“War is good, it reshuffles the cards”: Qiu Zhenhai’s taxi ride

China Anti-Japan Protests - Beijing

Instability threat: Anti-Japan protesters in Beijing, September 2012

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.

Teargas battle in Shenzhen, 2012

Teargas in Shenzhen, 2012


“Public opinion warfare to smear military commentators”: my plot to contain China exposed

China.com - Are PLA hawks just propaganda?

China.com special topic: Are the PLA’s hawkish statements just propaganda?

In my first foray into mainland China’s propaganda system since winning a “second-class prize” in a television language competition heavily rigged in my favour, the previous post (written for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief) was picked up by mainland online media on Tuesday, and run under the headlines, ‘America claims PLA hawkish faction mostly propaganda‘ (Global Times Online & People’s Daily Online), ‘U.S. media: China’s hawks and doves a carefully orchestrated show‘ (NetEase), and ‘U.S. media examine PLA hawkish faction: Luo, Dai etc. may have high-level support‘ (Sina).

I apologize in advance for the infelicitousness of this post, but i am a student and this is a blog, so can’t take these things too seriously ;)

My personal favourite was:

America: Dai Xu more provocative than Luo Yuan, gets some kind of authorization!‘ (China.com). 

Since i now speak for “America” (or is it that i am America?), it is high time i actually went there.

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First Luo Yuan, now Liu Yuan: from one “public opinion incident” to another

Liu Yuan

Liu Yuan giving his March 14 interview

...not to be confused with Luo Yuan

…not to be confused with Luo Yuan

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. [1]

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.

1990年,伊拉克在科威特边境集结军队时,美大使向萨达姆表示,“不持立场”,7月31日美助理国务卿在众院听证会上肯定“没有义务促使我们使用我们的军队”,结果,伊拉克在确信美不会介入的情况下,入侵科威特,于是,美获得了大量出兵的理由。由此可见,海湾战争,美国不仅玩的是高技术,还玩战略误导

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“The headline speaks to the Chinese people’s heart!”: Zhong Sheng on Diaoyu patrols, gets a Phoenix twist

‘China needs to stand its ground like this’ by “Zhong Sheng”, Renmin Ribao, October 8, 2012, p.3. Phoenix and Sina changed the headline to ‘People’s Daily: if the territory cannot even be protected, what significance does China’s rapid development have?’, misrepresenting the article as an attack on the policy status quo.

Monday’s “Zhong Sheng” article in the Renmin Ribao set out to tell the world that the People’s Republic’s fisheries and surveillance ships are going to continue their patrols around the Diaoyu Islands.

The basic point was simple (official English translation):

Not only will the ship fleet of the Chinese Fishery Administration continue to stand its ground, but the Chinese Marine Surveillance ships will also stand their ground.

Beginning October 1, Chinese government boats have entered the 12nm territorial zone twice (on October 2 and 3) and patrolled in the 12nm “contiguous zone” every day since then. Zhong Sheng offered an explanation of sorts for the timing:

China needs to stand its ground in this manner. Otherwise, China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate right and interest could never be truly maintained, and Chinese people wouldn’t be able to celebrate the festive season securely and happily.

So the patrols recorded each day from October 1 to 7 were probably aimed in part at giving China’s holidaying families a sense that their government taking the requisite action to protect the homeland during National Day Golden Week. The Japanese media were of course crucial to the effectiveness of this.(†)

“Zhong Sheng” repeatedly claimed that the patrols were regularized and would not go away, but in so doing, effectively admitted that China had changed the status quo on the waters out there: “Japan is not accustomed to this . . . Japan must learn to adapt to these regular actions of China.” In fact, the writer(s) even went one step further in this direction, nominating the specific date for one significant change in PRC policy:

The Chinese Fishery Administration has normalized the fishery-protection patrol in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands and its subsidiary islands since as early as 2010.

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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:


“Hit’em”: APEC peacemaker Hu Jintao gets red carpet treatment from portal censors

Truong Tan Sang and Hu Jintao’s meeting at APEC 2012

Hu Jintao met with his Vietnamese counterpart yesterday at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, and made a rare official comment on the South China Sea disputes. From the China Daily’s report:

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Chinese President Hu Jintao said China and Vietnam should keep cool-headed and show restraint on the South China Sea issue.

. . .

Hu urged the two countries to adhere to bilateral negotiations and political solutions, and stay on the path of joint development.

Hu said the two sides should keep cool-headed and show restraint, and avoid taking any unilateral measure that would magnify, complicate or internationalize the dispute, in order not to let the South China Sea issue affect East Asian cooperation or regional stability.

These cool-headed, restrained, joint-developing, dispute-shelving remarks were all over the PRC official media yesterday (Friday September 7), from when i first heard it on China National Radio, to the CNS report and the Foreign Ministry’s website.

The online mass media soon followed suit, with all the five top news portals except Netease having the story in their #1 or #2 headline slots by 12.25pm, and keeping them near the top until late in the evening.

Not surprisingly, given that “Hu Jintao” is a sensitive search term on the PRC internet, the comment threads were heavily censored. Phoenix’s has 25,000+ participants but only 92 comments (representing a KimLove Credibility Ratio well above 250:1), the latest of which was posted at exactly 20.00 last night:

Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s long and broad vision, national defence needs fundamental strengthening, diplomatic solutions are the official policy, war is an action of last resort.

in reply to

Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s proposition, uphold the unwavering Sino-Vietnamese friendship, even if Vietnam occupies even more Chinese territory we will still go on with the friendship, if worst comes to worst we’ll give them Hainan too, could they really still be unsatisfied with that? If so, how about Hong Kong, and Guangdong province?

Being the last comment the website’s editors have decided to allow through, this earnest defence of Hu has stayed in place at the top of the page — but only those who choose to click the “newest comments” tab will see it.

By default, it’s the top comments, not the latest comments, that appear on readers’ screens, and they have to scroll a long way down through those, to the 14th comment to be precise, before they find anything remotely complimentary about Chairman Hu’s remarks — and even that appears to be posted by a foreigner.

Over at Sina, where as of 4am Saturday it remains the #3 story on the front page, the involvement of the censors is even more blatant: 1700-odd “participants” and only eight comments. In fact, that means i can translate the entire “conversation”. Here it is as it appears for readers (ie. from latest to earliest):

First strike Japan, then Vietnam, and then the Philippines, don’t talk about it just do it [3 supports]

Patriotism and protecting the country rely on actual power. [56]

Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be beaten [160]

Vietnam cannot even feed itself. [117]

Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be hit [222]

Hit’em [129]

Patriotism has one word: hit [246]

[We] must clearly distinguish enemies from friends [446]

The pattern on the thread attached to the same story on Tencent’s news portal also appears to be the same as those on Phoenix and Sina: calls for war, sardonic criticism of Hu’s policy, and KIRs high enough to suggest most comments are being either deleted or hidden from view.

Given the importance of Chairmen Hu and Truong’s meeting, the high profile given to this story by all the PRC media, the fact that the story sat* prominently among the leading headlines on the portals, and the very obvious signs of rigging, it’s hard to see how the comments could represent anything other than exactly what the censors had decided the netizens should be seen to be saying.. The question in my mind is, who were the censors?

By default, of course, we must assume that the censors of news comment threads are always individual employees of PRC internet companies, in this case Sina and Phoenix. There’s presumably a management/command chain above them that leads up to some decision-making group within the company, though i have no idea of a.) how far above the “grass-roots” censors they are; b.) how far below the company’s top management they are; or c.) how they connect with the various relevant government bodies — e.g. MIIT, SCIO, Central & provincial Propaganda Depts.

It really seems a stretch to impute that the party or government would put out an instruction to major websites telling them to only allow comments calling for war with Vietnam on the day that the President calls for cooperation with Vietnam during a headline bilateral meeting at a major international forum.

Especially in CCP China, where the same president’s name cannot be searched on the country’s most vibrant social network.

Results for “Hu Jintao” not displayed due to relevant laws and regulations (02:17 September 8, 2o12)

* It continues to sit there even now at 4.50am the next day


Internet censors step in to protect Tang Jiaxuan?

Former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan speaking at a conference organised by CASS to mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of Sino-Japanese relations, August 28, 2012

Former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan made a foray into the PRC media last week on the Diaoyu issue, and the censors on mainland China’s most visited news portals seem to have been actively shaping online comment threads on his remarks.

Last Wednesday (29/8) Tang spoke at a CASS-organised forum to mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of Sino-Japanese relations. Tang was Foreign Minister from 1998 to 2003 and a State Councilor from 2003 to 2008, and is now the Chairman of the Sino-Japanese Friendship Association.

According to the People’s Daily Online’s English-language report published two days later:

Tang pointed out that the root cause lies in that some forces in Japan do not want to see the smooth development of China-Japan relations, and they attempt to stir up opposition from the public through the issue of Diaoyu Islands and gain political capital. “If they succeeded, the issue of the Diaoyu Islands will be seriously out of control and lead to endless troubles in the future.”

Tang stressed that China always insists on the consistent and unwavering position and proposition. The Diaoyu Islands and the affiliated islands have been China’s territory since ancient times, which is irrefutable whether in history or in the legal principle. Any unilateral measures taken by Japan are illegal, invalid and in vain. They cannot change the fact that the sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands belongs to China and shake the will of Chinese people to safeguard their sovereign rights.

This report continued in the above vein, with Tang quoted blaming Japan entirely for the incidents. It was a translation of a Chinese-language report, whose title translates as ‘Tang Jiaxuan talks Diaoyu: if Japan is determined to avoid the issue, it will back itself into a dead end‘. Interestingly, Google searches (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) indicates the story has probably not been republished on any of the biggest five mainland news sites, although Sina’s Hong Kong site has it here. It wasn’t that Tang was denied publicity for his interventions on the Diaoyu issue though — it was just that domestic audience was given a very different version of what he said.

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“Strongly demand to send one of the Politburo Standing Committee to Diaoyu”

Diaoyu activists on board Qifeng-2 at Hong Kong

 

UPDATE FRI PM: the detainees are being released in two batches, with 7 sent by plane to Hong Kong and the other 7, including the captain and bosun, told to sail their boat back. The activist group says a second landing attempt “cannot be ruled out” (see Twitter for details and sources).

China and Japan are now engaged in their second nasty diplomatic confrontation in the past 2 years, over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. There were anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday, and the issue is dominating China’s entire newsmediascape. But it’s the Chinese government that is copping most of the wrath of online opinion.

On Sunday (August 12) a group of mostly middle-aged-and-older activists set out from Hong Kong on a rusty old tub called the Qifeng-2, to proclaim China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands by landing on one of them and raising the Chinese flag, or flags as it turned out.

Even at that early stage domestic Chinese internet opinion was focusing on the PRC government. The Huanqiu Shibao got the activists a great deal of online media attention by picking up their public request for a PLA Naval escort for the Qifeng-2 in the (inevitable) event that they were intercepted by Japanese Coastguard patrols.

Top comments on the portals were divided between expressions of support for the Hong Kong activists, and criticism of the government. Five out of the top ten comments on the 184,000-strong Tencent thread, ‘Activists from two sides [of the Straits] and three regions plan to proclaim Diaoyu sovereignty, Japan orders interception‘ directly challenged the government to match the activists’ patriotism:

Strongly demand the Central Committee of the CCP send at one of the Politburo Standing Committee or a ministerial-level official to Diaoyu to declare sovereignty! If you agree please ‘ding’!” [28212 dings]

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A whiff of race-traitorhood: Sohu readers eviscerate a Global Times editorial

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), on the front cover of Renwu Zhoukan (Personalities Weekly)

The PRC’s internet users frequently serve us with reminders of just how much scepticism we should have regarding the purported market imperatives of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), published by the People’s Daily.

In February 2010, according to a Wiki-leaked cable written by Jon Huntsman, a Huanqiu Shibao editor told a political officer from the US embassy that their newspaper was “market-driven” and therefore had to “reflect public opinion in order to make money”.

The same day, a Beijing University academic told embassy staff that “the Global Times’ more ‘hawkish’ editorial slant [is] ‘consistent with the demands of the readers and normal for a market-driven newspaper.’ “

This view seems to be shared by some liberal Chinese intellectuals, such as Michael Anti, who has been quoted as saying “its position is to make money — nationalism is Global Times’ positioning in the market”.

Susan Shirk, a highly influential US analyst of PRC foreign policy, even claims that Chinese officials somehow see the Huanqiu Shibao as representative of popular opinion, and that they read it to understand the population’s views on hot-button issues. At least, that is what Shirk’s sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tell her, and she raises no questions as to this information’s veracity.

Other analysts, however, like those interviewed in this excellent Asia Sentinel article, suggest at least four different domestic and international purposes that Huanqiu may serve — none of them involving monetary profit:

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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.


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