China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era

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Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:

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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.[1]

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,[2] 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).

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China-Vietnam clash in the Paracels: history still rhyming in the Internet era?

Vietnamese diplomats are saying Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided today in the disputed Paracel Islands, where China has stationed the massive oil and gas drilling platform HYSY-981. The incident may be in some ways unprecedented as the first time China has attempted to drill for hydrocarbons in a disputed area of the South China Sea. But it also resonates with the past in some surprising ways, from the PRC’s initiation of the incident, to Vietnam’s response, and even the information environment facing the two sides.

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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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“Do not let patriotism become a G-string for violence”: China Youth Daily

China Youth Daily 中国青年报 front page, August 20, 2012

China Youth Daily, August 20, 2012, p.1

Cherish patriotic fervour, sternly punish violent smashing 呵护爱国热情 严惩打砸暴行

Cao Lin 曹林

—– SORRY FOR THE UNREADABLE UNDERLINING YESTERDAY, MOUSEOVER TRANSLATIONS ARE NOW IN EFFECT, THANKS ONCE AGAIN DANWEI.COM —-

[. . .] On the morning of the 19th of August, there were gatherings of different sizes in more than 10 cities including Beijing, Jinan, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou.

Xinhua journalists reported that in these cities the police were present at all the mass gatherings to maintain order, and the protest marches were on the whole peaceful. However, from numerous eyewitness descriptions, there were some places where extremely incautious and irrational behaviour occurred. Some people received some ulterior-motivated incitement, and smashed their compatriots’ Japanese cars. It was very unsightly.

{“Boycott Japanese goods” slogans are fine, displaying a clear mind, but smashing compatriots’ cars and ruining private property is “clearly stupid, seriously harming social order, the city’s image, and China’s image.”}

Several days ago a netizen somewhere in Sichuan sent a letter to local officials expressing their “concern about upcoming anti-Japanese rallies” in light of their deleterious effects last time. The local officials replied, thanking them for the message, and saying that their concern was not without reason. In expressing anti-Japanese patriotism, [the officials said], some people had rushed onto the streets, blocking the way for Chinese people, smashing Chinese people’s cars and shops and harming their own compatriots. The result was helpful to Japan, and this kind of stupid thing cannot happen again.

[. . .] These stupid acts are not aiguo but haiguo. They will never attract praise and can only make real patriots feel ashamed.

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Scarborough Shoal on Sina Weibo: deleted posts and mildly misleading graphs

Image attached to Wang Wei‘s 王巍 satirical weibo on the Scarborough Shoal standoff

On Friday, May 11, noticing the disconnection between the outrageous outrage raging in the media and the lack of action in the streets, a media consultant called Shenzhen’s Old Cui 深圳老崔 made some enquiries with a friend in the police, which he then reported back to his 60,000-odd followers on Sina Weibo.

His post read as follows:

I just talked with a PSB pal, and asked him why the government wouldn’t approve a demonstration by the people against the Philippines government. He said, you’re tapped in the head, as soon as you have anything resembling a demonstration the slogans will change to “down with corrupt officials”, and who’s going to clean that up — the sergeant?

This weibo was reposted more than 11,000 times in the 13 hours before it was deleted. But although 11,000 reposts was impressive, Old Cui’s effort wasn’t quite as viral as another weibo that linked to footage of CCTV host He Jia’s now-famous slip-up a few days earlier, in which she stated twice that the Philippines was part of China’s historic territory. The latter was reposted more than 15,000 times in the same period of time, despite the fact that its originator had less than 1,000 followers.

Two hilarious takes on the standoff summed the smart, worldly and urbane spirit of Sina Weibo’s opinion leaders. On May 10, a day when the #1 Sina Weibo topic was Dragon TV 东方卫视 journalist Zhang Fan’s 张帆 superhuman, gonzo-patriotic mission to “re-plant” the PRC flag on Scarborough Shoal’s rock, weibo superstar Zuoyeben 作业本 described the motley crew China would be sending over to kick the Philippines out for good:

Word is, our country is organising a crack force to go and liberate Huangyan, an ever-victorious force of tigers and wolves. Advance party: Weibo Navy [commenters paid by PR companies]. Assault team: China’s city management forces [城管, famed for brutality and unreasonableness]. Canine division: one Kong, one Wu and one Sima [referring to rabid nationalists Kong Qingdong, Wu Fatian and Sima Nan]. Party branch: the Fifty-Cent Party. Bomb disposal: Chinese forceful eviction teams. Medic: none. Logistical supply team: none. Oh, and the flagship that will take this army there: Fang Zhouzi [方舟子 "Son-of-a-boat" Fang, known for quixotic attempts at debunking].

Zuoyeben has more than 2.9 million followers, and the post appears to have been in circulation for eight days before finally being deleted on May 18.

Wang Wei 王巍, another weibo heavyweight with 1.4 million followers, has brazenly mocked non-combatant army officers with high military ranks, including Major-General Song Zuying 宋祖英 of the PLA’s song and dance troupe, and Major-General Li Shuangjiang 李双江, singer of red songs (and disgraced-by-association father of a violent young whippersnapper). Wang’s post was forwarded more than 9,000 times, but the censors have apparently decided to leave it in place, complete with the image at the top.

I’ve collected a few graphs from Sina Weibo on the topic of Scarborough Shoal. The first one, generated on May 18, illustrates the same pattern observed in relation to the five news portals that i generally concentrate on here (generally to the detriment of everything else) — a steep rise on May 9-10 as people started entertaining the possibility that China might actually take military action over Scarborough Shoal, a plateau over the weekend as inflammatory stories kept coming, followed by a gradual loss of interest when the crisis started showing signs of being alleviated.

This suggests once again that the “wave” that came ashore in different areas of China’s media — from the centrally-controlled mouthpieces to semi-commercialised provincial media and commercially-oriented/state-compromised online news providers — successfully penetrated the much more user-directed discourse on Weibo.

黄岩岛 topic on Sina Weibo, May 9-18 (taken May 18, 12:18am)

They’re slightly misleading, these graphs. To start with, the Y-axis doesn’t start at zero, meaning the trend lines are exaggerated somewhat, though it’s not grossly distorted — the shape is still pretty much accurate. The discussion didn’t cease when the graph hit the bottom — it just went down to, well, “3,283”…

3,283 what? Are the figures on these graphs actually referring to the overall number of weibo sent? The number forwarded? The number of comments? The number of searches? Or is it some kind of composite index involving some or all of the above?

If anyone happens to know the answer do please let me know in the comments.

This graph was taken about 18 hours after the one above:

黄岩岛 topic on Sina Weibo, May 9-18 (taken May 18, 6.56pm)

This time May 16 is shown as a spike and May 17 as a decline. The figures are completely different, the reason being that the points on the graph represent the figure (i’ll just refer to it as the “discussion factor”) for the 24 hours leading up to that point in time. The first graph was generated close to midnight, so it actually shows the trend in terms of calendar days. The second one was captured just before 7pm, so it shows 6pm-6pm cycles.

The first graph shows a “discussion factor” of about 3,000 for May 15, midnight to midnight, and the second shows the same figure as being above 12,500 between 18.00 on May 15 and 18.00 on May 16. So discussion on the topic of Scarborough Shoal was actually reignited on May 16, rather than May 17 as the first graph seems to suggest.

A third graph, with 7pm as the reference point, appears to further isolate the time of the spike in Huangyan discussion:

黄岩岛 topic on Sina Weibo, May 12-21 (taken May 21, 7.52pm)

This indicates the “discussion factor”, supposedly formed over 24 hours, rose from 12,500 or so at 6pm to more than 18,500 at 7pm. So did something happen between 6 and 7 o’clock on May 16? Well if it did, then Sina isn’t revealing what it was, because according to the “Advanced Search” function there were only 2,328 Huangyan-related results in total during that time, so my best guess would be that the graphs depict the numbers of keyword searches. Once again, please leave any suggestions in the comments.

In any case, they do provide an indication of the general level of interest towards the issue among weibo users. Even then, however, the varied scales of the graphs can result in them obscure trends rather than illustrating them. Like, for example, my final graph of the Huangyan Island 黄岩岛 topic, taken on May 28:

黄岩岛 topic on Sina Weibo, May 19-28 (taken May 28, 7.25pm)

Although it looks pretty much the same as the others three graphs, there’s a huge difference in the scale of this one. If this line were on any of the other graphs it would be scudding along the bottom. The graph obscures the most important trend in the period it purports to illustrate: the decline in enthusiasm and interest in the issue, with the weibo public leading the way.


“There are cocoons growing in my ears!”: Hong Lei and Huang Shanchun’s responses to warmongering ‘netizens’

Guangdong Military Region commissar Huang Shanchun 黄善春 meets “netizens”, May 14, 2012

Two weeks ago, with the state-inspired media wave receding, a timely fishing ban arriving to diffuse tensions, and China’s economic leverage and superior law-enforcement capabilities combining to put it on top in the dispute over Scarborough Shoal, the Foreign Ministry had a message for the world: the PRC authorities will continue to ignore public opinion on the South China Sea.

Only problem was, the way the message was delivered probably made it clearer, and definitely louder, for domestic audiences than foreign.

On Tuesday May 15, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spokesman Hong Lei “responded” 回应 to some of the online public advocacy of a military solution to the Huangyan Island issue. The Ministry’s website documents the following exchange [EN|ZH]:

Journalist: Some netizens have advocated the use of military means to resolve the Huangyan Island issue. What is your response to this?

Hong Lei: The Chinese government’s determination to uphold territorial sovereignty over Huangyan Island is firm. At the same time, we are working to resolve the current situation over Huangyan Island via diplomatic consultation.

Hong didn’t actually address the issue of the “netizens'” advocacy of war at all — his answer just restated the official Chinese position that the PRC is committed to resolving the crisis through diplomacy. In fact, so little did Hong Lei say, and so widespread the reporting of it, it might even be (over-)interpreted as an application of the Taoist doctrine of “acting without acting” 为无为.

After all, it was the journalist’s question, rather than the spokesman’s answer, that created the media story.

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“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.


“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.

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Kim Jong-il death: Phoenix exposes intense Chinese censorship…accidentally?

The Chinese media is currently flooded with reports emphasising the grief of the North Korean people at the death of their “dear leader”.

Comments are turned off on all the big five news websites except Phoenix and Sina, where the Chinese online news-reading community are purportedly also grief-stricken for the loss of North Korea’s great anti-American friend.

However, an apparent technical oversight on Phoenix seems to be revealing the staggering rate at which censors are deleting comments that don’t fit with whatever instructions Beijing has issued regarding how discussion should be “guided”.

On the Phoenix discussion of attached to its special coverage page “The death of Kim Jong-il”, the number of participants is listed at an incredible 15,652,462, and that figure is going up by around 150 every minute at the time of writing. It’s now up to 15,656,193. Yet this enormously popular discussion involving more than 15 million participants has somehow only produced 728 comments.

Normally on Phoenix News and other websites’ discussions the ratio of participants to posts ranges from about 20:1 to 80:1 (see previous posts on this site). On the death of Kim Jong-il story the number of “participants” is more than 20,000:1. This suggests that the censors are deleting almost every post that is submitted on the topic, but have forgotten to also fiddle the website’s automatic counting system that registers an extra “participant” every time someone submits or recommends a comment. I guess they’ve got a lot on their plate at this time, which probably also explains why the Sohu, NetEase and Tencent portals have simply switched their comments systems off.

On Sina’s topic discussion page “The death of Kim Jong-il”, pro-Kim comments are flowing in at a rate of about 1 per minute. Anti-Kim stories are nonexistent. I’m imagining perhaps a full-vetting process is in place at Sina whereby every comment is by default not published unless specifically approved. One would think the wumao (commenters paid by government agencies), to whatever extent that they exist, would be out in force given the attention that the central authorities in Beijing are giving to the story.

All this grieving and well-wishing is probably not just the work of wumao, though unsurprisingly many Chinese readers are drawing that conclusion. The Chairman Mao gravatar attached to one top comment on the Phoenix story “CCP center sends condolences over death of Kim Jong-il” reminds us that plenty of genuine communists do exist in China – it’s just that they’re not very well represented at the top of the Chinese Communist Party.

In fact on the same discussion the second-top comment in this discussion of 394 comments and 23,057 participants says:

The comments are so fake, even if i didn’t say so everyone would know. [2420 recommends]

This comment has actually moved up from third position to second since i’ve been writing this post, overtaking what’s now the third-most popular comment:

The Chinese people stand forever with the North Korean people. [2131 recommends]

The fourth-most popular is also remarkable for its mere presence:

If you’re not wishing Kim Jong-Il well the editors delete your post, what sort of principle is that? [1699]

The most likely explanation would be that Phoenix’s censors have decided to leave the two critical comments there in an attempt to disprove the very allegations that they are making, and possibly also give an air of diversity to a very austere discussion without violating the apparent instruction from Beijing that Kim Jong-il is not to be criticized on mainstream news discussions.

But couldn’t one also speculate that the Phoenix editors may, just maybe, have taken the liberty of allowing this couple of comments through to tell readers we’re on your side really? Could the continued existence of the very obvious but as yet un-revised figure of 15,656,193, wait, 15,660,394, be another subtle sign that the censors aren’t entirely supportive of the job they have to do?


“Why would anyone with a full belly sail to Korea?”: The coastguard stabbing incident

A South Korean coastguard officer died on Monday after the crew of a Chinese trawler tried to resist detention for illegal fishing activities in the Yellow Sea, 87km from Korea.

At least two Korean coastguard personnel were stabbed with pieces of glass after they tried to board the Chinese boat.

The incident has been the #1 headline on the popular Sina and NetEase news portals since at least yesterday evening, with both offering special saturation-coverage pages (here and here).

Here are a selection of headlines from the front pages:

Sina: Foreign Ministry: We hope S.Korea will uphold the legal rights of the Chinese fishermen//Our country’s fishermen deny stabbing Korean coastguard//China currently investigating situation

NetEase: Korea sternly demands China control “illegal fishing”//Korean coastguard death incident, 9 Chinese sailors detained//Captain suspected of stabbing coastguard officer, denies charge//China demands Korea guarantee rights of Chinese fishermen//Korea: coastguards can consider opening fire if fishermen resist

This level of attention from commercialized internet news portals can be explained by the dramatic news value of this kind of an international incident. Intriguingly, however, its continued prominence on the front pages into a second day is in sharp contrast to China’s newspapers. Scanning the front pages of 100+ newspapers on Abbao.cn, i found only two with any sign of this story – the Wuxi-based Jiangnan Evening News, which led with the headline “Fishing tragedy” . . . and yep, the other one was the Global Times, who ran with “Korean media in frenzy: ‘Chinese fisherman kills coastguard officer’ “.

I chose the word “frenzy” there because that’s the word the Western media generally use, but the actual Chinese term the GT used is baochao 爆炒, which means “explosively stir-fry”, implying an explosion of sensationalism. Those guys really have absolutely no sense of irony.

On a more serious note though, is this contrast between print media and online news portals’ levels of coverage simply a case of 99% of China’s newspapers taking no interest in this story, or might it be an indication of the influence of different interest groups within the state authorities? Here is a quick rehash of the basics of China’s internet control system, according to the China Digital Times, which publishes leaked propaganda directives:

In China, several political bodies are in charge of Internet content control. At the highest level, there is the , which ensures that media and cultural content follows the official line as mandated by the CCP. Then there is the State Council Information Office (), which has established an “Internet Affairs Bureau” to oversee all Websites that publish news, including the official sites of news organizations as well as independent sites that post news content.

This “Internet Affairs Bureau,” sends out very specific instructions to all large news websites daily, and often multiple times per day. Those instructions do not always mean that related contents are completely banned online, but they instruct websites to highlight or suppress certain type of opinions or information in a very detailed manner.

Could these online news media portals be able to circumvent instructions from the Central Propaganda Department that print media must abide by? Or is the State Council’s Information Office (SCIO) encouraging the heavy coverage of the South Korean Coastguard stabbing via some instruction to “each website” (ge wangzhan 各网站) to place it in the “most eye-catching” (zui xingmu 最醒目) position on the home page? If there were different instructions from these different censorship agencies, why would that be?

Grasping at straws, the story could perhaps be seen to be discouraging Chinese citizens from getting active in foreign policy matters. Could it be part of a relatively doveish State Council plan to fighting back against foreign policy hawks in the security and control apparatus who would promote nationalist citizen-activism? It’s a stretch.

Let’s see what the moral or political lessons of this story might be among China’s online forum commenters. There have been 118,000+ participants in the discussion on NetEase’s early breaking report (from the GT online, in turn based on a South Korean Yonhap news agency’s report), which NetEase has run under the frank headline, “Chinese fisherman stabs Korean coastguard officer to death”:

The [Chinese] state doesn’t help, you can only rely on yourself. [25,625 recommends]

Soon it will be New Year. Whoever ‘recommends’ me will get rich and see their whole family healthy next year!!! [19,468 recommends]

Take care, brother. The great leaders cannot help you, rely on yourself. [13,856]

South Koreans are dedicated and hardworking, they search you really thoroughly at the airport, and their people’s quality is quite high. Lastly, in sum, the life of a person from any country is a life, to harm human life is a crime. [9,745]

This time let’s see how the foreign affairs ministry deals with it. [5,832]

Good form.    Korean bumpkins,      know the power of resentment. [3,847]

Good stabbing! I support! [3,553]

Many of the above users, and their thousands of “recommenders”, seem to be of the opinion that this is a case of Chinese government neglect of its citizens. This theme has developed further in a duplicate version of the same story, where there’s a 128,000+ strong discussion:

The leaders are busy taking bribes from oil companies. If not, why hasn’t there been any punishment after all these oil spills [off the coast of China]? If this was America there would have been hundreds of millions in fines handed down by now, and the money would have gone towards compensating the fishermen. Who would be willing to take the risk of going all the way to Korea to catch fish???? Who is responsible? Everyone knows clearly. If you agree with me you’ll get rich this year. [31,000]

If you demand that the leaders give you an explanation [jiaodai 交待], they will very quickly tape you up [jiaodai 胶带] [22,649]

In reply to ["On this issue, human life is paramount. The Chinese media need to stay fair and accurate, and I hope they can soon interview the person concerned. They shouldn't just blindly relay "Yonhap News Agency" reports. What can a Chinese fisherman do against being attacked by commandos? Have they had their rights violated? Was it self-defence? The South Korean media cannot possibly say the Chinese were justified."]: Suppose the fishermen really have been detained for illegal fishing, say their families were eventually going to getting fined, the captain would not risk his own life to commit a murder; even rabbits bite when cornered. I think the captain had no choice, that his life was in danger and the action was completely the result of instinctive self-preservation, and I hope people won’t just believe overseas websites’ disinformation. If you “recommend” then you’re a real Chinese person. [12,203]

Give them [the Koreans] a beating, but don’t murder people. They’ve all got families and kids. [8,073]

I think this is completely the fisherman’s mistake. I know something about fishing boats, and they often trawl during the off-season. In this incident they have engaged in illegal behaviour, and it doesn’t matter how you look at it, because it’s still not justified. However, the key to this issue is elsewhere. Why do they do this? China has the Fisheries Enforcement agency, and fishing boats all have to obey them. Fisheries Enforcement don’t directly intervene in many matters, but they do interfere through third parties. For example, after you catch fish you have to pay 1 yuan per kilo of fish in taxes to a third party . . . making the fishermen’s income drop, and that is why they went so far away to fish, though none of them have the guts to disobey. [6,604]

There’s a big chance it could be suicide, what does everyone think? [4,441]

Actually the key to the problem is that China’s near seas are too severely polluted, and fisheries resources are almost gone. Why would anyone with a full belly sail to Korea? Is the fuel free? Time costs? It doesn’t matter if they’re Koreans or our fishermen, they’re all the victims of the effects of uncontrolled pollution. And who is the cause of all this evil? Everyone knows. [2,979]

The interpretation of the incident by these hundreds of thousands of news article readers is overwhelmingly that  the Chinese government is somehow responsible for the actions of the fisherman. It is very hard to imagine how this kind of discussion could be beneficial to any one side in the major foreign policy debates in Beijing, which seems to suggest that the saturation coverage of the story online, and the discussion it has spawned, is the result of the news portal sites’ commercial imperatives, rather than any kind of order from central agencies.

At the same time, this once again flies in the face of those who argue that anything more than a tiny minority of discussions on the Chinese internet are somehow guided or interfered with by the state. A good of this tendency is a short article by Yun Sun for Brookings, which argues that “most discussion on the internet in China is carefully screened, and much of it is pre-approved, by the government”. I simply cannot see how this kind of discussion is good for the government-as-a-whole’s position either at home or abroad.

Sun’s article is right to remind us to be careful about attributing Chinese foreign policies Chinese public opinion. But Sun unnecessarily overreaches by trying to discount the existence of public opinion online. A piece on ChinaGeeks made this point well in relation to Sina Weibo a few months back, and even mainstream news portal comment threads that are seen by millions of people – the kind of near-simultaneous mass medium one would imagine the authorities could and would censor – are often relatively free spaces. As the posts on this site illustrate, this is the case for hardline nationalist views, but it is also true for liberals.

Chinese public opinion exists, at least among the now 500 million-plus internet users, more than 3/4 of whom use the internet to read the news. The impact of the CCP’s famous internet censorship regime seems, to me, to be both overstated and overrated.

=======

Update 1: Reports on Tuesday about the Korean protest rallies outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul have sparked a huge discussion. The most popular three comments, expressing outrage at the protests and talk of boycotting Chinese products, accounted for around 90,000 of the 189,000 comment participants. A further 30,000 supported two comments arguing China should apologize, while 10,000 got behind the view that the only solution was for China to become world hegemon.

Update 2: The fishing boat captain has gone on trial for murder in Korea. Many NetEase commenters are speculating about a possible death sentence, with some making vague and condescending threats in the event that comes to pass (more than one uses the term laozi, meaning I, your father – e.g. “If you dare to make a death sentence, laozi will follow your every move”). However, some other readers criticzed such talk.

Update 3: NetEase trolls think they have cracked the case of the shot fired at the Chinese Consulate in LA before the suspect has even turned himself in. Based on the standard government-issued CNS report, which said witnesses had described the suspect as “of Asian descent”, very nearly every single comment said it was defeinitely the gaoli bangzi 高丽棒子, a derogatory term for Koreans.

Update 4: The shooter has been caught, and the LAPD has announced that he is actually a Chinese-American. One of the most popular comments on this 80,000-strong discussion mused at why the Global Times had continued to mislead the Chinese public by reporting suggestions he was Korean for nearly a day after this information came to light.


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