China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet EraPosted: June 9, 2014
Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:
China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era
Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 11 (June 4, 2014)
After the worst anti-China violence for 15 years took place in Vietnam this month, it took China’s propaganda authorities nearly two days to work out how the story should be handled publicly. However, this was not a simple information blackout. The 48-hour gap between the start of the riots and their eventual presentation to the country’s mass audiences exemplified some of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sophisticated techniques for managing information during fast-breaking foreign affairs incidents in the Internet era. Far from seizing on incidents at sea to demonstrate China’s strength to a domestic audience, the official line played down China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and emphasized Vietnamese efforts to stop the riots, effectively de-coupling the violence from the issue that sparked them. This indicated that, rather than trying to appease popular nationalism, China’s leaders were in fact reluctant to appear aggressive in front of their own people.
By framing the issue in this way, China’s media authorities cultivated a measured “rational patriotism” in support of the country’s territorial claims. In contrast to the 2012 Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, when Beijing appears to have encouraged nationalist outrage to increase its leverage in the dispute, during the recent incident the Party-state was determined to limit popular participation in the issue, thus maximizing its ability to control the escalation of the situation, a cornerstone of the high-level policy of “unifying” the defense of its maritime claims with the maintenance of regional stability (Shijie Zhishi [World Affairs], 2011).
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?
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 headlines including:
- ‘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 headline was:
Since i now speak for “America” (or is it that i am America?), it is high time i actually went there.
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 of 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.
“The headline speaks to the Chinese people’s heart!”: Zhong Sheng on Diaoyu patrols, gets a Phoenix twistPosted: October 10, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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. 
Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be beaten 
Vietnam cannot even feed itself. 
Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be hit 
Patriotism has one word: hit 
[We] must clearly distinguish enemies from friends 
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.
* It continues to sit there even now at 4.50am the next day
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.
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]
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: