Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

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Latest Jamestown China Brief piece, with links to sources:

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Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

 By Andrew Chubb

The regular appearance in the Chinese media of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) figures calling for aggressive foreign policy causes controversy and confusion among foreign observers. The most sensational remarks usually are made by academics at PLA institutions. Foreign media routinely pick up sensational quotes from these military officers—such as Major General Luo Yuan’s repeated suggestion for declaring the Diaoyu Islands a Chinese military target range or Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong’s recent call for a blockade of Philippine outposts in the Spratly Islands (Beijing TV/Huanqiu Wang, May 27)—and attribute them to senior military leaders, as their ranks seem to suggest (New York Times, August 20, 2012; TIME, Februrary 20; Tea Leaf Nation, February 25; South China Morning Post, March 6; Reuters, March 17). Operational commanders, however, seldom comment in public on policy issues. Prominent foreign policy analyst Wang Jisi has publicly complained about “reckless statements, made with no official authorization” which had “created a great deal of confusion” (Asian Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2012). In April, recently-retired deputy military region commander Wang Hongguang wrote military pundits had “misled the audience” and caused “interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments” (Global Times, April 20). This two-part series assesses who these outspoken PLA officers represent and the implications of their hawkish statements through an evaluation of their backgrounds, affiliations and statements on their work.

Debate about belligerent public remarks from military personnel often surrounds the extent to which they might represent the voice of hawkish PLA constituencies, pressuring the leadership to adopt more aggressive policies. Some analysts tend to dismiss such bluster as largely irrelevant on the basis that military media pundits have no operational military authority, despite their high rank. Others, however, emphasize how continued outspokenness by military figures presupposes high-level party or military support, and that they thus give voice to behind-the-scenes political struggles. A third view proposes that the hawks are the voice of the PLA as an institution, pushing the military’s policy preferences [1]. Analysis of scattered biographical information on the most prominent hawkish PLA media commentators, plus comments regarding their own work, suggests each perspective is partially right. None is a general in a conventional military sense, yet they are far from irrelevant. Their backgrounds, affiliations and positions, however, indicate their role probably has more to do with the regime’s domestic and international propaganda work objectives than political debates.

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Xinhua spreading rumours, unpopular military commentary, and a witchhunt: the Scarborough Shoal media wave Part III (May 11-13)

Loida Nicolas Lewis “exposed” on the front page of NetEase (photo top-left), May 13, 2012. The caption beneath reads, “Identity of Philippines anti-Chinese demonstration plotter revealed”. On the right-hand side is a picture (which remains in the same place as of May 22) of China’s biggest Fisheries Law Enforcement Command ship, the Yuzheng-310, linking to a special saturation-coverage page dedicated to the Scarborough Shoal issue

I’m posting about stuff that happened more than a week ago, so i’ll start by apologizing to any readers who might have come here looking for up-to-date developments. To explain briefly, party-approved waves of media sensationalism, the Chinese public’s reaction to them, and the regime’s reactions to those public reactions, are crucial aspects of my research project, so my task is to document these in as much detail as i can. The PRC’s yearly South China Sea fishing ban, which started last week, has offered a much-needed circuit-breaker to ease the tensions, but even now that the wave has broken and rolled back, i still have a backlog of interesting conversations to discuss.

For those who mightn’t care to read all the way to the bottom to find out what might be buried down there, here’s a summary of what’s below:

  1. Xinhua was the immediate source of war-preparations rumours denied by Ministry of Defense
  2. PLA Daily’s piece on May 12 appears aimed at Dai Xu and his powerful pro-war backers in China
  3. Fenqing witchhunt unmasking the “organiser” of the global Filipino demonstrations, via Weibo, becomes dominant in mainstream discourse

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Small-scale protests in Manila, even smaller-scale protests in Beijing

Filipinos protest over the Scarborough Shoal dispute, Manila, May 11, 2012

Chinese protesters at Philippines embassy in Beijing, May 11, 2012

On Friday (May 11), as PRC-Philippines tensions eased with the reopening of diplomatic dialogue, the emphasis of Chinese media was very much on the small size of the touted “anti-Chinese” protests in Manila. But they were positively huge compared with the protests in Beijing the same day.

Phoenix’s Manila correspondent described the scale of the Manila protests as being “far from the scale the Philippine side had previously said”. However, many other media, including the official CNS news agency, specifically contrasted the small gatherings with the PRC Foreign Ministry’s ominous warnings.

After noting the arrest of a protester in Manila who tried to burn the Chinese flag, the short CNS report also carried, in its second paragraph, the Philippines government’s comment that the protests were initiated by ordinary people and were not encouraged by the government. Other reports also emphasised the non-official (“民间”) nature of the protests, which also contrasted with the continuous official rhetoric accusing the Philippines government of whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment.

NetEase’s editors almost seemed to be implying that the government had overemphasised the threat posed by the protests. The top headline cluster on Friday ran:

Philippines people hold small-scale anti-China demonstrations
More journalists than demonstrators | Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag | CCTV report on “large-scale anti-China demonstrations” not proven correct

But the NetEase comment thread on “Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag” was full of wild rumours, stated as fact, of Chinese casualties in Manila — complete with shops torched and deaths in the dozens.

Today the little Pippos demonstrators torched the Chinese market! 18 people dead! The Chinese media is swindling people! [17,362 recommends]

Report from Manila, 11/5: Philippines anti-China forces rampage, burning Chinese shopping malls, killing at least 24 (delete this comment and I’ll kill 9 generations of your family!!) [14,412]

If it was an anti-American rally, “itching-to-death 痒死” [CCTV] would definitely say there were more than a million there. [5,618]

The third comment suggests why the top two comments were so popular, and why the Chinese government has to sometimes take drastic action to curb rumours: when people start really caring about an issue, one of their first instincts is to disbelieve whatever the official media says.

If the regime knew about these explosive rumours doing the rounds, however, it appears to have seen them as useful rather than harmful. Like the calls for human-flesh searches in previous days, they were not censored, and in fact they remain in place today, six days later.

But if the online-commenting public had been given carte blanche for their outrage, the same privileges certainly did not extend to the real-world public. At the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing, a handful of patriotic Beijing residents actually stared down the heavy policy presence to attempt to inform the Philippines that Huangyan Island belongs to China.

Their actions were barely reported by the Chinese media. A correspondent from China Radio International did make it down there, and found:

On North Xiushui Rd, where the Philippines embassy is, there were a certain number of police vehicles parked and four or five police officers on duty. A few men came and protested in front of the embassy. One male wearing a shirt with, “Protect Huangyan, diplay our country’s prestige,” written on it. He unfurled a banner with his fellows that read, “Huangyan is China’s historic territory, do not challenge China’s bottom line,” on one side and, “When one can restrain no more, one cannot keep restraint, 忍无可忍不会再忍” on the other.

Around 3.30 a male surnamed Li was preparing to protest when an embassy car drove in. Standing across from the main gate, he immediately pulled out and raised high a white paper sign with the slogan, “Love China, Love Huangyan,” written on it.

This report was certainly not widely publicised; it’s been deleted from the CRI website, and NetEase has done the same to its version. On Saturday morning 21cn posted a stub and the full article was posted on Phoenix, where it remains available, but it hasn’t been given any prominence at all judging by the mere 300 or so participants on its heavily-censored comments thread.

There is a certain logic in the general paucity of coverage — after all, the PRC media were all reporting on the lack of protesters in Manila. The few hundred who gathered  in Manila were still roughly 100 times more numerous than their counterparts in Beijing. The CNR article even began with the observation that:

On the Huangyan Island issue the Philippines has incited its people’s emotions and encouraged its domestic and overseas populations to launch demonstrations aimed at China. But the Philippines’ actions have certainly not caused the Chinese masses any great worry, and there were definitely no large-scale gatherings at the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing to oppose its unjustifiable conduct, [just] sporadic protests by the masses.

It would probably have been more accurate to say that the Chinese government’s campaign to focus media attention and public anger on the issue, and its dire official warnings about large-scale anti-Chinese protests, have not caused large-scale gatherings.

With a leadership transition just around the corner it is unlikely that the regime would want to see any kind of street protest anywhere, least of all in Beijing. It could just be my skepticism about the degree to which Chinese people care about the South China Sea issue (for a fascinating individual case-study that vividly illustrates why, read the “Confessions of a patriot-used-to-be”), but surely the security forces must have been expecting a bit more than this feeble show of patriotism. Maybe most people who might have protested just knew better than to try in 2012. Photos found here.

Chinese protesters at Philippines embassy in Beijing, May 11, 2012

Protesters and police outside the Philippines embassy, May 11, 2012

Protester and police outside Philippines embassy in Beijing, May 11, 2012

Police outside Philippines embassy, Beijing, May 11, 2012

That doesn’t mean the Chinese public, particularly the public when reading news and interacting online, did not or does not care about the Huangyan issue. I’m really just stating the obvious: that all the media attention and anger online has failed to translate into offline protest.

But the internet’s systems of collective expression amplify extreme voices, while at the same time its anonymity can also prompt people’s voices to become more extreme. The question i’m left with is: was the feebleness of this protest, in particular the fact that so few even tried to make their outrage heard, the result of government suppression, a reflection of Chinese people’s knowledge of the cycles of CCP politics, or is it just the result of not enough people actually caring?

It’s still early days, but my money would be on the latter. If my hunch is right, then the government will struggle to credibly play the audience-costs nationalism card on this issue because for that strategy to work, CCP China must convince its international adversaries that it genuinely beholden to public pressure. In the case of Scarborough Shoal, it has demonstrated just the opposite.