First Luo Yuan, now Liu Yuan: from one “public opinion incident” to another

Liu Yuan

Liu Yuan giving his March 14 interview

...not to be confused with Luo Yuan

Luo Yuan

Over the past few weeks i’ve counted five instances of PLA General Liu Yuan publicly warning against military conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. If this puzzled the SCMP’s seasoned reporters, who described Liu as “hawkish” in a story quoting him saying, “The friendship between people in China and Japan is everlasting,” it was positively shocking for many of the Chinese internet’s e-nationalists. [1]

Actual serving General Liu Yuan is not to be confused with retired academic “Major-General” Luo Yuan (i’ll continue to put his rank in quotes to distinguish them), who was dumped from the CPPCC this month for being “too outspoken”.

That rationale was a bit ironic given he too has been oddly conciliatory on the Diaoyu issue of late. Not only did “Major-General” Luo categorically refute a Japanese media report that he had called for Tokyo to be bombed, he also seemed to deny he had ever suggested establishing a military presence on Diaoyu. And in one of his earliest Weibos, Luo raised a historical episode that seemed to imply that the US could secretly be trying to fool China into giving it a rationale for military intervention over Diaoyu:

In 1990, as Iraq massed military forces on the Kuwait border, the US ambassador told Saddam, “We do not take a position.” On July 31, US Assistant Secretary of State affirmed that “there is no duty compelling us to use our military”. As a result Iraq invaded Kuwait, under the belief that the US would not intervene, whereupon the US gained a great number of rationales for sending troops. From this we can see, the US wields not only high technology, but also strategic deception.


As “Major-General” Luo posted the above, he was being subjected to a now-famous Weibo struggle session over his bombastic maiden post’s exhortation to “punish traitors at home” and his hilariously incompetent attempt at doing his own 50-cent party work. But between their cyber-guffaws of ridicule, plenty of Weibo commenters challenged Luo to clarify just what his Kuwait anecdote meant in relation to China and Japan.

Luo’s allegory sounds like a reference to a key argument from Liu‘s 18th CCP Congress study notes: “The United States and Japan are afraid of us catching up, and will use all means to check China’s development, but we absolutely must not take their bait.”

General Liu meanwhile, in a reversal of the usual division of labour between the PLA’s real generals and media pundit corps, has made repeated explicit comments on Sino-Japanese relations and the Diaoyu issue during the period of the Two Meetings:

  • March 6: on the sidelines of the NPC, General Liu says that peaceful resolution of Sino-Japanese issues is the wise choice, repeats lines from his study notes extract excerpted in the Huanqiu Shibao on February 4 about protecting the “period of strategic opportunity” and war being a last resort, and adding a flourish: “The friendship between people in China and Japan is everlasting.”
  • March 10: General Liu tells a news conference, “[War] is just not on, in future we should just defer, discuss and coordinate, it’s not worth resorting to humanity’s most extreme and violent methods to resolve it.” He even admonishes one young reporter directly: “A kid like you would not know what war is, it’s actually very cruel, and the costs are great.”
  • March 13: Liu tells, a news portal co-operated by the State Council Information Office, that even talking of “bottom lines” is “not necessarily appropriate” and that the Sino-Japanese tensions area “to a large extent about face 面子”. He also cites the legacy of Deng Xiaoping to argue “we must be clear regarding the overall situation, and what is in the interests of the Chinese and Japanese people”. Xinhua promulgates the article. (These comments may also have been taken from the March 10 press conference, but if so that only adds more weight to the idea that propaganda authorities wanted Liu’s comments to have sustained coverage in official media.)
  • March 14: Liu Yuan gives an exclusive interview to Xinhuanet, in which he repeats and redoubles his previous comment that that Diaoyu is an issue of face and that “many young people do not know what a war is like, it is actually very cruel and costly.” This was carried on China’s official military web portal.

General Liu’s repeated comment about Diaoyu being an issue of face, in the Xinhuanet correspondent’s polite terms, “generated discussion”. According to the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Office’s samples, Liu was the fourth-most talked-about topic of the day on March 13. On Weibo, he even rivalled a national mapping agency official’s announcement of plans to send a survey team to the islands — for Red Guards 2.0, a news story as heartening as General Liu’s anti-warmongering rhetoric was horrifying.

Graph of Sina Weibo "degree of attention": "survey of Diaoyu" vs "Liu Yuan interview" (from People's Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Office)

Graph of Sina Weibo degree of attention (whatever exactly that means): “survey of Diaoyu” vs “Liu Yuan interview” (from People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Office)

There is no doubt the General got the attention of the internet portal commenter constituency too. On Phoenix, Liu’s comments produced the biggest and fourth-biggest most-comment threads of the week, as of 19 March PM Beijing time. It was predictable that this group of “opinion-makers” would disagree with Liu’s comments, although perhaps not in such eerily Nazi-like language:

General Liu, the Diaoyu Islands are an issue of sovereignty and living space 生存空间, absolutely not an issue of face. [16,799]

Diaoyu is absolutely not a contest for face, it is a battle of life and death between races 民族. [13,721]

The Sino-Japanese dispute over Diaoyu is about sovereignty, it is not an issue of face. [7770]

The Diaoyu Islands are China’s territory, what the Chinese people want is justice! [6723]

How can this be an issue of face? This is the core interest of the Chinese nation 中华民族! [6766]

Recovering lost territory, how can this just be an issue of face? [6090]

And so on and so on it goes, in exactly the same vein. There is not a single word of support for Liu to be found in either the top comments or the most recent comments, which also included this gem:

Dai Xu and [“Major-General”] Luo Yuan, you are the people’s generals, the people will remember you. [5]

Being compared unfavourably to an ageing buffoon and a nasty armchair warmonger was bad, but it was not the harshest criticism of General Liu on Phoenix. Notably, the following has received many more expressions of agreement than all the other recent comments around it:

Can Diaoyu be a face issue? General Liu, i don’t dare to dignify your analogy, it’s hard to believe these kinds of words would come out the mouth of a general, this class of person harms the country and harms the people 吴国吴民! [22]

Is it surprising to see this kind of criticism of a serving PLA general allowed during the Two Meetings? I’m not sure — please leave answers in the comments. But the latter comment was probably just one droplet from a torrent of much harsher criticism that was held back by the Phoenix censorship barrier. Both Phoenix’s threads were tightly controlled, with 173,000+ and 145,000+ participants purportedly producing only 1169 and 493 comments respectively (KIR 148:1 and 295:1), indicating only a very low percentage on comments were being allowed to go on display.

Interestingly, among those comments that did satisfy the censors’ criteria, i could find exactly zero expressions of support for Liu Yuan. Was criticism, and only criticism, being allowed? This is not the first time i’ve observed this phenomenon of exclusively criticism being displayed in response to officials’ comments on foreign policy; it happened in relation to Hu Jintao‘s call for calm on the South China Sea issue during at APEC last year.

Over at NetEase, which has a much looser censorship policy and a less nationalistic readership/commentariat, the pattern was similar. On a much more credible comment thread (KIR 15:1), the top comments all either stated disagreement or mocked Liu Yuan, and the thread contained much harsher terms than those permitted by Phoenix (“scum of the military”; “what are you afraid of — no Moutai?”)

I only managed to find one comment there supporting General Liu, and it was well down the page, which may suggest the that the Phoenix censors were not in fact disallowing support for General Liu — rather more likely, comments were all hidden (ie. censored) by default, and there simply were too few supportive ones for the censors to conveniently bring forth even a few for display. Perhaps General Liu in the portals is in the same boat as “Major-General” Luo on Weibo: if he wants a positive response, he’ll have to go and post it himself.

On the other hand, it remains possible that Phoenix, which did much for Bo Xilai while he was on the rise, may have an underhanded agenda in these debates, which may in turn have some deeper significance. On today’s top story, a hawkish retort from “Senior Colonel” Dai Xu, who has emerged as the most extreme pundit in the PLA’s arsenal, and the current darling of online nationalists, the #1 comment reads:

Firmly support Dai Xu, oppose 反对 Liu Yuan. [2549]

Perhaps this is overanalyzing, but it occurs to me that when it starts being okay to publicly “oppose” the Political Commissar of the PLA General Logistics Department, we may be touching on a serious political schism. Yes, this is just a comment in a forum, but being the #1 story it’s a very carefully managed forum, and it’s stuck at the very top, immediately visible to all. Dai Xu must have some kind of senior backing, because his statements have only been getting more and more extreme as his prominence continues to grow. Who does Dai speak for? Or is it all just part of the show, a 双簧戏? Once again, please let me know what you think in the comments.

The “besieging” of Luo’s Weibo last month has been labelled a “public opinion incident” 舆情事件. How would the new government be viewing the public online denunciation of a much more senior PLA figure tied in various ways to Xi Jinping? At the very least, we know the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Office will be watching.

So what to make of General Liu’s statements? His numerous re-statements of the same arguments certainly indicate he was trying to convey a message, but the intended audience was more likely the Party and military, rather than the public (though his haughty admonition of the young journalist mentioned above reminds us not to underestimate the leadership’s degree of aloofness). And the “face” comments were never going to be well received by the online-commenting public. It’s been suggested by one very knowledgeable that Liu was signalling that Xi Jinping’s Diaoyu consolidation exercise is complete.

Whatever the explanation, the General Liu Yuan episode is another example of how the PRC simply doesn’t feel answerable to online nationalist opinion on foreign policy matters. This is understandable, given that even as the portal censors held back the tide of indignation at the General, the public at large were clearly far, far more interested in the dead pigs of the Huangpu River:

Weibo search graph: "Liu Yuan" vs "dead pigs"

Sina Weibo search graph: “Liu Yuan” vs “dead pigs”

[1] The same SCMP story also referenced some Chinese and foreign media as interpreting General Liu’s study notes on the 18th Congress published in the Huanqiu Shibao on February 5 as a “call to prepare for possible warfare”, a reading that i’ve been unable to find any examples of.

9 Comments on “First Luo Yuan, now Liu Yuan: from one “public opinion incident” to another”

  1. […] People Liberation Army General Liu Yuan was attacked by online nationalist when calling for peaceful resolution of Sino-Japanese conflict. South Sea Conversations looks into Liu's opinion and netizens’ reaction. […]

  2. redoceans says:

    Reblogged this on 红 Red Oceans 海.

  3. redoceans says:

    Hey, your analysis is great. Thanks for following my blog as well, I’ve only just started my research and will start writing regular updates this week. I would actually like to get in touch and learn more about your research if you would like. Drop me a line via twitter or wordpress

  4. σ1 says:

    I am not really sure that you can accuse yourself of overanalysing here! At the very least you have noticed something that seems rather unnatural. I guess the question is, as with all Chinese politics watching, is this “abberation” due to some kind of broader policy debate/issue or is more of a “personal/party/institutional politics” -related event (or some mixture). If I was to hazard a very blunt guess, building on your own commentary but also recent news items, it seems that Xi is looking to become more conciliatory, relatively speaking. It will not make everyone happy but criticizing Xi himself directly is of course out of the question – thus is it possible that Liu served as a useful distraction/channel for the nationalist online opinion you refer to?

    • Hi, sorry for the delay, haven’t logged in for a while due to actually working on my Phd dissertation…i would love to find some way to balance the two, but i haven’t yet gotten close.

      I tend to subscribe to the notion that Xi and Liu Yuan are tight. Therefore i think Liu is making the case for a real policy, which has actually been in effect the whole time: no military action on Diaoyu.

      This tolerance of public criticism of a serving military leader is extraordinary, and could be a reflection of the preferences of the propaganda apparatus, or some pro-war vested interests with access to the propaganda apparatus. On the other hand, tolerance of nationalistic criticism of foreign policy as being too weak is extremely normal, which leads me towards the conclusion that it’s considered useful. Later in the year i will ask some people in Beijing who are subject to propaganda dept instructions how they would explain this phenomenon – contention or consensus.

      • σ1 says:

        I am the last one you need to apologise to – I also have lately been “actually working on my PhD” which has also forced a bit of prioritisation.

  5. […] we see essentially the same self-wumao tactic as Luo Yuan got caught employing on weibo a few months back. A post appeared on Luo’s weibo account, praising Luo Yuan’s superb […]

  6. […] He publicly refuted the idea of Japan and China inevitably fighting a war, echoing the argument General Liu Yuan was propounding at the time by stating that “only America would benefit” from such an occurrence. He has even […]

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