alleged foreign intrusions continued in Philippine seawaters.

The meeting did rate a mention on the ASEAN calendar so it was to some extent officially endorsed, but it was buried among dozens of other events and there was no ASEAN news announcement. The VOA loved it (though fairly of course). But no-one seems to have considered it a big deal besides the Philippines and the Western media. Oh, yes, and the Chinese media. . .

The Global Times reported the AFP story the following day, probably as quickly as a translation of a foreign news story could pass the censors, and it quickly became the lead international story on the radio news updates from CNR’s huanqiu zixun and was reprinted on websites and in newspapers around the country.

The 56,000-strong comments thread in response to the GT story on Phoenix was, as might be expected, entertainingly sardonic:

Summon the President and give him some more money. [12,083]

Where are our forceful evict-and-demolish teams [qiang chai bu, gangs of thugs hired by property developers]? This is their chance to repay the country!!!!!!! [5745]

Where have China’s “urban management” officers [the widely-feared chengguan], police†, officials, law enforcement agencies gone? [3046]

Why don’t we study Russia? Use airplanes and big artillery to drive away the occupiers [2914]

Tell him off. Tell him off fiercely. [2115]

When it comes to issues of national territory, you want to use warnings, not protests. And clearly explain that there will only be one warning. [1952]

Top comments on Sina, meanwhile, referenced the “need” for a Mao Zedong, and the UK’s example in the 1982 Falklands War.

Next, Aquino travelled to Tokyo and put out a joint communique with Japan’s PM Yoshihiko Noda, announcing that relations had moved from friendship to “strategic partnership”, with extra defence collaboration on “regional and global issues of mutual concern and interest”. It was then that Long Tao busted out with his latest hit Global Times article calling for war in the South China Sea.

Immediately afterwards, a meeting was held between Japanese defence officials and representatives from ASEAN. Once again, it may have been overplayed by the media and the host nation, but it was notable for Japanese Vice Minister of Defense Kimito Nakae’s comment that the Japan-ASEAN relationship had “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” regarding regional security issues. The People’s Daily’s Tokyo Bureau picked up on this very quickly, and on September 28 major Chinese media ran the story that Vice Minister Kimito Nakae had claimed the meeting of Japanese and ASEAN defence officials had reached a consensus on increased Japanese participation in the South China Sea and had specifically talked about measures to deal with China’s “increasingly energetic activities”. Somehow, there were only 3 comments on Phoenix and 2 on NetEase – which can only mean two things: either comments were deliberately switched off, or no-one on China’s most popular websites was the slightest bit interested in a story titled “Japan and ASEAN reach agreement to strengthen cooperation in the South China Sea”….

===

* Presumably no “experts” from China were invited to the “ASEAN Maritime Legal Experts’ Meeting”. China opposes multilateral negotiations and doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty because as far as it is concerned nothing is in dispute because everything belongs to it. But China likes to keep things ambiguous, if not for cultural reasons (as Kissinger would claim), then at least because time is on its side. If that wasn’t the case, it would at the very least clarify the exact course of the 9-dashed line.

† Very surprising to see this escape the censors and become one of the top comments.


Malaysian ship breaks down chasing Chinese frigate?

The Global Times last week picked up an interesting story from the Malaysian New Straits Times newspaper:

Malaysian patrol boat almost sinks while chasing Chinese-flagged vessel

According to a September 19 report in the New Straits Times, the Malaysian Navy patrol boat KD Pari sustained a dislodged shaft and nearly sank while pursuing a Chinese-flagged vessel near Danwan Reef 弹丸礁 in the Spratly Islands.

The report claimed that when water started filling the KD Pari’s engine room it was forced to abandon its pursuit of “a foreign vessel violating Malaysia’s territorial waters”.

The story itself is a very significant one, and it has still not appeared anywhere in the international media. (Another Malaysian newspaper has a brief report here.)

But the Global Times‘ treatment of the translation is even more interesting: for a start, the reference to a Chinese vessel that the Global Times emphasizes was actually just a single sentence in the original story.

RMN chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar said the crew of the Fast Attack Craft-Gun (FAC-G) vessel KD Pari heard a ‘loud bang’ soon after it had departed the island westward to pursue a China-flagged vessel, believed to be a frigate, spotted at Gugusan Semarang Peninjau in the South China Sea at 2.53pm.

This can probably be attributed to the GT’s translators/editors needing to find a local angle to attract Chinese readers’ interest.

But the Global Times‘ direct quote referring to “a foreign vessel violating Malaysia’s territorial waters” is simply nowhere to be found. Malaysia has not accused China of violating its territorial waters.

This too may be explained by the commercial imperative to play up the conflict and create a dramatic crisis narrative of China being encroached upon from all sides. But putting such menacing words into other countries’ mouths like this seems very irresponsible for a People’s Daily-owned, Beijing-based newspaper.

Perhaps the Global Times editors thought the fact that the Malaysian patrol boat had broken down would be entertaining or encouraging for readers. It did indeed capture attention from the Chinese public, in fact it was the fourth-most discussed news story on Phoenix last week, but the focus was certainly not on the Malaysian Navy’s shortcomings. Here are the top-rated comments from the Phoenix discussion, involving 81,854 participants and 1,819 comments:

[China gets] chased in its own territory, yet still comes away self-satisfied. [16593 recommends]

The good thing is that the Chinese ship was fast, otherwise it might have been the one to sink. [9599]

[. . .]

A great country gets chased down in its own traditional waters by a little country’s little ship…ironic! [6351]

First time I’ve heard of being chased away by another country’s navy in our own territorial waters! How can we face all those ancestors! [4788]

Use our country’s aircraft carrier to lure the Malaysians to Sanya [in Hainan Province], then let the Sanya chengguan destroy them! [3373]

So who would stand to benefit from blowing up a story like this? It probably doesn’t do much for hardliners advocating a stronger stance in the South China Sea, since the idea of yet another Southeast Asian country opposing China’s presence might make military measures seem even more futile. But stories about Chinese ships being chased out of the South China Sea by “little” neighbouring countries obviously does nothing for the cause of foreign policy moderates either.

What is clear is that by confirming the strong domestic narrative of China being encroached upon from all sides, stories like these feed a public perception that the government in Beijing is weak, and is even allowing China to be violated, bullied and humiliated. At a time when China is supposed to be ascending to a position of greatness in the world, it is perfectly understandable if many Chinese people find this hard to accept.

==

Update 29/11: An “alternative explanation” for this incident that appeared on a Chinese forum and has attracted a moderate amount of interest, and much agreement. The “netizens” claim, or rather, wish, that the KD Pari was actually sunk by the Chinese warship, but that Malaysia was too embarrassed to admit this, so it claimed instead that the boat had….simply failed.


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