Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part Two)

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Here is Part 2 on the PLA hawkish faction from China Brief, with added links to sources, and a couple of graphs from the utterly awesome Baidu Index (big hat tip to Kaiser Kuo). 

I’d also like to add my thanks to Xuan Cheng, John Garnaut, James Barker, Mark Stokes and Taylor Fravel for discussions and tips on this topic. They don’t necessarily agree with the content of the article.

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Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part Two)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16

August 9, 2013

By: Andrew Chubb

Rise of the hawks: searches for "China hawkish faction" by logged-in Baidu users since 2008. I'm requesting further info from Baidu regarding the extremely low pre-2010 numbers. One point that can be made with confidence is that user interest in the "Chinese hawkish faction" peaked during the Scarborough Shoal and (especially) Diaoyu Islands crises.

Rise of the hawks: searches for “China hawkish faction” by logged-in Baidu users since 2008. I’m requesting further info from Baidu regarding the extremely low pre-2010 numbers. One point that can be made with confidence is that user interest in the “Chinese hawkish faction” peaked during the Scarborough Shoal and (especially) Diaoyu Islands crises.

If outspoken Chinese military officers are, as Part One suggested, neither irrelevant loudmouths, nor factional warriors, nor yet the voice of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on foreign policy, and are instead experts in the PLA-CCP propaganda system, then what might explain the bad publicity they often generate for China? This article explores how the activities of China’s military hawks may contribute to the regime’s domestic and international goals. On a general level, the very appearance of a hawkish faction—the “opera” that Luo Yuan has described—serves the domestic purposes of promoting national unity (Global Times, May 4). By amplifying threat awareness and countering perceived Western plots to permeate the psyche of the Chinese populace and army, the “hawks” direct public dissatisfaction with the policy status quo away from the system as a whole. 

In specific crises, such as the standoff at Scarborough Shoal last year or in the wake of the Diaoyu Islands purchase, hard-line remarks from uniformed commentators serve to rally domestic public opinion behind the prospect of military action, instil confidence in the PLA’s willingness to fight over the issue and deter China’s adversary. By amplifying the possibility of otherwise irrational Chinese military action and inevitable escalation should Beijing’s actions be interfered with, they have contributed to a thus-far successful effort to convince the Philippines and Japan to accept the new status quo around Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands.

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“More ‘doing’ required”: Ding Gang brings the taoguang-yanghui debate to the South China Sea

Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping Vol III, which contains the key injunction to yousuo zuowei (“take some actions”), but not its long-suffering flipside, taoguang yanghui (“hide brightness and cherish obscurity”)

Ding Gang, senior reporter at the People’s Daily, had an opinion piece in yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, titled, ‘Ding Gang: more “doing” required in the South China Sea‘.

Last year Ding argued passionately for cooperation with ASEAN, for complete clarification of China’s claims and even, in the latter article, that India and Vietnam should be allowed to explore oil Blocks 128 and 129. This time, however, he argues that China has done well out of the Scarborough Shoal standoff, and the lesson is that China should kickstart more of these incidents.

Ding is tapping into a very deep pool of rhetorical capital, which is discussed after the summary translation below.

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More ‘doing’ required in the South China Sea

Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), August 29

By Ding Gang 丁刚, Senior reporter, Renmin Ribao

There is a saying in Chinese diplomacy, taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei. But given China’s vastly-increased national power, it’s the latter phrase, meaning “take some actions”, that may be more important — especially when it comes to the South China Sea.

The heat has gone down around Scarborough Shoal [China is effectively in control of the atoll -- SSC]. Experts have said that the outcome of the Scarborough Shoal standoff shows that there is a “Huangyan Model” that China can use to solve its other problems in the SCS.

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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.


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

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“Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!”: triumph, grief and human interest with the fisherfolk of Tanmen

Special total-coverage page in the Zhengzhou Evening News 郑州晚报, May 4, 2012. The headlines read: “We need to watch over this place”/Less than a day after returning, Hainan fishermen return to the “standoff”/”Wife, the fisheries administration is here, so relax!”

This year the PRC media have published a succession of detailed stories on the plight of Chinese fisherfolk through the South China Sea disputes.

On February 22, for example, the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News 羊城晚报 published ‘More than 95% of licenced Chinese fishermen have withdrawn from the Spratlys, afraid of detention by foreign gunboats‘.

There was no joy in 2011 for Spratly fishing boat captain Chen Songhan 陈松汉 of Taishan in Guangdong Province. He said that harassment from foreign gunboats had led to greatly increasing costs, declining fisheries resources, and decreasing benefits. And on May 9 last year, Beihai (Guangxi) fisherman Li Rixi’s 李日喜 fishing boat was siezed by foreign gunboats, causing economic losses of 1.23 million RMB, and he told the Yangcheng Evening News he was still a long way from recovering his strength.

Following the Chinese fishing boats’ escape from Philippines authorities at the start of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in mid-April, Xinhua put out some rather more rousing stories of triumph. There were numerous interviews with the returnees, apparently all from Tanmen town in Qionghai City, Hainan Province, such as this one, for which a version is available in English here under the headline, ‘Chinese fishermen recall clash with Philippine navy‘.

In early May there emerged the tale of more Qionghainese fishermen who had come home to avoid a typhoon, then turned around the very next day and gone straight back to Scarborough Shoal to “participate in the standoff”. That story contained the rather unforgettable line, as one fisherman’s wife recalled hearing her husband saying:

Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!

This was splashed across the special total-coverage page in the May 4 edition of the Zhengzhou Evening News seen at the top. According to that story, it was originally taken from the Legal System Evening News 法制晚报.

Mid-May saw the return of Xu Detan 许德潭, the skipper of one of the Scarborough protagonist vessels, Qiong-Qionghai 09099, and who had featured prominently in Xinhua’s stories the previous month. This time he was telling CCTV that he’d just brought back a bumper haul of fish, and that it was all thanks to FLEC and the State Oceanic Administration’s China Maritime Surveillance force. According to the English version (here), Xu said:

Our boats are everywhere around the island, and we are afraid of nothing. The Chinese Marine Surveillance ships kept in contact with us around-the-clock.

Actually, Xu sort-of uttered words to that effect, but he didn’t name either of the agencies. Instead, their names were inserted by a CCTV editor as the subtitles in this frame show:

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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.

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Xinhua spreading rumours, unpopular military commentary, and a witchhunt: the Scarborough Shoal media wave Part III (May 11-13)

Loida Nicolas Lewis “exposed” on the front page of NetEase (photo top-left), May 13, 2012. The caption beneath reads, “Identity of Philippines anti-Chinese demonstration plotter revealed”. On the right-hand side is a picture (which remains in the same place as of May 22) of China’s biggest Fisheries Law Enforcement Command ship, the Yuzheng-310, linking to a special saturation-coverage page dedicated to the Scarborough Shoal issue

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:

  1. Xinhua was the immediate source of war-preparations rumours denied by Ministry of Defense
  2. PLA Daily’s piece on May 12 appears aimed at Dai Xu and his powerful pro-war backers in China
  3. Fenqing witchhunt unmasking the “organiser” of the global Filipino demonstrations, via Weibo, becomes dominant in mainstream discourse

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Small-scale protests in Manila, even smaller-scale protests in Beijing

Filipinos protest over the Scarborough Shoal dispute, Manila, May 11, 2012

Chinese protesters at Philippines embassy in Beijing, May 11, 2012

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.

Chinese protesters at Philippines embassy in Beijing, May 11, 2012

Protesters and police outside the Philippines embassy, May 11, 2012

Protester and police outside Philippines embassy in Beijing, May 11, 2012

Police outside Philippines embassy, Beijing, May 11, 2012

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.


“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.


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