Who does Major-General Luo Yuan speak for?

On Tuesday this week, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attempted to dispel any prospect of the PLA influencing China’s handling of the Scarborough Shoal standoff by expressly stating that the military would act in accordance with the needs of diplomacy. However, for at least one PLA officer, this was no barrier to openly criticising the civilian leadership’s recent decisions.

“At present we have the diplomatic departments and relevant maritime departments dealing with this issue,” Liang said, “and I believe they will do a good job.”

Now, although the Defense Ministry is not considered a powerful ministry, Minister Liang is a PLA general, and a member of the Central Military Commission, so his words carry weight well beyond his ministerial position.

For Major-General Luo Yuan, however, Liang’s warning was no barrier to publicly criticising the civilian leadership’s decisions, especially the the so-called “withdrawal” of Yuzheng-310, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s best ship, from the scene of the standoff. In yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, Luo Yuan wrote:

China, as a result of big-picture considerations, has decided, of its on volition to withdraw two law-enforcement vessels, including the most advanced “Yuzheng-310”, and this has been seen as an act of “goodwill”. It was one option for stabilising the situation, but the test of history will tell whether it was the best option.

The author believes, in light of high-level strategic considerations, we should not “withdraw firepower”, but should take this chance to increase our presence at Huangyan Island. We should raise the national flag, establish a sovereignty marker and build a military base, or at the very least a fisheries base. Huangyan Island should be a testing ground for breaking free of our South China Sea difficulties.

Luo, the Director of the Academy of Military Science Deputy Secretary-General of the China Society of Military Science (see comments), is the military’s most active media commentator, and he has been particularly vocal on the South China Sea issue of late. At the ‘Two Meetings’ in March, Luo commanded a great deal of media attention with a proposal to declare the South China Sea a Special Administrative region, increase troop numbers and naval patrols, and encourage more Chinese fishermen to trawl in the area.

His recent arguments, ‘Watch the bullying Philippines, China is giving peace its last chance’, and  ‘If Philippines dares provoke us again, the navy will attack with both fists’, have generated overwhelmingly positive reader reactions; the latter sparked a 174,000-strong discussion on Phoenix, almost exclusively, it would appear, in support of his position.

He has been particularly active in pushing his hawkish position ever since the Scarborough Shoal standoff started, and what’s particularly interesting is that he has actually started invoking the public support he has received, to buttress his argument. His article yesterday finished with the line:

Recently the Philippines’ leaders have repeatedly talked tough on the Huangyan Island issue; this piece can be considered to reflect the will of the Chinese public.

So if Luo Yuan sees himself as reflecting the public will, who is he reflecting it to? Well, elsewhere in the article Luo argues that China’s policy of not firing the first shot does not actually preclude China from, well, firing the first shot:

There is a difference between the strategic and tactical “first shots”. The Philippines violated our territory first, and  boarded our fishing boats first, so it has “fired the first shot” strategically. It must pay a price for this and we cannot let this example be set. as though after it has finished provoking us it can go back to square one via negotiations.

This sort of argument, given its rationalisation on doctrinal grounds, looks like it might be aimed at either the military command, the party’s top leadership, or both. If so, Luo Yuan is attempting to shape internal debates on foreign policy via public grandstanding, and his rallying of popular support, it appears, could be part of that.

Significantly, the story’s treatment has varied greatly across the major news portals, unlike other stories in previous days. Sohu’s version of it was a secondary headline in the top story section on the front page for part of yesterday, prompting 39,000+ responses. Sina likewise placed the story beneath the main headline (see screenshot below) and its discussion thread attracted 137,000+ readers to get involved. I won’t bother to translate them since i didn’t find any comments not supporting Luo’s argument.

Sina News front page, April 26, Luo Yuan's article circled.

However, Google searches of NetEase and Phoenix return only BBS repostings of the article; and Luo’s piece on QQ.com has attracted only 673 comments, indicating that it has not been prominently displayed there. The inconsistency strongly suggests that in this case the news portal companies were making their own editorial decisions. It also suggests that the near-100% support for Luo’s stance among readers who cared enough to comment, is real.

Nonetheless, Luo is clearly not acting alone; his level of access to the mass media is, as far as i can tell, unrivalled among any of his comrades, past or present. And while media sensationalism can explain the demand side of the equation, for Luo, a serving (or perhaps retired – see comments) PLA officer, to get away with making regular public comments critical of the government means, at the very least, that he has backers in high positions within the military.

This does not necessarily imply dissension, of course. There could be a consensus at the top of both the military and the party that it is beneficial to have a hardline attack dog reminding the world not to mess with the PRC. So far, however, the world has shown little sign of believing Luo’s bluster.

Whether Luo’s media performances are a result of dissension or of unity, he certainly does appear to have the support of many among the interested Chinese public.

13 Comments on “Who does Major-General Luo Yuan speak for?”

  1. Nice post. One small point: Luo is either semi-retired or fully retired. His official position is deputy secretary-general of the China Society of Military Science, which is affiliated with but separate from the Academy of Military Science (home to many retirees).

    • Ops. Thanks for those important corrections. I don’t know where i got the idea that he was director of the AMS (perhaps it was Chinese media referring to him as “中国军事科学院研究院、解放军少将罗援”, whatever the case it’s sloppy on my part.)

      Glad the post held some interest for you. Obviously i’m delighted to have you stop by.

  2. dylanjones says:

    Although Taylor may be right about his current position, Luo is far from a nobody. In fact he is yet another ‘princeling’ (which probably at least in part explains his apparently sanction-free outspokenness). Luo is the son of legendary Chinese intelligence figure Luo Qingchang. Luo the elder headed the Diaochabu (“Central Investigating Dept” – predecessor of the MSS) during the Cultural Revolution.

    Rumour (stress *rumour*) says Luo is close to XJP and may be a key advisor come the new regime next year.

  3. […] the various possibilities raised in the previous article on Luo Yuan, then, this explanation implies that his prominence in the media is very much a result […]

  4. […] is a PLA Air Force researcher and author with the rank of colonel (上校) — similar to Luo Yuan — who has often appeared in the PRC media. His 2010 book argued that “China cannot […]

  5. jaylovette says:

    “The author believes, in light of high-level strategic considerations, we should not “withdraw firepower”, but should take this chance to increase our presence at Huangyan Island. We should raise the national flag, establish a sovereignty marker and build a military base, or at the very least a fisheries base. Huangyan Island should be a testing ground for breaking free of our South China Sea difficulties.” ——> You said you’re an Australian doing research on China’s sentiments. This whole article is 180 degrees off of the opinions of the Filipinos all over the world. If you consider the past international conflicts in all of human history starting from the Peloponnesian War, nothing good comes out of these types of conflicts. Build a military base?! Are you nuts?! Both nations have strong military allies with economic relations with each other. Did you not consider the economic set backs it would cause?! The U.S. has just barely recovered from recession and Eurozone’s immediate future is still unclear.

    Think with your mind, not with your emotions!

  6. […] China was being “bullied” and urging for the military to be sent in to occupy the shoal (South Sea Conversations, April 27, 2012; China.org.cn, April 27, 2012 ; Reuters, April 21, 2012; Global Times, April 9, […]

  7. […] Diaoyu Islands. Although Luo Yuan staked out the extremes of the debate in April by calling for the establishment of a military base on the disputed rock and voicing disagreement with the “pulling out” of a fisheries law […]

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