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. 
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.
Robert S. Ross built a reputation over the 1980s and 1990s as one of the leading realist analysts of Chinese foreign policy. He published a seminal article in 1986 highlighting the importance of the US-USSR-PRC “security triangle” in explaining China’s behaviour under Deng Xiaoping, and after the Cold War made a successful switch into the richer and murkier terrain of the domestic security situation of the CCP leadership and its relationship to Chinese foreign policy.
Ross’s shift in emphasis towards the importance of domestic factors in explaining China’s behaviour towards the outside world was foreshadowed in his 1986 piece, which noted:
The relative importance of domestic politics has been a function of the range of choice allowed by the pattern of triangular politics [ie. the international environment]. When the range of choice was narrow, domestic politics had a small impact on China’s US policy. When the choices expanded, domestic critics wielded greater influence on foreign policy making.
In recent years, the Boston College professor and Harvard Fairbank Center associate has become very keen on the idea of nationalistic public opinion as a singular driving force behind the Communist Party’s foreign policy.
One early example was 2009’s ‘China’s Naval Nationalism’, which argued the PLA Navy’s modernization, especially its aircraft carrier program, was irrational and against China’s national interest. Instead, Ross wrote, “widespread nationalism, growing social instability, and the leadership’s concern for its political legitimacy drive China’s naval ambition”. This contention provoked a lengthy response from Michael Glosny and Phillip Saunders, who pointed out a range of national interest arguments that could be made for China’s naval modernization.
Evidently unmoved by this critique, a 2011 piece in the National Interest produced a greatly expanded list of PRC foreign policy actions designed to appease nationalist public opinion. Although there is no question that domestic public opinion, including its loudly hawkish trends, form an element of the CCP leadership’s decision-making environment, there are plaisible interest-based explanations for each of the examples on Ross’s list:
- The Impeccable incident in the South China Sea, in which a motley flotilla of fishing boats and patrol ships harassed a US surveillance ship. (Undesirability, from the PRC’s strategic perspective, of having US surveillance ships gathering data on its new submarine facilities at the bottom end of Hainan Island?)
- China’s intransigence at the Copenhagen climate change conference. (PRC delegation was led by the National Development and Reform Commission, which has responsibility for China’s economic planning and thus a vested interest against binding carbon reduction targets. Repeated studies showing Chinese people to be very climate-aware.)
- The harsh reaction to the announcement of US arms sales to Taiwan in 2010. (US military support for Taiwan stands between the PRC and fulfillment of its long-stated “sacrosanct mission” of “national reunification”. This could be termed a tenet of nationalist ideology, but it is a very long-standing one, rather than a recent development.)
- China’s repeated strong protests against joint US-Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea in June-July 2010. (Also cited as an example of media-driven nationalist influence by Michael Swaine & M. Taylor Fravel, though China wound back its statements somewhat when further exercises were announced in November 2010.)
- The PRC’s lack of denouncement of North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan. (Perhaps because North Korea is China’s only true ally in East Asia?)
- The party-state’s overreaction to the September 2010 detention of Captain Zhan, the Chinese fisherman who rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the Diaoyu Islands. (Japan’s deviation from the established precedent of quickly releasing detained Chinese fishermen? Opportunity for China to use its burgeoning maritime law enforcement fleets to advance its sovereignty claims?)
- Denouncing the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. (CCP opposition to democracy activism in China?)
- The treatment of Google. (The refusal to censor its search results?)
“[T]he source of all the aggressive Chinese diplomacy,” wrote Ross, is “the party’s effort to appease China’s nationalists”.
The same list has been extended and wheeled out again in the latest edition of one of the US’s top foreign policy journals Foreign Affairs, in a piece called ‘The Problem With the Pivot’.
For the benefit of any time-stretched readers, my problems with Ross’s argument, detailed below, are that it:
- Relies on the mistaken premise that there has been a severe economic downturn in China since 2009, from which a legitimacy crisis has ensued.
- Wrongly assumes that China’s assertive foreign policy actions are seen as such by nationalist sections of Chinese public opinion.
- Discounts the huge strategic and economic interests China has, or perceives it has, in advancing its claims to disputed islands and maritime space.
- Claims, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, that the Chinese party-state is unable to prevent anti-foreign protests.
- Argues that the recent protests over Diaoyu caused the PRC’s foreign policy escalation, dismissing how protests might help in advancing the government’s policy objectives.
A cautionary tale from the Beijing Youth Daily: misfortune of one driver in the Xi’an anti-Japanese protestsPosted: September 23, 2012
First came the exhortations to “rational patriotism“, accompanied by satisfying news of China’s government’s “strong countermeasures” — how many law-enforcement ships, how many Chinese fishermen heading to Diaoyu, how surprised Noda was at the strength of China’s response, and even a belated appearance by the PLA Navy in the area.
On Monday afternoon the armada of Chinese fishing boats was a lead photo on the PRC’s top five news portals, while arrests for protest misbehaviour were dominant headlines. E.g.:
There were many more such cautionary tales in the wake of last weekend’s violent riots across China (photos, photos & more photos): police getting on Weibo to seek the perpetrators of patriotic smashings, and subsequent well-publicised arrests in Guangzhou and Qingdao and likely elsewhere. (English-language story from today, September 22, is here.)
Yesterday the Beijing Youth Daily published a detailed, vivid and gory account of how Li Jianli, a Xi’an family man, was left with brain damage just for driving a Toyota Corolla in Xi’an. As the article describes, Li’s wife got out and tried to convince the protesters not to smash the car with a few “good sentences”, including a pledge to never again buy a Japanese car, but this was all to no avail as someone smashed his skull with a D-lock.
Perhaps to avoid demonizing the protesters, or maybe to provide a positive exemplar (after all, what politicised human interest story would be complete without one of those?), the piece concentrates on the intersection of Li Jianli’s tragic tale with that of a protest-planner-turned-saviour, 31-year-old tool peddler Han Pangguang. When Han heard about Japan’s plan to nationalise the Diaoyus he collected several hundred signatures from other sellers in the marketplace and applied to hold a protest. But as soon as he heard that the protests had turned violent, according to the article, he suddenly turned his attention to saving those threatened by the violence.
The injection of Han Chongguang into the story, of course, serves to support the official line that it was not protesters, or anti-Japanese sentiment, that was the problem, but rather, illegal elements who hijacked the protests.
Nonetheless, the piece provides a fascinating first-hand accounts of the chaos of September 15 in Xi’an.
Beijing Youth Daily, September 20, 2012
By Li Ran
Fifty-one-year-old Xi’an resident Li Jianli was the breadwinner for his family, but now he lies rigid in a hospital neurosurgery ward.
Li Jianli’s left arm and leg have begun to regain partial movement, but the whole of the right side of his body remains limp. He can slowly bend his right leg, but his right arm and hand just flatly refuse to obey orders. His speech faculties have been badly damaged; he can only say simple 1-2 syllable phrases like “thanks” and “hungry”.
Xi’an Central Hospital has made a diagnosis: open craniocerebral injury (heavy).
Luckily, over the past three days in intensive care he has basically returned to consciousness. As soon as he thinks of what happened to him on September 15, his eyes turn red and silent tears begin to flow. His left hand struggles up to wipe them away.
At 3.30pm that day he was smashed on the head with a U-shaped lock, which penetrated the left side of the top of his head, shattering his skull. He fell down, unconscious, and thick blood and cranial matter spilled out onto the ground. Soon, bloody foam was coming out of his mouth.
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.
“There are cocoons growing in my ears!”: Hong Lei and Huang Shanchun’s responses to warmongering ‘netizens’Posted: May 28, 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.
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.