“A miracle if there is no military conflict”: the CCP’s Scarborough Shoal media blitz, Part I (May 8-9)Posted: May 13, 2012
Last Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry declared to the world that Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying 傅莹 had summoned the Philippines’ charge d’affaires in Beijing, Alex Chua, and told him, “I met with you twice last month, and demanded that the Philippines calm down . . . the Philippines has clearly not recognised that it is committing a serious mistake”. [EN|ZH]
“The Chinese side has also made all preparations to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side,” Madam Fu said, according to the MFA.
Although this was interpreted in some quarters (the WSJ’s headline-writing quarters at least) as signaling a hardline shift, the comment threads on the story on Phoenix and NetEase suggested that the Chinese online audience wasn’t buying it. Yet.
However, over the following couple of days a wave of hardline commentary and inflammatory coverage appeared to raise the hopes of those who, not to put too finer point on it, want China to start a war over Scarborough Shoal. According to a detailed survey conducted in late April by the Huanqiu Shibao‘s opinion polling centre (and widely publicised in the Chinese media, e.g. here), that describes almost 80% of the urban Chinese population.
We certainly shouldn’t take that result literally, for the survey was full of leading questions, probably because that’s the result it was designed to find. The majority of the population are, i suspect, quite apathetic, but the number strongly in favour of military action is definitely significant, if only because it’s China, where every percent of the population is 13 million people.
The key period in setting off this wave of war-hope and war-fear began at 22.05 on the evening of May 8. That was when China News Service (Xinhua’s twin sister) reported that the PRC’s Manila embassy had issued an “urgent notice” warning PRC citizens in the Philippines to stay indoors, only go out in groups and steer clear what it called “large-scale anti-Chinese protests”. Judging by the datestamps and comment threads this appears to have been prominently reposted (as all responsible news outlets would with such an urgent public safety announcement) immediately on Sina and Sohu, an hour later on NetEase, and the following morning on Tencent and Phoenix.
At 23.16, CCTV’s News channel reported that overseas Filipinos will launch large-scale anti-China marches on May 11. After a brief live phone update from a CCTV correspondent in Manila, the host told the journalist, gravely, “stay safe.” Half an hour later the Huanqiu Shibao put out its widely-quoted “a miracle if there is no military conflict” editorial via Sina (it didn’t appear on Huanqiu‘s own site until after 8am).
These early rumblings portended a torrent of sensational Huangyan-related news that dominated the media for the next few days. The Manila embassy’s warning was the lead headline on four of the five online portals throughout Wednesday (May 9), accompanied by sub-headlines:
- Philippines plans to remove all sign of China from island
- China: we are fully prepared for any escalation by the Philippine side
- 5 PLA Navy warships pass Okinawa, headed south
- Rumours China preventing Filipino fishers from entering Huangyan
- Philippines expert claims China does not dare send troops
- Huanqiu Shibao: prolonged friction of this type without military conflict will be miracle
- [Philippines] MPs call for economic sanctions against China
The hottest topic on Sina Weibo that day was “Chinese warships approach Philippine territory”. Sentiment among the relatively urbane Weibo users (whom i have generally found to be a bit too cool for territorial bickering), according to close Weibo observer Bill Bishop, was “overwhelmingly in favor of force if necessary to get the Philippines to back down.” As Bishop notes, no topic can trend like that on Weibo without government approval.
Meanwhile, on the portals the comments flowed angry and unchecked. There was not only a lack of the usual signs of interference with the comment threads e.g. abnormally high participant:comment ratios and uniformity; it actually appears that there may have been an explicit order to not censor comments at all. Considering that the following rose to the very top of the rankings on NetEase’s 129,000+ participant “Chinese embassy issues safety warning to Chinese in Philippines” thread by early afternoon:
From May 13 to 16, 1998 during the Indonesian anti-Chinese incident, 1,250 Indonesian-Chinese people died, 24 were injured, and more than 1,000 women were raped, gang-raped or sexually harassed. Every country on earth denounced it, yet somehow one country said: this is Indonesia’s internal affair, we don’t interfere in other countries’ domestic politics. The US sent warships to collect a large number of Indonesian-Chinese. When the rescued Indonesian-Chinese reached America they unfurled a banner saying, “Better to be an American dog than a Chinese person”. This became the humiliation and shame of the Chinese nation [中华民族]. <—- replying to —– Real American [running] dogs [美狗] <—– replying to ——-The previous commenter, that monkey, should be human-flesh searched. Everyone can go together to visit his family’s womenfolk. [15,442 dings]
Leaving aside the fact that the majority of the thread was a horrible meigou vs wumao slanging match, with the 1998 Indonesian riots merely the excuse, one would think that under normal circumstances the administrators would delete posts calling for human-flesh searching (ie. revealing of an internet commenter’s personal details) as a matter of course, not to mention legal obligation — especially if it’s the #1 comment on the #1 story of the day. The comment was eventually deleted, along with most of the Indonesian riot references, but that was more than 12 hours after being posted. The replacement #1 comment, perhaps not surprisingly, was a call for war.
This was no mere internet phenomenon. The touted anti-Chinese riots were all over the TV and the newspapers. Perhaps to ensure the groundwork for public outrage was in place, the May 9 edition of the People’s Daily had a p.3 commentary article re-stating China’s legal basis for Huangyan sovereignty.
There is no doubt that this was a deliberate campaign to stir up public outrage in China, including demands for war. After all, the Akbayan Party organising the Manila demonstrations has been holding protests against China’s actions in what it calls the “West Philippine Sea” at regular intervals since at least June last year, without the Foreign Ministry seeing fit to warn its citizens not to go outside because of dire threats to their safety.
In a press conference later on Wednesday afternoon, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei accused the Aquino government of misleading public opinion and stirring up the Filipino masses (a claim that China has been making for at least a couple of weeks if not longer). What was new, however, was that he stated that the allowing of anti-China demonstrations “has already led to a strong reaction and attention from the Chinese masses at home and abroad”.
By this point the green light for public outrage in China could barely have been shining brighter. However, contrary to the expectations of those who would see the Chinese state’s encouragement of domestic nationalism as a ploy for legitimacy, on the PRC internet at least, it actually works to provoke domestic criticism of the government, as the top comments on Sina’s 67,000-strong thread in reaction to Hong Lei’s news conference reaffirmed:
Why do we have to let others share our things? 
Shame. I want to cry. 
Our place is being occupied by others, yet we want to look at other people’s expressions? When the time comes to act, you have to act! 
On what basis should we jointly develop [resources]? 
Lamentable! My country! 
Don’t leave the people disillusioned… 
Don’t leave the people disillusioned… <—- Already disillusioned. 
As discussed here before, the regime almost certainly finds this type of domestic criticism useful. Or to be more precise, it has found domestic criticism like this useful in the past.
Thursday-Friday review to follow.