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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“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 headlines including:

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:

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

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 of 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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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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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.


“The new Axis of Evil”: China and Russia veto UN resolution on Syria

The violence in Syria is currently sitting as a top headline on all the 5 major news portals. All are leading with exactly the same headline: “US and EU seeking Syrian intervention outside UN framework”.

This could be the result of an an order from the SCIO, but of course we don’t know that. There’ also an editorial in the People’s Daily today, explaining how “China’s veto was in accordance with the Syrian people’s basic interests”, so at the very least it’s safe to assume that the central government is paying plenty of attention to guiding public opinion on the Syrian issue.

It came as a bit of a surprise, then, to find comment threads like this one, on the NetEase story, ‘US: China, Russia will be responsibility for bloodshed after Syrian resolution veto’. The most popular comments were as follows:

Aye, some people are afraid that the ‘crafty masses’ (diaomin) will have an example to look at… [2500 recommends]

The ‘China’ in the sentence ‘Rice indicated that Russia and China will be responsible for the bloodshed ahead’ has no relation with the Chinese people, it’s nothing more a crowd of of mainland mongrels (zazhong)! Regarding the ‘Russia’, that may be just one section of Russia’s high-level political hoodlums, like Putin  – the little czar. [2412]

Everyone can see why this country [China] is not popular in the world, why you have the world beseiging you. [2211]

The new Axis of Evil [1824]

At least, that was the NetEase comment thread on that story. All of the top responses as of 4 hours ago have now been deleted. The thread, with 62,000 participants, now runs:

We are also angry about this but there’s nothing we can do. The Syrian people can only rely on themselves to get rid of this tyrant. Respect to all countries and people who support the Syrian people’s movement for justice. [5362 recommends]

Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s been 10 years already, should America take responsibility? Does Libya now need 10 years and then it can intervene in America? Why can’t America tell north from south? [4129]

Responsibility for incidents should start with those countries (people) who provoke trouble. On what basis are China and Russia responsible? This is entirely a case of the West looking for an excuse for their next evil deed. [2850]

Can this kind of inhuman government be popular (shou huanying)? [2354]

13 approvals, 2 vetos. [2343]

Public enemy of humanity. [2145]

This offers an interesting snapshot of some of the limits of censorship. It suggests that sympathy with the Syrian people is okay, but making the point that these kinds of UN Security Council votes adversely affects China’s international image is perhaps not so. Of course, it’s no surprise to find that labelling China’s leaders ‘mainland mongrels’ (zazhong, lit. mongrel) is not acceptable, nor the original top comment suggesting the Arab Spring could spread to China. The “inhuman government” and “public enemy” comments presumably escaped censorship because it’s unclear who or what it’s referring to – Assad? The US? China and Russia?

The fact the discussion was not shut down, only trimmed around the edges like this, seems to suggest this was more likely an example of NetEase’s own self-censorship than a particular order from the party authorities (which would be more likely to simply specify that certain topics should not be discussed at all).

Interestingly, comments critical of the Chinese government’s actions in relation to Syria are plentiful on NetEase and Phoenix, but they are much rarer on Sina. In fact, this Sina thread, a composite of comments from various Syria-related stories, reads quite like the threads on Kim Jong-il’s death, with the Chinese online population apparently speaking almost with one voice in favour of the government’s heroic veto.

I wasn’t aware of NetEase being a particular hangout of the meigou (American running dogs’ – the insult hurled at pro-Americans and liberals more generally) though i will start bearing it in mind as a possibility. More likely though, Sina is for whatever reason simply censoring comments on the Syrian issue more stringently than NetEase.

The Syrian uprising is far from a fringe issue in China’s online media. As mentioned above, it’s one of the top stories on all the main news portals. It’s also an issue many people feel strongly about: today, for example, 8 of top 10 most commented-on stories on Phoenix are Syria-related. On NetEase there are 3 Syria-related stories in the top 10, and the same number are in the top 10 for the last week.

However, if we look at the number of clicks for each story, only one makes NetEase’s daily top 10 (‘China, Russia veto security council resolution on Syria’ sits at number 7 with 490,000 views; number 1 is ‘Shenyang bandit shot dead in street battle with police’), and there are none in the weekly top 10.

Which basically means, as a news topic, it doesn’t compare to domestic cops-and-robbers shootouts, but it certainly inspires a relatively high proportion of readers to comment (or agree with someone else’s comment) if they read about it.


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