“You cannot not support this”: the passport saga impresses China’s online nationalistsPosted: November 27, 2012 | |
Students of PRC foreign policy constantly come up against the question of whether the actions of the Chinese state are the result of decisions made by the centralised leadership or individual state agencies.
Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox’s 2010 SIPRI report, ‘New Foreign Policy Actors in China‘ provided an excellent overview of the range of players on the Chinese foreign policy scene. Taking a similar approach in relation to the South China Sea issue, the International Crisis Group’s ‘Stirring up the Sea (I)‘ report earlier this year emphasised the incoherence that can result from individual (and sometimes competing) agencies acting according to their own priorities rather than a consistent centralized policy.
In the PRC’s latest diplomatic disaster, images embedded on the visa pages of the PRC’s new passports have managed to simultaneously provoke the official ire of Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Taiwan.
The two South China Sea claimants have protested the inclusion of a map including the nine-dash line representing China’s “territory” in the disputed sea, India disputes the maps’ depiction of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet, and the passports’ pictures of Taiwan landmarks prompted rare expressions of anger from Ma Ying-jeou and the ROC’s Mainland Affairs Council.
This looks to be a classic case of policy uncoordination resulting from a domestically-focused agency taking actions that directly impinge on other countries’ interests. From the FT’s report breaking the story:
China’s ministry of public security oversees the design and issuing of the new Chinese passports, according to an official at the Chinese foreign ministry who declined to comment further.
The next day the Guardian quoted MFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying, “The outline map of China on the passport is not directed against any particular country.” Yet neither the Chinese nor the English versions of the official transcript of Hua’s November 23 press conference include the comment, suggesting that the Foreign Ministry remained disinclined to take responsibility for the move.
The SIPRI and ICG reports mentioned above didn’t focus much attention on the Ministry of Public Security as a player in PRC foreign policy, but it has certainly become one, inadvertently or otherwise.
Possible strategic benefits to the PRC from this passport move have been pointed out. Ben Bland, for example, one of the authors of the FT’s scoop, tweeted that
When Vietnam/Philippines stamp visiting Chinese passports, they implicitly validate nine-dash line claim
However, that’s exactly what Vietnam has been refusing to do at its border crossings, instead issuing “loose leaf” travel permits on separate pieces of paper. At Lao Cai officials have even been stamping Chinese visitors’ passports as “invalid”, and India, meanwhile, has been stamping the passports with its own version of where the border between the two countries should lie.
Phoenix TV, which normally positions itself as either hardline or supportive of the government, actually ran a relatively long editorial criticizing the passports for creating unnecessary inconvenience for Chinese travellers.
The kneejerk e-nationalists on Phoenix and Tencent news portal comment threads absolutely loved the move — probably the best indication that it was strategically witless.
Top Phoenix comments from story headlined, ‘New Chinese passport sketches South China Sea sovereignty, Vietnam and Philippines protest claiming “violation of sovereignty” ‘ (13,979 participants/238 comments):
I support this measure by the government!! Long live! [3761 recommends]
You can not go those two countries [Vietnam and the Philippines], but you cannot not support this 
Support the Chinese government taking some action in foreign policy!!! 
Strongly support the government’s affirmation of sovereignty, sovereignty cannot be negotiated over, what should be taken back should be taken back with no mercy! [. . .etc. . .] [12,520 supports]
This move is good, ya, [. . . etc. . . ] 
I support the new passports! We absolutely cannot compromise or let up! If we don’t go to those countries that don’t recognize our passports, we can go to other countries just the same! [. . . etc. . . ] 
Once again, Netease commenters, and/or their editors, proved themselves to be of a quite different persuasion to the other forums. Top comments from ‘Vietnam refuses entry to a number of Chinese citizens with new passports‘ (8706 participants/376 comments):
Wow, with this kind of weather forecast, little Vietnam will be nervous! [2774 dings]
Ding me and you get rich today! Ding me and a corrupt official dies! 
Just put the whole of Vietnam’s territory on our map! <— in reply to — Better to include the whole world, the whole Milky Way galaxy, the whole universe. You’ll be the most badass if you sit inside your house, clutch your map of the universe and fight to the death! 
I want to know if the Diaoyu Islands have been put on that map, let everyone who goes into and our of Japan get it verified by the Japanese government. If it hasn’t been put on the map, don’t ever “protest, denounce” again! 
I imagine this episode may end up being cited as an example of the PRC government “appeasing” nationalist public opinion in its foreign policy. Certainly the it seems to be popular with those who will likely never actually need to make use of a passport.
But if this move accords with nationalistic sections of public opinion, it is a case of correlation without causation. The new e-passports have been in circulation since May this year, but almost nobody inside or outside China seems to have noticed the barely-visible maps until last week. The authorities certainly haven’t been claiming any nationalist credits for their inclusion up to this point, as some quick news archive searches make clear.
As the Ministry of Public Security performed their ostensibly mundane task of producing travel documents for Chinese citizens they had no choice but to include the nine-dash line and Arunachal Pradesh; to do otherwise would have rendered the passports illegal maps.