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:
“Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoffPosted: April 26, 2012
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.
On the morning of July 20, 2011 it was announced that ASEAN and China had reaffirmed their commitment to abide by the 2002 code of conduct.
The official news release from Xinhua, reposted immediately by Phoenix Online that afternoon, was titled China and ASEAN agree on implementing the ‘Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea’. Predictably it was airy and light on detail, and the response to the story on Phoenix online was an overwhelming demand for more specific information:
“Hottest comments” from 33,884 participants/227 comments as at July 26, 2011, 12.20 p.m. BJ:
aloros (Huanggang, Hebei): I strongly demand the main content of the ‘Declaration’ be made public. The Chinese people have a right to information. [8881 recommends]
曹新华 Cao Xinhua* (Dalian, Liaoning): I strongly demand to see the content of the declaration. [3384 recommends]
wangyi3695555 (Guangdong): What are the specific contents of the declaration? [2467 recommends]
预备123123 (Luzhou, Sichuan): The contents should be made public. [1941 recommends]
as636789 (Wuxi, Jiangsu): Does the South China Sea belong to China? If so, why are we discussing it with others? [1853 recommends]
weizhaochuan (Shunde, Foshan, Guangdong): “We only need not attack for now. China is getting strong. When America falls into its next crisis, China will actually control the South China Sea.” People who think like this are just unloved dreamers!!!!! If you say something does that make it come true? You’ll fall into crisis before they do! [825 recommends]
* Possible pun as it sounds like “fuck Xinhua”, but also a relatively common surname and first name.
However, if July 20 was looking like a day of decreased South Sea tensions, five Filipino MPs and the Global Times had other ideas. Just over an hour after Xinhua’s announcement of the breakthrough agreement with ASEAN came the following:
Zhong Weidong (Global Times Online): A few days ago, five Filipino MPs shrilly claimed that they would “visit” Zhongye Island in the South China Sea. On July 20 local time, they carried out their plan to set foot on the island. They claimed Zhongye Island was “Filipino territory” and raised a new Philippines flag, and encouraged local residents to start calling the surrounding waters the “West Philippine Sea”.
“Hottest comments” on Phoenix online from 41,373 participants/877 comments as at 26/7/11 1.30pm BJ:
South Sea Summer 南海之夏 (Hangzhou, Zhejiang): Countless negotiations, countless protests, countless stern [statments], and no-one has ever paid heed. This time we get it: no negotiation, no protest and no sternness. Then we won’t be a joke to everyone. [4284 recommends]
oldsoldier2000 (Shenyang, Liaoning): Enraged! China’s government and military, why aren’t you doing anything? [2673 recommends]
Tuolikushui 脱离苦水 (Xuancheng, Anhui): A bunch of old men leaning on their walking sticks have squandered the property of the ancestors. These days we don’t even dare fart. What face do we have left on this earth? [2048 recommends]
wzm73123 (Zhangzhou, Fujian): I don’t know what the Chinese government has done about the South China Sea besides protest!!! Get a dose of reality!!! The Spratly Islands are being lost one after another, when can we end this state of affairs? [1767 recommends]
efang_michael (Beijing): Quoting background information from the bottom of the news story, ” Zhongye Island. . . second largest island in the Spratlys . . . named after a ship that received sovereignty over the Spratly Islands on behalf of the KMT government in 1946 . . . occupied by the Philippines since 1971, it now has a garrison, airport, shops, power plant etc, and forms the command centre for the Philippines’ rule of the Spratlys.” Reading this, seeing the Filipino servants’ [菲佣] military planes hovering over the motherland’s territory, the rage in my heart will burn for ages, what oh what oh what is wrong with our motherland???? [1684 recommends]
IFXDD (Chengdu, Sichuan): A day of national humiliation. I will remember 2011-7-20. 
x090909 (Shenyang, Liaoning): China cannot sit and ignore this! The people of China are watching! The world’s Chinese people are watching! The whole world is watching! 
haiying222 (Hangzhou, Zhejiang): If it doesn’t affect the basic interests of interest groups, the country’s weaponry is just playthings, whatever, just let them keep screwing. 
sxxwli525 (Heze, Shandong): China’s military is a bunch of soft eggs. 
. . .
万里青山 (Tianjin): There’s nothing that can be done. The common people are worried, the elites in the capital are not. 
The message could not be clearer: for many Chinese people this is nothing less than a national humiliation, a collective loss of national face. Meanwhile the old men of the corrupt government rest on their walking sticks. The comment that the military are “soft eggs” appears to imply that they should be disobeying the weak civilian leadership and taking matters into their own hands. The Chinese government often cops international criticism for claiming that this or that country has “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, but these comments illustrate the high degree to which many Chinese people are emotionally invested in the state’s continuing upward fortunes on the “international stage”.