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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
“Their bottom line is Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road”: reactions to the Philippines Navy – Chinese fishing boat incidentPosted: October 20, 2011
[Updated October 25 - see bottom of post].
From the Global Times this morning: Philippine warship rams Chinese fishing boat in South China Sea, Filipino Dept of Defense says apology already issued to China.
An incident has occurred between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. On October 18, a Filipino gunboat rammed a large Chinese fishing boat that was towing 25 smaller boats near Liyue [Reed] Bank.
In fact, the Filipino boat didn’t ram the large Chinese fishing boat, but rather became entangled [en] in – read: deliberately cut – the ropes of the 25 small boats, and confiscated them. No one was hurt, but China is now demanding the unconditional return of the 25 boats.
The story had actually been reported yesterday evening by the GT and Phoenix on the basis of foreign agency reports, but at that point they were using the less sensational term “collide with” (pengzhuang 碰撞) rather than “ram” (zhuangji 撞击) in the headline.
A pattern seems to be emerging in the recent treatment of South China Sea-related stories. Phoenix News is again paying the most attention, currently running the incident in the #1 lead headline story position, with Netease and Sina also running it on their front pages, but much further down, among the hundreds of normal-sized links.
Netease certainly seems to be into the spirit of sensationalism, running with the juicy “Filipino patrol boat rams Chinese fishing boat” [zh] line. The story may well have been further up among the headlines earlier in the day, because it is on Netease that the biggest and most interesting discussion [zh] has taken place so far, with nearly 2000 comments and more than 65,000 participants – and the latter figure has shot up by about 15,000 in just the last hour.
This is good to see. The Philippines’ shameless-whore nature has come out – I’ll ram you on purpose, then play completely innocent. Accidental? This is a case of testing China’s bottom line – if you don’t retaliate this time, I’ll go further next time. Foreign Ministry, let’s see how you react this time, you couldn’t possibly just fart and let it go, could you? [11,020]
Do the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense have anything to say? 
Our Foreign Ministry is currently deciding whether to express regret, condemn or strongly condemn, based on the degree of fermentation of interest from netizens . . . no, that won’t do, just send China’s magical, brave and utterly incomparable chengguan over to discuss the matter with the Philippines . . . you know 
Fuck, hurry up and denounce, I strongly demand that they be denounced to death, fuck 
[ . . . ]
Actually we could make some “tiny” incidents happen, then issue “sincere” apologies, but we don’t have the guts 
[ . . . ]
Calling ourselves a righteous country, being bullied everywhere, apologizing is just lip-service, compulsory, weak and cowardly Chinese nation, when will you step up? 
Actually, the Philippines is now denying [en] that it even apologized:
“No apologies were necessary and none was given,” the Foreign Affairs chief [Alberto del Rosario] said in a statement.
After going through the top-rated comments in the above Netease discussion, I looked at the most recent comments as they flowed in at a rate of several per minute, and in came this sardonic exchange:
Commenter 1 (Heilongjiang): The deliberate ramming just one side of things – isn’t it more important that the Philippines Navy was violating China’s territorial waters?
Commenter 2 (Sichuan): No, their [Beijing leaders'] bottom line is Beijing’s Second Ring Road.
Oh dear. I actually feel sorry for Jiang Yu and the Foreign Ministry.
UPDATE 25/10: Over the weekend NetEase managed to stir-fry the issue even further by translating a Filipino newspaper article taunting Chinese diplomacy for being a “toothless tiger” [zh], discussion of which prompted 4840 comments, with a staggering 275,000 participants weighing in. The top comments all expressed agreement with the Filipino article, along a spectrum from bitter to hearty (“The Filipino media has given voice to exactly what ordinary Chinese people are thinking”).
Although the story’s source is specified as Xinhuanet, the source link is to the page’s own URL, and I can find no trace of it on any other news sites, including Xinhua’s. This raises the question as to what hidden agendas NetEase might have for pushing the story where its competitors have not, but without in-depth research into the company’s ownership and control structure i’d be getting out of my depth there.
Phoenix TV has brought together a highly interesting array of short video clips of South China Sea commentary from both their own satellite channel, and CCTV.
The “brief introduction reads”:
China has three strategic countermeasures [available to it]: the America card, the economics card, and the Taiwan card. ‘To capture the bandits, first go after the king’ (qin zei xian qin wang) – countering America is the most important. The economic card applies mainly to Vietnam and the Philippines. The Taiwan card could initiate cross-strait collaborative defence of the South China Sea.
The video line-up has received 23,930 ‘likes’, and 15,969 ‘dislikes’ (actually ‘tramples’), suggesting many viewers strongly disagree with the overall assessment presented in the videos, which plays down the urgency and strength of action required, with several commentators pointing out that China should try to ensure that its actions do not push neighbours like Vietnam into an alliance with the US (something which has to some extent happened already). The comments section provides some clue as to what so many viewers are objecting to:
wangdashan5658 (Hebei): [Quoting llciven (Suzhou)]: “Previous generations have told us, dignity must be fought for, merely talking is useless!!! [12 recommends]” – Looking at the domestic and overseas [situations], what dignity do we common Chinese people currently have? 
qq987645 (Yunnan): Don’t talk about cards this and cards that, other people are actually controlling [these islands]. 
wo7133998 (Liaoning Huludao): Why am I sensing the final years of the Qing Dynasty? 
ssssssssd (Anhui Chaohu): Nothing at all has happened in the South China Sea, only big-talking. It’s tragic. 
lbds (Shenzhen): It’s time to retake the South China Sea islands. 
Leader Li [Li Lingdao] (Guangzhou Panyu District): Truth comes from the barrel of a gun, let’s attack. Give the nation a bit of blood. 
Li Lü (Hebei Hedan): I miss the Great Mao very much. It was him who made the Chinese people feel proud and stand tall [yang mei tu qi, ang shou ting xiong] in the world’s orient. In those years we defeated America twice, taught India a lesson, and did not give up an inch of sovereign soil or territorial water – even for just one square kilometre, he dared to take back Zhenbao Island from the big-brother superpower the Soviet Union. 
Li Lü (Hebei Hedan): It now looks like the “shelve differences, develop jointly” approach was completely wrong. Who is going to take responsibility? 
Yi剑 (Jiangxi Shangrao): Corrupt officials running amok, unable to fight, let’s just give the South China Sea away. Others will say good things about us. 
Once again we see the CCP’s foreign-policy status quo, especially the “shelve differences” approach, under attack from the Maoist left, whose viewpoints attract strong agreement from readers. How many of these readers, or even the commenters themselves, are ‘fifty-centers’ is unclear (and even if they were it would be impossible to tell whose fifty-centers, since many agencies are known to deploy them), but we can clearly see that this kind of criticism is not being censored out by any central decree at this stage.
Perhaps more significant is that comments linking official corruption with weak foreign policy are also okay with the censors. The third comment, by wo7133998, and the last comment by Yi剑, have strong overtones of “waihuan neiluan” (“external aggression + internal chaos”), the most widely-accepted formula answering the original Chinese nationalist question: what happened to China’s greatness? Seeing China today as afflicted by waihuan neiluan appears to be a refutation of the Chinese Communist Party’s achievements, and a damning indictment of its present rule.
We have to remember though (and one of the talking heads on the Phoenix video reel actually points this out), internet opinion always tends to be more extreme than public opinion in general. As argued elsewhere, a ‘netizen’ (wangmin) is very different to a citizen.
In a side note, He Liangliang, the talking head who puts forward the ‘playing cards’ analogy in the most detail, also puts forward a theory that Vietnam’s internal problems – namely inflation, slow economic growth and corruption – mean that it might be trying to provoke conflict with China to divert the Vietnamese people’s attention. This exact line of reasoning often gets applied by outside analysts to explain China’s actions, and its possible motivations into the future.