Internet censors step in to protect Tang Jiaxuan?

Former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan speaking at a conference organised by CASS to mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of Sino-Japanese relations, August 28, 2012

Former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan made a foray into the PRC media last week on the Diaoyu issue, and the censors on mainland China’s most visited news portals seem to have been actively shaping online comment threads on his remarks.

Last Wednesday (29/8) Tang spoke at a CASS-organised forum to mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of Sino-Japanese relations. Tang was Foreign Minister from 1998 to 2003 and a State Councilor from 2003 to 2008, and is now the Chairman of the Sino-Japanese Friendship Association.

According to the People’s Daily Online’s English-language report published two days later:

Tang pointed out that the root cause lies in that some forces in Japan do not want to see the smooth development of China-Japan relations, and they attempt to stir up opposition from the public through the issue of Diaoyu Islands and gain political capital. “If they succeeded, the issue of the Diaoyu Islands will be seriously out of control and lead to endless troubles in the future.”

Tang stressed that China always insists on the consistent and unwavering position and proposition. The Diaoyu Islands and the affiliated islands have been China’s territory since ancient times, which is irrefutable whether in history or in the legal principle. Any unilateral measures taken by Japan are illegal, invalid and in vain. They cannot change the fact that the sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands belongs to China and shake the will of Chinese people to safeguard their sovereign rights.

This report continued in the above vein, with Tang quoted blaming Japan entirely for the incidents. It was a translation of a Chinese-language report, whose title translates as ‘Tang Jiaxuan talks Diaoyu: if Japan is determined to avoid the issue, it will back itself into a dead end‘. Interestingly, Google searches (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) indicates the story has probably not been republished on any of the biggest five mainland news sites, although Sina’s Hong Kong site has it here. It wasn’t that Tang was denied publicity for his interventions on the Diaoyu issue though — it was just that domestic audience was given a very different version of what he said.

As at 8.15pm on Wednesday evening, four of the five major news portals had the People’s Daily Online report, ‘Tang Jiaxuan talks flag-snatching incident: not rational patriotic action‘ in their top headlines, each using near-identical wording. The first three (NetEase, Sina and Tencent) may have been indulging in a bit of subtle sensationalism by changing 不是理性爱国行为, which unambiguously means “not rational patriotic action”, to 非理性爱国(行为), which can carry either the original meaning or a much more provocative one that imbues Tang’s remark with a disparaging tone: “irrational patriotic action”.

As it turns out, the disparaging tone may well have been accurate, but People’s Daily Online has attempted to cover it up. In his lecture at the CASS conference, the article begins, Tang said that the flag-snatching incident that occurred two days earlier on August 27 was,

. . . not rational patriotic action but rather action that harms the country. “Although this affected Ambassador Niwa’s final work in China, I believe that he will not leave.”

Tang Jiaxuan pointed out that this behaviour did not represent the wishes or thinking of the broad masses of China. The great majority of China’s population is rational, and hopes that Sino-Japanese relations can develop healthily. Currently, China’s relevant departments are investigating and verifying the relevant situation, and will get fully to the bottom of it.

The struck-out bits indicate parts that People’s Daily Online has since deleted from its version, but which still remain on the NetEase version as at September 2.

I first checked the NetEase comment thread at about 21.10 on Wednesday, and noticed the thread had more than 50,000 “participants” yet had produced only 223 individual comments. This is an abnormally low number of comments; especially when we consider that mobile apps are making commenting, as opposed to simply voting for someone else’s comment, much easier.

To illustrate this point, a random spot-check of the top comment threads on NetEase as at 02.06am, September 2, reveals participant-to-comment ratios of 14:1, 16:1 and 25:1. The abnormally high ratio on the Tang Jiaxuan story (225:1) is a good indication that comments were being screened or deleted because the portal websites’ counting systems apparently continue to chalk up “participants” even when their comments are deleted or hidden. In this case, of course, it wasn’t quite as blatant as in the aftermath of Kim Jong-Il’s death last year, when one Phoenix thread had racked up 15 million “participants” and only 770-odd actual comments, all of which expressed tearful love and sorrow for North Korea’s departed dear leader. That represented a ratio of 19,480:1 which i think will continue to set the benchmark for incredibility. I’ll refer to this number the KimLove Incredibility Ratio in future; it will work just like betting odds — the higher the KIR, the more incredible the proposition that the discussion isn’t being censored.

It certainly wasn’t mere disagreement with Tang’s argument that was being screened out. Most of the top comments are from readers remonstrating with his claim that the flag-snatcher “did not represent the wishes or thinking of the broad masses”. The current #1 comment was a representative example of the sentiment expressed in the top 10 or so comments as a whole:

Do not represent me, [if you feel the same] please ding, let’s see how many there are [15,825 dings]

A further sign that the thread was an object of censors’ attention came when the #2 comment was deleted, sometime after 04.49am on August 30. Posted by a reader in Singapore, it read:

Watching Xinwen Lianbo, or watching the Ministry of Oral Sex† make condemnations, only these are patriotic actions~ [4,640 dings]

† 口交部, playing on 外交部

On the Sina thread the pattern was similar, with 43,784 “participants” and only 443 comments. Though much lower than the 225:1 on the NetEase thread, this KIR of 100:1 is still easily big enough to suggest that comments were being screened. That’s because comment-to-participant ratios on Sina’s comment threads are usually much lower than on other major portals’ because Sina displays the most recent comments by default, rather than the most popular comments. Comments were either turned off or deleted on Tencent’s version of the “irrational patriotism” story.

Meanwhile Phoenix was leading with a different story titled, ‘Tang Jiaxuan: China and Japan should achieve three ‘do’s and three ‘don’ts’, which sat as a top headline for at least 12 hours from Wednesday evening to Thursday morning. The eponymous policy prescription that this article referred to was:

1.) do admit there are disputes, don’t deny them
2.) do shelve disputes, don’t intensify contradictions
3.) do things to aid stability, don’t do unilateral things to complicate or enlarge the disputes

The signs of rigging were even more obvious on the associated comment thread. Aside from a similarly unlikely prospect of nearly 31,000 “participants” generating a mere 162 comments as of Wednesday evening (KIR 191:1), comments mysteriously stopped coming in at exactly 7pm. They briefly restarted from 8.49pm until 8.56, before being switched off again for several hours.

The top comments were also jumbled up and out of order, for reasons i have yet to properly imagine (i would appreciate any suggestions regarding this riddle of course). Given all of the above, it could well have been the result of something fishy going on. These comments were deemed acceptable to appear as “top comments”:

1. In response to (4) below: Good, firmly ding [2914 recommends]

2. Resolutely oppose cooperation with Japan……… [2426]

3. Sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands is indisputable. [1758]

4. Three wants and three don’t-wants:* want territory, don’t want selling out of the country in search of glory; want dignity, don’t want shameless retreating; want protection for popular protect-Diaoyu activities, don’t want harming of popular patriotic enthusiasm. [3152]*

5. Want: national dignity.* Want: territorial integrity. Want: recovery of the Diaoyu Islands. Do not want: negotiations with any country over sovereign territorial issues. Do not want: compromise with any hegemonic power. Do not want: to purchase Japanese goods. [902]

6. Do protect sovereignty, don’t shelve disputes. Do see the basic reality, do not harbour delusions. Do concentrate the people’s hearts, don’t scorn the popular will. [883]

7. {Sino-Japanese relations would improve if Japan was to apologise, recognise China’s sovereignty over Diaoyu, abandon its military cooperation with the US, renounce militarism…} [450]

8. {The US has tacitly endorsed Japan’s position, so Japan has achieved its objective, and now it is telling China to think of the big picture. This will happen again and again.} [789]

9. [. . .] This means negotiating to maintain the status quo, then going back to your own country and punishing those who take the lead; and under such-and-such a name, suppressing the baodiao activities; then giving up. This is what you guys are thinking, isn’t it? [622]

10. [Rational is patriotic, impulsiveness harms the country.] <;;;;;;;;—- in response to
Presumably those 300,000+ compatriots tortured and killed in the Nanjing Massacre were quite rational, and not impulsive at all. [799]

* These comments played on the fact that the character 要, which Tang used to mean “do”, can also mean “want”.

This array of harsh criticisms begs the question: if there were significant numbers of posts being screened out, what could they have been saying? I’m not privy to that information at this point, of course, but i’d hazard a guess that it might go something like: “Tang Jiaxuan is a jolly good race traitor, and wouldn’t it be grand if Bogu Kailai were available to give him the Heywood treatment?”

Such compromised discussions are in many ways the most interesting kinds. The self-selected nature of online comments mean they can never reliably represent what “the netizens” think, much less carry the voice of the wider Chinese public. But when they are subject to interference they offer a possible indication of how the authorities want the voice of the public to appear, or not appear.


3 Comments on “Internet censors step in to protect Tang Jiaxuan?”

  1. […] heavily censored. Phoenix’s has 25,000+ participants but only 92 comments (representing a KimLove Credibility Ratio well above 250:1), the latest of which was posted at exactly 20.00 last night: Firmly endorse […]

  2. […] for war in the South China Sea in September 2011, and unlike some other portals, it did not portray Tang Jiaxuan’s comments about the recent flag-snatching incident involving the Japanese ambassador’s car as […]

  3. […] 173,000+ and 145,000+ participants purportedly producing only 1169 and 493 comments respectively (KIR 148:1 and 295:1), there were exactly zero expressions of support for Liu Yuan that i found. Was […]


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