“Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoff

Yuzheng-310 – the PRC Fisheries Law Enforcement Command ship at the centre of a wave of domestic criticism of the Chinese government

It’s one of the great puzzles of Chinese foreign policy in the 21st century, and particularly when it comes to the PRC’s behaviour in the South China Sea: which of China’s actions are co-ordinated, intentional, directed by the central leadership – and which are the result of individual agencies, political factions, and other actors in competition for resources or policy supremacy?

The International Crisis Group released a report on Monday this week emphasising the former, the “lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies” leading to an incoherent policy on the South China Sea. The same day, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College published a piece that argued China’s “small-stick diplomacy” strategy in the dispute – principally the use of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies – is likely to succeed.

One of the problems is there are very limited ways of working out what’s actually going on, and one of the principal windows we do have is the Chinese mass media, including online media like news portals, the content of which we know to be shaped by the directives of the State Council Information Office and Ministry(s) of Propaganda. However, the Chinese mass media also operate to a large degree on commercial premises, so it’s a constant challenge to work out whether their coverage is best explained by sensationalism or political direction.

Watching the PRC’s media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff over the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of bewildering. In one particularly strange example this week, the China Youth Daily, online news portals, and decision-makers combined to create a veritable firestorm of outrage against the government – all based on what appear to be false reporting.

On Monday all of the major news portals splashed their front pages with the following headline: ‘Philippine warships, anti-submarine jet headed for Huangyan Island’. The story claimed that Philippines naval commander Alexander Pama had said just this on Filipino TV and it prompted much anger from readers, of course. But most of it wasn’t directed at the Philippines, as the 269,000-strong discussion on NetEase indicates:

“If one country’s warships enter another country’s territory, that constitutes a declaration of war. If the other country ignores this, I can only understand it this way: Huangyan Island, and the islands of the South China Sea, essentially do not belong to that country.” [56,351]

“‘South Sea issues expert Xiamen University Institute of International Relations director Prof. Zhuang Guotu told the China Youth Daily in an interview on April 22, although the standoff was the result of the Philippines testing China’s bottom line, China has taken the opportunity to employ a new model of non-military measures to peacefully resolve the South China Sea issue,’ – he doesn’t even think of the loss of face, and calls it a new model! Other countries are laughing so hard their teeth are falling out, China has backed off from its own sovereign territory again and again. Try swapping Russia in? We need to get rid of the enemy’s ideas of invasion, their courage.” [34.281]

“Motherf@ker, if we don’t strike now, we won’t even be be able to later. If you agree please recommend!” [27,676]

“Kill the chicken to warn the monkey – do they dare?” <— “No” [18,672]

“Ok, just that sentence, ‘New model of peaceful resolution’ — when the international community sees that some people are going to die of laughing.” [16,110]

“I’ve said too much, i don’t want to speak. If i speak it’s no use, i’m tired of it.” [12,304]

“We’re still not taking any action? Do we [the leaders] need to have another meeting, cigarettes and alcohol?” [10,129]

Although questioning China’s claims (the top comment) was fine with the censors, as was mocking China’s leaders as useless and corrupt in the face of external aggression (the bottom comment), the following apparently went too far, being deleted sometime on Monday afternoon after sitting in 5th place for most of the day:

“The whole country supports hitting the Philippines, what the hell are you waiting for?” <— “They’re so comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed.” [7,039 before deleted]

The reader outrage that this story provoked, and thus its particular sensationalist appeal to the website editors, could well have had something to do with last week’s Chinese media reports of PLA Navy submarines heading to the disputed area. Being taken from the normally-authoritative China Youth Daily, ‘Philippine warships, anti-submarine jet headed for Huangyan Island’ was the most-read and the most-commented-on throughout the day on NetEase, and almost certainly on all the other sites too, considering its leading headline position. It was also, according to all concerned (ie. Admiral Pama, the Filipino TV station and the Chinese embassy), completely false.

The following day, Tuesday April 24, the Scarborough Shoal continued its run as the centre of attention, but the correction of the previous day’s top story was nowhere near the big 5 news portals’ front pages. Instead, the “most eye-catching position”, to use the Chinese censorship apparatus’ parlance, was dominated all day by ‘China Fisheries boat 310 leaves the Huangyan area’. Just to reiterate, the announcement that the Philippines military was not actually closing in on “China’s Huangyan Island” as the previous day’s sensation had warned, was nowhere to be seen. And now China’s much-vaunted, “most advanced” Fisheries Law Enforcement Command boat, which had just 4 days prior, been sent over to protect the rights of China’s fishermen, was withdrawing to  “de-escalate the situation”. The reaction was simply gigantic; it is the most commented story of the week on QQ, Phoenix and NetEase, and probably was on the other two sites, though that data’s not available. Six out of the top ten stories of the week on Phoenix are about the South China Sea. The latter’s 313,000-strong discussion was darkly humourous, and may reflect the story’s penetration of a more apathetic, mainstream consciousness:

“Guys don’t get angry, the two boats are just heading back to pick up some Wumao [govt-employed internet commenters] and Chengguan [urban quasi-police forces notorious for thuggery], when they do, the recovery of the South Sea will be a matter of time…..” [25,104]

“What a loss of face, my lungs are about to burst with anger” [21,339]

“I’m doubting whether Huangyan Island really is ours! Really” [18,860]

“I saw some early reports that said leaving was to avoid [others] saying we had elevated the situation. I’m very curious, since this is our historic territory, what does it have to do with any other country even if we sent 100 ships? To seek agreement from others to walk in one’s own doorway is just a joke.” [17,298]

“The leading ship has pulled out first” [14,091]

“I think the South Sands [Spratlys], Middle Sands [Huangyan] and West Sands [Paracels] all belong to others. If you don’t believe me, wait and see.” [11,672]

“Is our navy just a guard of honour?” [9,716]

‘China Fisheries boat Yuzheng 310 leaves Huangyan area’ even prompted 5,200-odd comments and 6,000+ forwards among the cooler, more urbane Weibo crew. A more intense type of nationalistic anger came through in response to a story that ran next to it in the headlines: ‘US calls for diplomatic dialogue to resolve Huangyan standoff’. Here’s Phoenix’s 132,674-strong thread:

“Those who dare to wrong the Great Han must be punished, however distant! (敢犯我大汉着,虽远必诛!) I would rather be poor with dignity than rich with disgrace.” [22,969]

“We can lose business but there is no negotiation on territorial integrity, whoever loses [any claimed territory] becomes a villain of history!” [16,512]

“Has it really come back? Who can explain the following?
1. Since it’s our own territory, why do we not dare declare authority over it?
2. Will the people’s long-held territorial concepts waver?
3. When others provoke contradictions, why do we not take up the challenge?
4. Why should we always be the first to ease the crisis?
5. When protecting territorial integrity, why do we look at others’ attitudes?
6. Is this the same as counting on the League of Nations 100 years ago?” [11,284]

“Tragic” [5341]

And among NetEase’s 92,850 respondents:

“A magnificent great power is somehow being pressured by tiny little Filipino dwarves to the point where it can’t breathe..” [14160]

“Fine, so it’s all over. The problem is now internationalised, we have missed the best opportunity for a military strike.” [10519]

“As a Chinese person I’m feeling more and more humiliated.” [10506]

“America calls for non use of miilitary means, because the Filipino maids don’t have military means, and it doesn’t want to use military means on their behalf. A diplomatic solution is extremely unfavourable to China!!!” [6732]

. . .

“Speechless. If it’s our territory, chase them away, if it’s their territory then leave immediately. What standoff? I have to swear” [4458]

“American imperialism has begun interfering in internal affairs!” [3518] *

“After this little Philippines will be standing on our country’s head and shitting!!” [2837] *

One comment on another thread summed up this nationalist outpouring in terms of China’s domestic issues:

“A certain country’s angry youth can’t hold onto their own jobs, can’t hold onto their own relationships, can’t hold onto a property, can’t hold onto their own homes, can’t hold onto their own rights, can’t hold onto their own safety, can’t hold onto their own freedom, can’t hold onto their own lives….yet they want to hold onto the South Sea and the Diaoyu Islands….” [6645]

And this wave of disappointment, criticism and outrage, like the previous day’s was based on little-to-nothing in the way of facts. The Philippines military said on Tuesday that Yuzheng 310 had not actually left the area at all, but remained 8 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal.

So what does all this reaction mean? Of course, to some extent this can be explained by the sensationalist impulses of commercialised media. But can that really explain the CCP’s hands-off approach to censorship on this topic? The identical front-page treatment and headlines on the news portals? Why would a regime that maintains expansive powers to direct the media, allow two stories, both highly questionable from a factual point of view, and together depicting the Chinese government as spineless for not simply blasting the Philippines out of the disputed area, to become the most-read news in the entire country this week? To return to the original question of co-ordination/intention vs competition/accident in Chinese foreign policy, the two scenarios that i would immediately grasp for would be:

1.) Co-ordination/intention: The leadership group wishes to stoke public anger, effectively applying domestic pressure to itself, thus demonstrating to the Philippines that there is no possibility of it backing down in the standoff.

2.) Competition/accident: Someone, or some group, that favours tougher action against the Philippines wants to show the government’s current policy as weak and out-of-touch with the people.

The first one has been shown fairly convincingly to have been a tactic the CCP has deployed in the past. I’ll discuss some evidence tomorrow for the second one. But neither seems to have the ring of truth.

So after all that i remain perplexed. Maybe some of this blog’s new-found readers can help me!

5 Comments on ““Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoff”

  1. […] “Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perple… […]

  2. […] in sum, Luo Yuan’s media presence, and the provocative media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff that i documented here last week, could all be part of the same strategy of disinformation for the […]

  3. […] in the South China Sea. That competition may even be the reason for the otherwise-perplexing emphasis on the Yuzheng 310′s alleged withdrawal from Scarborough Shoal in the Chinese media in late April, which generated much public […]

  4. […] ships instead of an overwhelmingly powerful naval flotilla was weak, they felt, and the move drew harsh criticism from hawkish netizens. Similarly, when Vietnam passed a new Maritime Law last week in which it […]

  5. […] for the establishment of a military base on the disputed rock and voicing disagreement with the “pulling out” of a fisheries law enforcement ship from the scene, it was two weeks later that public attention on […]

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