“Hello, Sansha”: Cheng Gang returns, brandishes Vietnam’s name . . . and lies

‘Hello, Sansha’ – graphic accompanying Beijing Youth Daily report on a July 2 visit to Woody Island 永兴岛. (Note superimposed nine-dash line.)

I knew it was incident season but I went anyway. A mistake i have learned from: from this point onward, until the disputes are resolved or my thesis is finished, i vow never to take a holiday in July, unless the destination is the South China Sea. Ten days after my return, i’ve only just finished properly studying all the recent action. The next few posts will sketch out in basic chronological order, recent developments as seen through the PRC’s major internet news media.

The establishment of Sansha City looms large. According to a keyword study of 15 major Chinese newspapers, it was in the top five most-mentioned domestic politics-related terms in the first 6 months of 2012 — a (suspiciously) remarkable achievement, given that its creation was only announced on June 21. There is no doubt, however, that Sansha has been very heavily covered in China’s state-controlled media since its announcement. The extent to which it has “attracted” this attention or had this attention ordered towards it is, of course, hard to say — the answer is clearly both, but in what proportions?

The flurry of first-hand accounts of visits by reporters began well before the opening ceremony on June 24. Beijing Youth Daily reporter Li Chen 李晨 visited on July 2, filing a story that ran on July 9 under the headline, ‘Hello, Sansha’. (The story was made available in English by the China Daily but the translation has since been taken down. It remains online here.) This was accompanied by the graphic above, with the nine-dashed line superimposed. It began:

Would you be surprised if I told you there was a city with an area equivalent to one quarter of China’s territory?

The graphic and the opening line show that the view of the nine-dashed line as representing China’s territorial waters, far beyond the officially-stated claim to the islands within, continues to be propagated through the official media. The apparent lack of desire to educate the Chinese public on the limits of China’s claims in the South China Sea suggests that the government sees nationalistic public opinion on the issue as more of a weapon than a threat.

Li Chen’s report also ran prominently in the July 15 edition of the Shanxi Evening News, but there were numerous other accounts of visits to Sansha around that time. Notable among them was this ‘Exclusive visit to South Sea frontline Sansha’ from the intrepid Cheng Gang 程刚 of the Huanqiu Shibao, who wrote that he was making his fifth visit to Woody Island/Yongxing 永兴岛. Some of Cheng’s reporting was made into an English-language article for the Global Times, but many of the interesting details have been left out.

The Qiongsha-3 that plies between Hainan and Yongxing (Woody) Island in the Paracels

Read the rest of this entry »

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A manic-depressive day in the Chinese internet media: Aquino’s threat, Vietnam’s law, and China’s Three Sands City

Chinese internet users dare to dream…of touristifying Woody Island (永兴岛, Dao Phu Lam). The news that the island would become the home of a prefecture-level city government was received with some excitement.

Scarborough Shoal was back in the headlines today (June 21), via a Huanqiu Shibao report on Aquino’s promise to redeploy the Philippines’ law enforcement ships there this weekend (if China’s remain there, which they will). It was a rough start, and the PRC’s media seas would get even darker before the gloom suddenly gave way to the shining light of China’s new Three Sands City 三沙市.

Philippines president threatens to redeploy ships‘ was the lead headline all day on 3 of the 5 major news portals. All but one had it among the large-font clusters that form the very top echelon of their front-page headlines, the exception being Netease. Every portal’s version of the headline contained the word “threatens”, with Netease once again the exception.

I’ve noticed before that Netease seems to be the least inclined to emphasise the South China Sea isSue. Maybe it’s to do with their target demographic and therefore their preferred company image (likely), the individual personality of its news editor/s (probable), or their board’s political preferences (unlikely but possible). There’s nothing conclusive on Alexa suggesting Netease’s audience is particularly different from its competitors’ in terms of age, gender or education, so perhaps it’s something to do with Netease’s gaming heritage.

Or maybe they just think the Chinese reading public has, by and large, had enough of the Huangyan Island story. They may be on to something there, because despite the heavy hype on the other four sites, it didn’t provoke any big discussion threads. The biggest one that i found was on Phoenix (only 26,000+ participants) where, sandwiched between the standard war-calls, a reader interestingly connected the South China Sea issue to the recent issues with westerners in China:

The Philippines’ provocations of China already represent a substantial potential threat: why have there recently been so many laowai flagrantly provoking [us] within China’s borders, on trains, on the streets, on the subway? The Chinese people need to reflect on this. [4,263 recommends]

One person who found Aquino’s statements interesting (without linking them to sleazy national scandals) was Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, the Director of the PLA Navy’s Informationisation 信息化 Expert Committee. Admiral Yin declared during an “exchange with netizens” on the People’s Daily website that Aquino’s “threat” is part of a plan to help coordinate the US return to Asia whilst attacking domestic anti-American and pro-Arroyo forces in the Philippines.

CNS (the other Xinhua) then put out a second story from Admiral Yin’s internet chat, emphasising his suggestion that China’s law enforcement should from now on “raise the force” used against “Filipino vessels that hang around in the lagoon and don’t leave”.

However, Sina and QQ news chose to base their headlines for that story on Yin’s assertion that the ‘Philippines has not yet returned 24 Chinese fishing boats it is holding‘. Yin appeared to be raising the issue of the dinghies seized in the Spratly Islands last October. That incident provoked a minor flurry of online anger and government rhetoric back then, but has barely been discussed since.

Then suddenly, mid-afternoon, reports of a new and dramatic provocation from Vietnam arrived to knock Aquino’s threat off the top of the headlines, and goad the online population out of their apathy: ‘Vietnam passes legislation claiming ownership of Paracels and Spratlys, China expresses strong protest‘.

Of course, it was the perceived weakness of the Foreign Ministry’s “strong protest” that proved the most provocative, and the story rapidly rose to become the second-biggest comment thread of the week on Tencent’s news portal, with 135,000+ participants.

Among Netease’s 36,000+ participants and at Sina, where 28,000+ participants was enough to make it the top news thread of the day, many of the top comments claimed that Vietnam’s latest muscular move was the result of the PRC government’s mishandling of the Scarborough Shoal, which, the commenters asserted, had been interpreted all over the world as a show of Chinese weakness.

Yet the Vietnam story lasted less than an hour as the leading online headline before it too was bumped off by a terse, one-paragraph announcement that swung the mood once again: ‘China establishes Three Sands City to administer Xisha, Zhongsha, Nansha archipelagos‘.

Readers seem to have been genuinely heartened and even excited by this news. I watched the reactions to this administrative adjustment roll in on Weibo, where thousands of users were re-forwarding the news with positive remarks and playful added comments about becoming a resident of the new city, about going there as a tourist, and about what a great job the Three Sands City chengguan are going to do on the occupiers.

“Three Sands City” is currently sitting in 8th spot on the most-searched list; a search for the same brings up more than 100,000 results; and the topic page ‘Our country establishes Three Sands City in the South Sea‘ already lists almost 50,000 weibos.

The top comments on Netease’s 50,000+ strong comment thread on the story ‘China establishes Three Sands City to administer Xisha, Zhongsha, Nansha archipelagos‘ mirrored Weibo almost exactly:

The only city mayor with no fat to skim off, tragic for the leaders [7512 dings]

There definitely must be a chengguan team [6507]

Can I migrate? [5924]

“China” has at last done something worth the people praising! [4114]

Set up a South China Sea Special Administrative Region (SAR) and a regional military post! [3969]

It would normally be suspicious to see comments in praise of anything the government does in the South China Sea, short of taking all the islands back with zero loss of life and perhaps a few trillion in indemnities. Even then there would be people complaining that the government was weak on the “Vietnamese monkeys” and “Filipino maids”. But as mentioned above, i watched the same comments appear before my eyes live on Weibo earlier, so i actually have no doubt that they are real. The dry humour that many of the wiser readers approach the South China Sea issue with remains, but in place of the usual pained and confused outbursts there are cheesy-grins and winky emoticons.

There is surely some interesting mass-psychology here; i’m obviously a complete hack, but there seems to be a sense of relief that the government has actually made a move. But more than that, it’s a cool move, one that has opened up the Chinese people’s imaginations, prompting some to dream of the future. The name Three Sands 三沙 has got a great ring to it in both Chinese and English. In an instant this piece of news shifted the PRC internet’s South China Sea discourse away from its usual themes of wounded apathy, victimhood, rivalry, humiliation, power lust, inadequacy, violation, isolation and the daily defence of the indefensible.

A non-rigged, positive thread in favour of the government’s actions on the South China Sea….? Strange, yes, but strangely fitting on this manic-depressive day in the Chinese internet media.


“A miracle if there is no military conflict”: the CCP’s Scarborough Shoal media blitz, Part I (May 8-9)

CCTV Nightly News 《晚间新闻》, 9 May, 2012.
Voiceover: “This behaviour has caused an intense reaction and attention among the Chinese masses at home and abroad.

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. Read the rest of this entry »


“China wants face, not territory”: the East Asia Summit and the South China Sea

The upcoming East Asia Summit, the first to include America and Russia, is sure to involve some interesting South Sea diplomacy.

Ahead of the meeting, the Philippines has in the past few weeks been trying to organize a united ASEAN front based on demarcation of disputed and non-disputed sections of the South China Sea – known as the “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC)” proposal. China of course opposes this, and a Xinhua article yesterday claimed that it was little more than an attempt to help the US with its “return to Asia” strategy.

The Philippines’ efforts seemed at one point to have at least some momentum when, late last month, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang endorsed the ZoPFFC proposal. However, the idea seems to have decisively hit the wall in recent days, with the Malaysian Foreign Minister declaring that his country didn’t support the idea of raising the South China Sea issue at the EAS:

China is showing a positive step by organizing seminars and workshops . . . To introduce another forum will complicate the matter further.

Cambodia’s FM actually laughed when asked about the idea: “The problem is how to avoid . . . duplication,” he said, perhaps referring to each claimant state’s bilateral negotiations with China.

But a US presidential aide indicated today that Barack Obama will raise the issue at the EAS anyway. The Global Times has been swift in reporting the spokesman’s comments, under one of its inimitable headlines: ‘America plans to force itself into the South China Sea dispute, claims the issue is appropriate for the EAS’.

The Sixth East Asia Summit, aimed at pushing forward the process of East Asian integration and community, will begin in Bali on November 19. Yet the US, despite not being a relevant party to the South China Sea issue, and making its first appearance at the EAS, has declared that it wants to “discuss the South China Sea” at the summit.

However, the only major news website that has the story anywhere on its front page is Sina, which is running a toned-down CNS report, buried among other small headlines, rather than the GT’s fury-laced version, and this hasn’t attracted a great deal of attention so far (only 1,200 or so participants in the discussion, most comments voicing standard denunciations of American temerity). One particularly interesting reader comment, however, is to be found on the Chinese-language Wall Street Journal’s report, titled ‘China opposes discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS’:

What opposing discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS means is: “you can occupy the islands, but you can’t say so publicly”. China is only after face, not territory!

Although China definitely is after the territory, this comment is actually very incisive.  The reality is that China currently occupies very little in the South China Sea – it has the Paracel Islands, but none of the genuine islands among the Spratlys – and as a result the CCP government loses face with the Chinese public every time the issue arises.

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Update 1: Phoenix has just now posted the CNS report [zh] on the Obama staffer’s comments, if it provokes comment i will add some.

Update 2: QQ is running a report that ‘Japanese media claim US and ASEAN will issue joint statement on South China Sea’ [zh]. The report is from the Yoimuri Shimbun.


“Repulsive Little Japan” enters South China Sea dispute

Following his visit to Tokyo late last month, Philippines President Aquino appears to have passed the baton of responsibility for keeping the cauldron of Chinese resentment bubbling to Japan.

Late last month, Japanese Vice Minister of Defence Kimito Nakae made the provocative comment that the relationship between Japan and ASEAN had “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” regarding regional security issues.

Last week the Japanese Foreign Minister attempted to demonstrate that this was no mere empty talk. As the official China News Service reported on October 9 under the headline, “Japanese media say Japan is planning to comprehensively intervene in the SCS sovereignty issue”:

From Japanese media reports: The Japanese government is currently preparing, together with Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, to establish a coordination mechanism for sovereignty issues in the South China Sea and guaranteeing maritime security and freedom of navigation.

From October 11, Japan Foreign Minister Genba Koichiro will visit Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Japanese Foreign Ministry revealed that Genba would consult several Southeast Asian countries regarding the above-mentioned problems. Japanese media have taken this to imply that the country is preparing to comprehensively intervene in the South China Sea sovereignty issue.

The Kyodo news agency reported that Japan would do all it could to build a multilateral framework for negotiating the international disputes to deepen maritime security cooperation ahead of November’s East Asia Forum.

Discussion of this story was bound to be inflammatory, and Phoenix and NetEase appear to have hidden the story away and/or limited the discussion threads associated with it. Among the major websites the most populous discussion seems to have been on Sina, with 20,579 participants and 916 comments:

China should propose to the UN Security Council that the vanquished Japanese be investigated under suspicion of violating international law, wantonly expanding military armaments and reviving militarism from the ashes. China should demand that Japan-the-vanquished be made to respect the protocol of the defeated, truly and properly reform and start anew, and have international observers permanently dispatched to Japan to supervise. [516 supports]

Clearly state that if Japan dares to intervene in the South China Sea, we will decisively cut off all access for Japanese ships from the Taiwan Straits. If Japan dares to retaliate, decisively sink them. If Japan declares war, we should call in the debt of the 35 million lives sacrificed in WWII, have the debt of blood repaid in blood, and take revenge. [402]

Have you seen! Japan’s ambitions have once again started to be laid bare. The “mere narrow strip of water” [separating us – yi yi dai shui 一衣带水], the “enduring friendship” [shidai youhao], it’s all just wishful thinking by China. [400]

Repulsive Little Japan, so arrogant. But even more lamentable is that many Chinese people buy loads of Japanese goods, and jump at the chance to go there and spend up, helping the Japanese economy and allowing Little Japan to support ASEAN countries opposing China, even as Little Japan discriminates against Chinese (making special demands that Chinese people have however-much money in the bank before they can go to Japan). It’s really tragic, alas! [374]

Japan’s strategy of comprehensively opposing China’s “peaceful rise” has been completely exposed. The country’s decision-makers should lose their delusions, abandon Mr Dongguo-type thinking.* It’s time take some active steps to deal with this. [296]

Japan, this country, history shows that if you don’t strike it you’re finished. [241]

Japan is the evil wolf by our side, from the Japanese pirates [wokou 倭寇] along China’s coast in ancient times, to the early-modern invasion of China, this evil wolf has constantly been disturbing our Chinese nation’s peaceful life, we can never treat this evil wolf lightly. [199]

Until Japan is exterminated, China will never have a peaceful day. [194]

The comments in this discussion, especially the first three, are a timely reminder that China’s strong antipathy towards Japan is often not simply the result of aggressive and bellicose “Chinese nationalist” longings for international recognition, but rather of visceral and historically-grounded fear of what Japan might do if it regained significant military power.

The visit to Beijing last Tuesday (October 11) by Vietnam’s paramount Nguyen Phu Trong, and the signing of an “agreement on the basic principles” on the South China Sea dispute, including a commitment to a bilateral rather than multilateral solution as per China’s preference, was probably a timely piece of good news from the CCP’s perspective. Certainly this caught the attention of readers at NetEase, with more than 82,000 participating in the comments-thread discussion there, though the top comments of course were hardly to the Party’s liking:

[We] sign it, [they] violate it, sit and wait for the next one. [14,256 recommends]

On territorial issues there is no negotiation, only war. [8889]

The South Sea can be renamed the Sea of Cooperation. [8406]

[Deng] Xiaoping said, we don’t negotiate on territorial issues. [7318]

“What do we do if the negotiations fail?” – Carry on negotiating. Successful negotiations aren’t the aim, playing for time is the aim. [5667]

That last comment is perhaps the most encouraging, both for the immediate prospects for peace and for the Chinese government itself. It is notable for actually showing some understanding of the Chinese government’s overall strategy in the South China Sea. But of course, public opinion (online or otherwise) is much more likely to become a factor in a time of crisis in the wake of some incident, not during happy little interludes like this one.

And sure enough, the happy interlude was quickly cut short. According to the Beijing News, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Genba Koichiro specifically raised the issue of the South China Sea when he met with his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa in Jakarta last Friday, October 14. The report relayed the Japanese Kyodo story that said both sides had agreed on the need to develop a multilateral framework.

In an ominous sign for the recently-inked Sino-Vietnamese bilateral agreement, the article concluded:

Besides “tightening relations” with Indonesia, ASEAN’s great power, Japan is also strengthening exchanges with Vietnam. Japanese Defence Minister Ichikawa Yasuo announced on October 14 that Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh would visit Japan from the 23rd to the 28th of October and that the two sides would discuss how to respond to “China’s expansion in the South China Sea”.

On Sina the story about Genba’s visit to Indonesia “Japan’s forced entry into the South China Sea issue, claims to be constructing multilateral framework solution”, and another recent South Sea story, “Philippine President protests China and Vietnam’s agreement on the South China Sea” both provoked well belowaverage levels of discussion – partially due to the timing, being reported on a Sunday, partially due to the horrific Foshan toddler case, but also quite possibly because of some instruction that it be downplayed. Equally likely to have been a factor is readers simply being tired of hearing about other countries intervening in the South China Sea. The last word must go to a couple of commenters who stood out for their ironical dreams of Chinese intervention in other countries disputes:

Resolutely intervene in the Russia-Japan dispute over the Kuril Islands, and construct a framework for resolving it!

And:

We shouldn’t negotiate with the Philippines over the South China Sea. The Philippines should be negotiating with Japan and the US over the Hawaiian Islands issue, and the Chinese government should pay close attention to the trilateral discussion, insisting that Chinese interests be upheld, while not ruling out the possibility of intervention, including military intervention.

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* Mr Dongguo was a Ming-era character who invited calamity with his do-goody-goody kindness to a wolf.


Chen Bingde: China and its neighbours will resolve the South China Sea issues appropriately, America need not worry

China News Service/22-7-2011 (by Tao Shelan): After their meeting in Beijing, PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and the visiting Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen held a joint press conference. Chen Bingde noted that China and its neighbours had the capability and wisdom to appropriately resolve their South China Sea issues, and the U.S. should not be concerned, let alone anxious.

The article goes on to say that General Chen was pleased at the improving relations between the two militaries, though he “bluntly said that some on the American side were deliberately making trouble”, for example those congresspersons who recently met with the Dalai Lama. And, quoting the General directly:

“America has indicated many times that it has no intention of interfering in the South Sea disputes. Yet the formal and actual signals it has been putting out are just the opposite. Even though they had done it before, to conduct military exercises in the South Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam at this sensitive time is extremely inappropriate.”

The Phoenix online discussion of the story, which involved 242 comments and participation by 19,649 people, was notable for the number of readers who seem to have been impressed by the “hardness” of Chen’s comments. But the link between corrupt officialdom and foreign policy was once again on prominent display, and there was still plenty of support for Maoist anti-‘reform-and-opening’ sentiment.

Wan Ye (Henan): I support General Chen. Military leaders have to toughen up. [4522 recommends]

Hu Fei (Changzhou, Jiangsu): What boss Chen said is cool. If America really likes to worry, I would ask them to send back all the corrupt officials who have fled there. But I always wonder, whether we’re selling out the country’s interest – the old wolf America never does something for nothing. Unless it’s getting a bite of meat or a sip of blood it won’t even respond. [2715 recommends]

Mainland Hawk 6 (Daqing, Heilongjiang): Chen Bingde is a real military elite. When this kind of person takes the stage, his intention and role are clear, greatly increasing our national prestige. [1706 recommends]

Xiao Cun (Shanxi): General Chen spoke extremely confidently, he is worth listening to. [1412 recommends]

Eagle Talon 12 (Beijing): History has shown time and again that peaceful methods cannot solve territorial and sovereignty disputes, and only pass on more troubles for future generations. Military means are the only way out of this situation, and military means are also the only way to great power status. The Chinese people do not fear war, and all ideas of protecting the so-called fruits of ‘reform and opening’ are just selling out the country’s territory and sovereignty. It’s the behaviour of certain interested classes, and can never represent the wishes of the broad masses of China. [1207 recommends]

Mobile Phone User (Shandong): Tactful yet still domineering, Chen is definitely a worthy Chief of Staff. [822 recommends]

Yang Tianhao (Shenzhen, Guangdong): Strongly support minister Chen. [790 recommends]

The discussion over at CNS, the original source of the story, was much smaller, with only 37 comments. One of those expressed an idea that has sometime come up in South Sea conversations with Chinese friends – that of America provoking the “little countries” like Vietnam to infringe on China’s interests. I wonder how widespread this notion really is of “little” Vietnam (pop. 90,000,000) being a mere puppet for America’s grand anti-China scheme?