Xinhua spreading rumours, unpopular military commentary, and a witchhunt: the Scarborough Shoal media wave Part III (May 11-13)Posted: May 21, 2012
I’m posting about stuff that happened more than a week ago, so i’ll start by apologizing to any readers who might have come here looking for up-to-date developments. To explain briefly, party-approved waves of media sensationalism, the Chinese public’s reaction to them, and the regime’s reactions to those public reactions, are crucial aspects of my research project, so my task is to document these in as much detail as i can. The PRC’s yearly South China Sea fishing ban, which started last week, has offered a much-needed circuit-breaker to ease the tensions, but even now that the wave has broken and rolled back, i still have a backlog of interesting conversations to discuss.
For those who mightn’t care to read all the way to the bottom to find out what might be buried down there, here’s a summary of what’s below:
- Xinhua was the immediate source of war-preparations rumours denied by Ministry of Defense
- PLA Daily’s piece on May 12 appears aimed at Dai Xu and his powerful pro-war backers in China
- Fenqing witchhunt unmasking the “organiser” of the global Filipino demonstrations, via Weibo, becomes dominant in mainstream discourse
On Friday (May 11), as PRC-Philippines tensions eased with the reopening of diplomatic dialogue, the emphasis of Chinese media was very much on the small size of the touted “anti-Chinese” protests in Manila. But they were positively huge compared with the protests in Beijing the same day.
Phoenix’s Manila correspondent described the scale of the Manila protests as being “far from the scale the Philippine side had previously said”. However, many other media, including the official CNS news agency, specifically contrasted the small gatherings with the PRC Foreign Ministry’s ominous warnings.
After noting the arrest of a protester in Manila who tried to burn the Chinese flag, the short CNS report also carried, in its second paragraph, the Philippines government’s comment that the protests were initiated by ordinary people and were not encouraged by the government. Other reports also emphasised the non-official (“民间”) nature of the protests, which also contrasted with the continuous official rhetoric accusing the Philippines government of whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment.
NetEase’s editors almost seemed to be implying that the government had overemphasised the threat posed by the protests. The top headline cluster on Friday ran:
Philippines people hold small-scale anti-China demonstrations
More journalists than demonstrators | Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag | CCTV report on “large-scale anti-China demonstrations” not proven correct
But the NetEase comment thread on “Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag” was full of wild rumours, stated as fact, of Chinese casualties in Manila — complete with shops torched and deaths in the dozens.
Today the little Pippos demonstrators torched the Chinese market! 18 people dead! The Chinese media is swindling people! [17,362 recommends]
Report from Manila, 11/5: Philippines anti-China forces rampage, burning Chinese shopping malls, killing at least 24 (delete this comment and I’ll kill 9 generations of your family!!) [14,412]
If it was an anti-American rally, “itching-to-death 痒死” [CCTV] would definitely say there were more than a million there. [5,618]
The third comment suggests why the top two comments were so popular, and why the Chinese government has to sometimes take drastic action to curb rumours: when people start really caring about an issue, one of their first instincts is to disbelieve whatever the official media says.
If the regime knew about these explosive rumours doing the rounds, however, it appears to have seen them as useful rather than harmful. Like the calls for human-flesh searches in previous days, they were not censored, and in fact they remain in place today, six days later.
But if the online-commenting public had been given carte blanche for their outrage, the same privileges certainly did not extend to the real-world public. At the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing, a handful of patriotic Beijing residents actually stared down the heavy policy presence to attempt to inform the Philippines that Huangyan Island belongs to China.
Their actions were barely reported by the Chinese media. A correspondent from China Radio International did make it down there, and found:
On North Xiushui Rd, where the Philippines embassy is, there were a certain number of police vehicles parked and four or five police officers on duty. A few men came and protested in front of the embassy. One male wearing a shirt with, “Protect Huangyan, diplay our country’s prestige,” written on it. He unfurled a banner with his fellows that read, “Huangyan is China’s historic territory, do not challenge China’s bottom line,” on one side and, “When one can restrain no more, one cannot keep restraint, 忍无可忍不会再忍” on the other.
Around 3.30 a male surnamed Li was preparing to protest when an embassy car drove in. Standing across from the main gate, he immediately pulled out and raised high a white paper sign with the slogan, “Love China, Love Huangyan,” written on it.
This report was certainly not widely publicised; it’s been deleted from the CRI website, and NetEase has done the same to its version. On Saturday morning 21cn posted a stub and the full article was posted on Phoenix, where it remains available, but it hasn’t been given any prominence at all judging by the mere 300 or so participants on its heavily-censored comments thread.
There is a certain logic in the general paucity of coverage — after all, the PRC media were all reporting on the lack of protesters in Manila. The few hundred who gathered in Manila were still roughly 100 times more numerous than their counterparts in Beijing. The CNR article even began with the observation that:
On the Huangyan Island issue the Philippines has incited its people’s emotions and encouraged its domestic and overseas populations to launch demonstrations aimed at China. But the Philippines’ actions have certainly not caused the Chinese masses any great worry, and there were definitely no large-scale gatherings at the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing to oppose its unjustifiable conduct, [just] sporadic protests by the masses.
It would probably have been more accurate to say that the Chinese government’s campaign to focus media attention and public anger on the issue, and its dire official warnings about large-scale anti-Chinese protests, have not caused large-scale gatherings.
With a leadership transition just around the corner it is unlikely that the regime would want to see any kind of street protest anywhere, least of all in Beijing. It could just be my skepticism about the degree to which Chinese people care about the South China Sea issue (for a fascinating individual case-study that vividly illustrates why, read the “Confessions of a patriot-used-to-be”), but surely the security forces must have been expecting a bit more than this feeble show of patriotism. Maybe most people who might have protested just knew better than to try in 2012. Photos found here.
That doesn’t mean the Chinese public, particularly the public when reading news and interacting online, did not or does not care about the Huangyan issue. I’m really just stating the obvious: that all the media attention and anger online has failed to translate into offline protest.
But the internet’s systems of collective expression amplify extreme voices, while at the same time its anonymity can also prompt people’s voices to become more extreme. The question i’m left with is: was the feebleness of this protest, in particular the fact that so few even tried to make their outrage heard, the result of government suppression, a reflection of Chinese people’s knowledge of the cycles of CCP politics, or is it just the result of not enough people actually caring?
It’s still early days, but my money would be on the latter. If my hunch is right, then the government will struggle to credibly play the audience-costs nationalism card on this issue because for that strategy to work, CCP China must convince its international adversaries that it genuinely beholden to public pressure. In the case of Scarborough Shoal, it has demonstrated just the opposite.
“A miracle if there is no military conflict”: the CCP’s Scarborough Shoal media blitz, Part I (May 8-9)Posted: May 13, 2012
Last Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry declared to the world that Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying 傅莹 had summoned the Philippines’ charge d’affaires in Beijing, Alex Chua, and told him, “I met with you twice last month, and demanded that the Philippines calm down . . . the Philippines has clearly not recognised that it is committing a serious mistake”. [EN|ZH]
“The Chinese side has also made all preparations to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side,” Madam Fu said, according to the MFA.
Although this was interpreted in some quarters (the WSJ’s headline-writing quarters at least) as signaling a hardline shift, the comment threads on the story on Phoenix and NetEase suggested that the Chinese online audience wasn’t buying it. Yet.
However, over the following couple of days a wave of hardline commentary and inflammatory coverage appeared to raise the hopes of those who, not to put too finer point on it, want China to start a war over Scarborough Shoal. According to a detailed survey conducted in late April by the Huanqiu Shibao‘s opinion polling centre (and widely publicised in the Chinese media, e.g. here), that describes almost 80% of the urban Chinese population.
We certainly shouldn’t take that result literally, for the survey was full of leading questions, probably because that’s the result it was designed to find. The majority of the population are, i suspect, quite apathetic, but the number strongly in favour of military action is definitely significant, if only because it’s China, where every percent of the population is 13 million people.
The key period in setting off this wave of war-hope and war-fear began at 22.05 on the evening of May 8. Read the rest of this entry »
In Hong Kong on April 30, a PLA Navy Rear Admiral, Li Shihong, stated that “the moment the Central Military Commission makes a decision we will be dutybound to act”. If we needed another example of Chinese media sensationalism, the treatment of this story today looks like a pretty classic one.
Admiral Li’s statement was an entirely innocuous response, it appears from the video here, to a journalist’s question about what the PLA navy thinks it should should be doing about the ongoing Scarborough Shoal standoff: await instructions from the Central Military Commission.
However, 3 of China’s 5 major news portals have done an exemplary job of “stir-frying” this into a serious online news sensation. The headline on QQ.com’s front page lead headline read: “Chinese Navy Rear Admiral on Huangyan Island issue: awaiting decision from the centre”.
Sohu went with: “Navy Commander: If the centre makes a decision, the navy won’t hesistate to act”. Phoenix was slightly closer to the mark with, “PLA Officer: the moment the centre makes a decision, we will be dutybound to act”.
I know i was taken in; the headline and the treatment of the story made it seem as though Rear Admiral Li, who also happens to be Deputy Chief of Staff for the PLAN’s South China Sea Fleet, was implying that the central leadership had failed to be decisive in its handling of the issue.
The story became QQ.com’s most-commented for the day, and the sixth-most commented for the week.
On Phoenix it’s currently the #4 most-commented story. The top comments from both the Phoenix and the QQ.com discussion threads suggest that i was far from alone in my initial mistaken reading of Commodore Li’s words. First Phoenix’s 59,000-strong thread:
I have confidence in our military, but I wish the decision-makers would draw their swords when they should. [12,525 recommends]
This is a request to go to war! Courageous, the whole country’s everyday people support the PLA! 
This approach is very good. The people are all waiting for the centre to issue the order! 
And the QQ.com thread, with 110,000+ participants,
So the military’s top levels have declared they are not afraid of war, now the ball is back in the central [leadership's] court. The central Party should declare its position as to whether or not it is afraid of war! Today South Korea seized more Chinese fishermen and fishing boats, so which is it to be – war or suing for peace? [20,805 supports]
The people are being held back, and actually the PLA are being held back even more, yelling slogans all day like “protect the country, serve the people”! But, since orders must be obeyed, they can only watch those stupid idiots prancing around on our territory and claiming that they’re the ones being invaded. In decision-making, although war harms both sides, and it might affect us into the future, if we don’t attack then China will forever be the one to suffer. [17,251]
Don’t forget, Philippines, China has a full 5,000 years of history [. . .] <—- Nonsense, what can you do with your distinguished history? <—- If we don’t attack then this 5,000-year thick skin should stand us in good stead. [6,032]
[. . .]
The PLA Navy are good, the people eagerly await your victorious fight. [2,656]
What that means is, there is now no-one who can make decisions! Helpless! [2,385]
This treatment of an innocuous, standard comment would do any of Rupert Murdoch’s rags proud. However, if commercial imperatives, and hence the market, is what is driving such behaviour, then this indicates a growing demand for news about the South Sea issue on from the Chinese public. It will be interesting to do some case-study comparisons between South China Sea coverage during this Scarborough crisis, and other high-profile incidents in the past three or four years.
Aside from the Impeccable incident, which directly involved the US rather than Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia, i doubt any past altercation in the South China Sea became quite the media event that this one has.
On Tuesday this week, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attempted to dispel any prospect of the PLA influencing China’s handling of the Scarborough Shoal standoff by expressly stating that the military would act in accordance with the needs of diplomacy. However, for at least one PLA officer, this was no barrier to openly criticising the civilian leadership’s recent decisions.
“At present we have the diplomatic departments and relevant maritime departments dealing with this issue,” Liang said, “and I believe they will do a good job.”
Now, although the Defense Ministry is not considered a powerful ministry, Minister Liang is a PLA general, and a member of the Central Military Commission, so his words carry weight well beyond his ministerial position.
For Major-General Luo Yuan, however, Liang’s warning was no barrier to publicly criticising the civilian leadership’s decisions, especially the the so-called “withdrawal” of Yuzheng-310, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s best ship, from the scene of the standoff. In yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, Luo Yuan wrote:
China, as a result of big-picture considerations, has decided, of its on volition to withdraw two law-enforcement vessels, including the most advanced “Yuzheng-310″, and this has been seen as an act of “goodwill”. It was one option for stabilising the situation, but the test of history will tell whether it was the best option.
The author believes, in light of high-level strategic considerations, we should not “withdraw firepower”, but should take this chance to increase our presence at Huangyan Island. We should raise the national flag, establish a sovereignty marker and build a military base, or at the very least a fisheries base. Huangyan Island should be a testing ground for breaking free of our South China Sea difficulties.
Director of the Academy of Military Science Deputy Secretary-General of the China Society of Military Science (see comments), is the military’s most active media commentator, and he has been particularly vocal on the South China Sea issue of late. At the ‘Two Meetings’ in March, Luo commanded a great deal of media attention with a proposal to declare the South China Sea a Special Administrative region, increase troop numbers and naval patrols, and encourage more Chinese fishermen to trawl in the area.
His recent arguments, ‘Watch the bullying Philippines, China is giving peace its last chance’, and ‘If Philippines dares provoke us again, the navy will attack with both fists’, have generated overwhelmingly positive reader reactions; the latter sparked a 174,000-strong discussion on Phoenix, almost exclusively, it would appear, in support of his position.
He has been particularly active in pushing his hawkish position ever since the Scarborough Shoal standoff started, and what’s particularly interesting is that he has actually started invoking the public support he has received, to buttress his argument. His article yesterday finished with the line:
“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.