People’s Daily: Don’t let the South China Sea problems interfere with the general situation of cooperation

The People’s Daily’s Special Commentator “Zhong Sheng” has swung between moderate and hardline rhetoric regarding the South China Sea of late.

On July 20, as China signed up to a new agreement to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the Special Commentator announced that the era of resolving territorial disputes by non-peaceful means was over, but less than two weeks later “he” was on the front page warning the Philippines that it would pay a high price for “strategic miscalculations” like advancing its claims over parts of the South China Sea.

Now the People’s Daily seems to have changed its mind again, with a strikingly conciliatory Page 3 Zhong Sheng commentary published on August 20 applauding the “restraint” of China’s main South China Sea adversaries, Vietnam and the Philippines:

Bloomberg reported on the 18th that Philippines President Aquino, in an obvious lowering of his tone, had said “the Philippines cannot overcome China by meeting force with force”. On the same day the Vietnamese government indicated it would put a stop to the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place almost every Sunday for the past 11 weeks. We welcome the Philippine and Vietnamese government’s restraint, and remain willing to deal with the South China Sea dispute calmly. Heading in the same direction remains the key to creating a favourable regional atmosphere.

Most interestingly, the the importance of properly controlling public opinion is singled out for special praise:

Territorial disputes are extremely complex, involving the people’s emotions and sometimes becoming bound up with domestic disputes. Unless extra restraint is taken, emotions could get out of control, which would doubtless result in unintended consequences.

[. . .]

Looking at the big picture, restraining impulsive sentiments, and positively guiding public opinion is always the road to finding a constructive solution to the South China Sea issue.

This message may well be aimed squarely at those within China who would seek to stir up “nationalist” sentiment on the South China Sea as a means of advancing their standing within the Chinese Community Party.

The story didn’t capture the attention of a great many internet users, with discussions involving 11,000 at iFeng and 13,000 at NetEase. Here is a selection of responses:

“Popular comments” on NetEase, from 694 comments/13,024 participants:

桜木様 Ying Mu Yang (Luoyang, Henan): I’ve fanned your face, but still haven’t given you any dates to eat, and you’re this happy…. [2400 recommends]

5人0 (Lanzhou, Gansu): They’ve talked through how it’s going to be done, the oil is flowing, and the Philippines has recently occupied islands! [1688]

百聞不如一見 [Seeing once is better than hearing 100 times] (Minhang District, Shanghai): The result of restraint will be no oil left…and editor, if you delete my comment again I’ll f**k your whole family. [1368]

Anonymous (Dalian, Liaoning): I now have my doubts about whether some of these sands really are China’s – what if they’re not? [1152]

Anonymous (Zhangjiakou, Hebei): China is really f**king . . . dead cheap [823]

Anonymous (Weifang, Shandong): The People’s Daily has taken the bait. [581]

The comment highlighted in bold appears to have escaped the censors’ attention.

Popular comments on Phoenix Online, from 301 comments/11,607 participants:

minjiang138: China gains absolutely nothing yet still thinks it’s had a great victory. [3424 recommends]

为国惩奸 [Punish the traitors on behalf of the country]: The South China Sea – with the Chinese government there, you will be peaceful and harmonious [1744]

般若齐天 [Wonderous knowledge equal to heaven]: The Philippines and Vietnam should be as restrained as China, look how restrained the Chinese people are! [945]

zzc_china: It only has to be beneficial to staying in power domestically, giving in to outside countries is no big deal [752]

Philippines to pay a price… “what price?” ask Netizens

The People’s Daily‘s short front-page commentary, ‘Certain countries have serious strategic misunderstandings on the South China Sea issue’ has created quite a stir inside and outside China. This was clearly the intention, since the commentary appears to have been republished or reported in every mainland newspaper, and Xinhua put out an English-language summary of the article.

This commentary by ‘Zhong Sheng’ (钟声 – Clock Sound), takes a completely different tone to the one published on July 20 under the same byline (discussed on this blog here), which was titled ‘The South China Sea problems cannot possibly be solved without a good environment’ and argued that “the time of using non-peaceful means to resolve territorial disputes has passed”. ‘Zhong Sheng’ takes aim at the Philippines for its construction of an army shelter on Feixin/Flat Island, one of the Spratly islands it occupies:

The “peace agreement” is obviously just a cheap trick by Manila. What happened on Feixin Island a few days ago shows that what the Philippines says and does are two different things, and that Manila clearly lacks sincerity in resolving the South China Sea issues peacefully.

. . .

The Philippines’ actions not only violate Chinese territorial sovereignty, they also ruin ASEAN’s position.

The article concludes with the ominous warning that the Chinese and international media picked up on:

All sides must be awake to the fact that China’s principled position does not mean it can casually allow other countries to opportunistically “nibble” at its territory. Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.

Far from dousing down public anger over recent events in the South China Sea, as it did on July 20, those in charge of the People’s Daily now appear to be consciously directing the Chinese people’s attention towards the issue. A ready explanation for this is offered by the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash that took place in the interim, and which turned the blowtorch of critical attention on the Party. As it tries to dampen down the frenzy of chatter and speculation about the causes of the disaster in Wenzhou, the Party may deploying be the very same process of “misdirection” or “shifting the people’s focus” (zhuanyi renmin de shixian) that He Liangliang says Vietnam is deploying in its escalation of the South China dispute.

However, if the aim of the article was to direct public outrage away from the CCP and towards the Philippines, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well, judging by the following most-recommended comments on the story on Phoenix Online.

“Hottest comments” from 25,154 participants/663 comments as at August 4, 2011, 6.00pm BJ:

湖 南山东人 [Hunan Shandongese] (Wenzhou, Zhejiang): If the little Filipinos’ [/nobodies’ 小非] brains are any good at all, they will listen to the subtext of this article, which says that backing off is the only wise course of action. Many things in this world cannot be solved by persuasion. China has a saying, “even the worst child fears the big stick”, and this could be very usefully applied to the Philippines and Vietnam. For them, if their morals are not up to the task, let us meet on the battlefield. [5218 recommends]

gmgb (Zibo, Shandong): By not acting when it should have China has missed a good opportunity, every day talking about how “this or that island is ours” while not a single one of the countries around us supports this. Heixiazi Island [on the northeastern border with Russia] – we’ll take half of that. There’s a large swath of territory that’s subject to unresolved disputes with India, and getting back the Diaoyu Islands is looking even more difficult. Reality has shown that “shelve differences, develop jointly” is unworkable, and this is the bad consequence of not acting when one should act. [3801 recommends]

天 地神人 [God of Heaven and Earth] (Nanning, Guangxi): The signing of the “guidelines” [with ASEAN in July] marks the latest of China’s unequal treaties. Since the South Sea is Chinese territory, on what basis are ASEAN countries deciding on rules of conduct? If China signs the “guidelines”, that means accepting that the South Sea is not Chinese territory, but rather an area of sea whose ownership is undecided. [3012 recommends]

asqcc (Wuhan, Hubei): What have China’s specific actions been? China’s intrinsic domains cannot be lost from the hands of this generation! We will not be sinners of history! [2222 recommends]

刚 才 [Just Now] (Pingxiang, Jiangxi): Who will recognize the authority of a rising great power that does not verify its capabilities through military force? When even a third-rate little country like the Philippines dares to break ground on the regional boss’s [太岁] head, what sort of regional boss are you? [1631 recommends]

易水寒禅 (Yunnan): “Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.” What price is the Philippines paying? At this point I can’t see any! [1237 recommends]

Deal1 [奈何1] (Zhejiang): They have occupied it for more than 30 years, their judgement is perfectly correct, you don’t dare do anything~ [1049 recommends]

If the Communist Party leaders really do monitor internet opinion as they say they do, they must have been able to predict the kinds of responses above – the comments translated on this blog suggest that many netizens have long been frustrated and even embarrassed by the Chinese government’s strategy, seeing it as all talk and no action. The most-supported comment on iFeng in the wake of China’s agreement with ASEAN and the subsequent news story about the five Filipino MPs’ visit to a disputed island expressed the view that in the absence of genuine actions aimed at recovering the “lost” islands, the government’s menacing words were making China a laughing stock. An alternative explanation might imagine the writers or sponsors of the article as intending to provoke public criticism of the policy status quo. This could only help the cause of any potential leftist/Maoist or conservative forces aiming to increase their influence through the 2012 leadership transition. Is the notion of Party hardliners whipping up criticism of the Party status quo a crackpot theory or a plausible explanation?