“There are cocoons growing in my ears!”: Hong Lei and Huang Shanchun’s responses to warmongering ‘netizens’Posted: May 28, 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.
The question was most likely prompted by comments Guangdong Military Region political commissar 政委, Huang Shanchun 黄善春 had made the previous day during an “online exchange with netizens” together with Wang Yang:
Huang Shanchun said the fact that some netizens had raised the issue of the current situation at Huangyan Island, and how military strikes would proceed, shows how our online friends and the masses pay attention to and care about our national interest and national security.
Not surprisingly, the “netizens” who cared enough to pay attention were not exactly impressed with Hong’s answer. As the comments among the 56,000-odd on Sina said:
Any country can come and bully our China. [1927 supports]
When you can shroud a simple issue in the mists of talk, or boldly and confidently dodge the point, congratulations, you can go [work for] the Foreign Ministry. 
Saying [this] is the same as not saying anything. 
Haha, how to cope with this? Words have their use, but this has limits. Too much talk with no action is empty, useless talk! Many countries have exploited China’s diplomatic weakness to encroach on China’s interests, knowing that the only consequence will some words from you! Speechless… 
Really tragic!! How can we not even hear “the possibility of military action to resolve the dispute is not ruled out”. 
The diplomats can go on holidays, in future when we encounter this type of situation just input “solemn representations 严正交涉” into the computer!!! There’s nothing else anyway…
Ha…I really don’t want to know about these spineless performances on the big issues facing the country. 
Ai! There are cocoons growing in my ears! (耳朵听出茧了 — expression of having heard something too many times) 
Major-General Luo Yuan said it right! “Which of the South Sea islands have we got back through negotiation? When the time comes to take action, action should be taken.” The Philippines’ leaders have been contradicting themselves. They are absolute American running dogs, what’s the big deal about striking them? After all, they have sent a warship into our territorial waters, and occupied so many of our islands, our Foreign Ministry’s words are not tough, and now they want to negotiate. You can never get them back by negotiating. If we don’t negotiate the diplomats won’t be out of a job will they? Even if they would lose their jobs, they still shouldn’t be losing face for the country. 
Some things can be solved through diplomatic consultation, territorial sovereignty issues absolutely can not! 
Could it be that we really are a paper tiger? 
Tencent’s portal ran the report on Hong Lei’s press conference under a headline that emphasised this divide, “Netizens advocate military solution to Huangyan problem, Foreign Ministry still persists with consultation”. The discussion thread was more than twice the size of Sina’s, with 17,000+ individual comments, and 157,000+ participants. Most of the comments were fairly long, so i’ll only translate the first couple.
If I was the journalist I would have followed up by asking: “And if consultation doesn’t work, what then?” or, “When someone seizes your possession, can you rely on consultation to solve the problem?” [38,806 supports]
Idiocy, it’s just saying empty words. What is resolute determination to uphold territorial sovereignty? It is daring to annihilate the enemy’s means and actions. Can we just talk about issues of sovereignty? Many provocations, repeated forbearance, after more than a month what has been negotiated? Just an ugly face, I feel ashamed of you. [20,289]
The following comment, which was sitting up in 5th spot as of May 18, has been deleted:
The stratagem of subduing the enemy without fighting [不战而屈人之兵] is paramount, at present the military’s battle power is no problem, but more than 70 percent are only-children, a great country cannot lightly start a war, every life is extremely precious. Also, soldiers’ wages need a series of rules to be guaranteed. On war and peace we must be cautious. Can we win by subduing the enemy without fighting? I’ll tell you a story: a group of Japanese devils walked into a monastery, and when the abbot saw the murderous demons he made a speech imploring them to down their hatchets and convert to Buddhism. The result? He hadn’t even finished speaking when the Japanese commander pulled out his bayonet and sent him to the Western Heaven 上西天 [i.e. killed him]. Did that constitute subduing the enemy without fighting? 
The deletion of this comment is slightly surprising given the calls for human-flesh searches, spreading of incendiary false rumours, and calls for assassinations that have been permitted over the past couple of weeks. Given that criticism of the policy status quo continues to be fine with the censors, the most likely explanation is a Tencent personnel decision to remove it due to the reference to “Japanese devils”.
Reconsidering Hong Lei’s press conference in light of these popular reactions, it doesn’t look so pretty for my Taoist reading. Although Hong effectively said nothing, the MFA must have known that the transcript it published would attract domestic attention.
It was more than the mere fact of the journalist asking the question that generated the headlines — it was the combination of the question, and its acknowledgement by the Foreign Ministry.
Indeed, the question in question appears at the very top of the official record Q&A record on the Ministry’s website. This may or may not have been the result of a deliberate decision — like the expert M. Taylor Fravel, i also need a Beijing journalist to clarify the degree of resemblance between the transcripts and what is actually said in MFA press conferences! — but we can safely assume that the transcripts are vetted and edited to some degree
I’d also love to know who the journalist was who asked the question, and whether it was submitted in advance and thus specifically chosen by the Ministry.
Leaving aside these unanswered questions about the degree to which the actual statement was premeditated, i am puzzled as to why the Foreign Ministry would draw attention to a statement that from outside China looked innocuous and obfuscatory (i have not found any English-language reports referring to it), yet from inside China stood as a clear rejection of the preferences of an online public whose anger the government had itself been actively stoking for the previous week.
Was Hong simply trying to squirm out of answering a difficult question? Or was the Ministry acting to try to dampen public expectations for military action in the wake of the previous week’s speculation? Could the statement have been some kind of veiled jab at its hawkish foreign policy rivals who might have been seeking to enlist public opinion to bolster their position? Or was it more likely carrying out some order from the central leadership to make the world aware that the PRC government was distancing itself from the netizens’ extreme opinions on the issue?
I will just admit it: i don’t have a clue. If you’ve read this far, please leave your suggestions in the comments!