Adventure, regret, anger: one Global Times reporter’s epic South China Sea journey

Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) journalist Cheng Gang pictured in the Diaoyu Islands, 2010

After a three-week tour of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s special South Sea correspondent Cheng Gang 程刚, an experienced war journalist, filed a lengthy feature story that ran in the paper’s June 1 edition. It was titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.

It was really good reading, with loads of interesting detail, so i’ve done a summary translation. The photos are inserted to illustrate the places Cheng is talking about — i’ve attempted to link to the source wherever i have it on file, but they are taken from all over the internet, including Google images, Google maps, Panoramio and Vietnamese social networking sites, so if one belongs to you please don’t hesitate to demand a credit.

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Cheng’s piece starts by describing how May is the best time to be sailing on the South Sea, because the northeast wind has blown out but the southwest monsoon and associated typhoons haven’t yet arrived. Seabirds abound and dolphins follow the boat through the glassy blue waters. “The beauty of each day is far beyond picture scrolls,” Cheng writes, “but as a Chinese person who pays attention to the South China Sea issue, travelling with Chinese law enforcement boats on patrols through the Paracels, Spratlys and Zhongsha [ie. Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank], this Huanqiu Shibao reporter could hardly think about the intoxicating views; on the contrary, it was more regret and unease.”

At Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, site of the PRC’s biggest Spratly installation [and a UN-sponsored meteorological station] reporter Cheng witnesses “a certain country’s” fishermen blatantly refusing to obey instructions to desist in their fishing activities, until finally a duty vessel was sent out and they resentfully left. “Fiery Cross Reef is Mainland China’s biggest reef fort 礁堡 in the Spratlys, and the place where its garrisons are the strongest. If it’s like this at Fiery Cross Reef, one can imagine how the situation in other areas is even more turbulent.”

Fiery Cross Reef (永暑礁), occupied by PRC

PRC sovereignty marker on Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁

Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, Spratly Islands

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


“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.


“A miracle if there is no military conflict”: the CCP’s Scarborough Shoal media blitz, Part I (May 8-9)

CCTV Nightly News 《晚间新闻》, 9 May, 2012.
Voiceover: “This behaviour has caused an intense reaction and attention among the Chinese masses at home and abroad.

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 »


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