China announces the US’s Spratly patrols to the masses

“If any countries have delusions of using small actions to interfere with or even obstruct the Chinese side’s reasonable, fair and legal activities on its own territory, then I must urge those countries to abandon those fantasies as soon as possible.” – MFA spokesman Lu Kang, October 27, 2015 (click to view video on CCTV).

Have been trying to avoid the temptation of blogging, but the US and China conspired to break my resistance…

The US early this morning (Beijing time) finally followed through with its plan to patrol within 12nm of at least one of the PRC’s artificial islands, and China has just announced the developments to the whole country via CCTV’s 7pm news broadcast.

The 7pm news program Xinwen Lianbo 新闻联播 is both the most-watched and most tightly-controlled news broadcast in the country. Whatever appears there can reliably be understood to be there for primarily political reasons, rather than due to professional media “news values” or sensationalism. What makes Xinwen Lianbo a unique source of insight compared with other media carrying “authoritative” content, such as the People’s Daily or Liberation Army Daily, is that while the official press’s readership is mostly limited to elites and the attentive public, Xinwen Lianbo is watched by perhaps 50 to 100 million or more ordinary people. In short, it carries the Party Line to the masses.

Although Xinwen Lianbo’s presentation style has evolved slightly in the 2000s, content-wise the bulletins are still dominated by detailed narrations of the top leaders’ meetings with international dignitaries and each other, updates on the ever-successful rollout of party policies and campaigns, paeans to model citizens and, last of all, a few general news reports, usually very brief. Foreign affairs controversies like the South China Sea dispute are rarely mentioned — when they are, it is usually in the context of leaders’ anodyne remarks about “appropriately handling differences” and jointly “upholding stability” in meetings with their counterparts from rival claimant states, most commonly Vietnam.

Mentions of specific developments in disputed areas are rarer still — even when they cast the party in a positive light from a “nationalist” perspective. To take one topical example, China’s massive island-building activities began in early 2014 and were widely reported in foreign media from around June last year, but they only received their first mention on Xinwen Lianbo on June 16 this year. Evidently, the leadership normally prefers to handle these issues without encouraging scrutiny from the “broad masses”. This is why it is meaningful when contentious developments and confrontational rhetoric, such as that surrounding the US patrols, rate a mention.

At 1 minute 40 seconds, this Xinwen Lianbo report was quite lengthy compared with other South China Sea stories. Here it is in translation:

CCTV host: Today, the US warship Lassen, without permission from the Chinese government, illegally entered waters adjacent to China’s relevant islands and reefs in the Spratly archipelago. Regarding this, China expressed strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition, and urged the American side to immediately rectify its mistakes.

CCTV voiceover: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked during the China-Japan-Korea symposium today, advised the US side to think thrice before acting, and not be rash or make trouble. In this afternoon’s daily press briefing, MFA spokesperson Lu Kang reiterated, China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their nearby waters.

Lu Kang: If any countries have delusions of using small actions to interfere with or even obstruct the Chinese side’s reasonable, fair and legal activities on its own territory, then I must urge those countries to abandon those fantasies as soon as possible.

CCTV voiceover: Lu Kang said the Chinese side has always respected and defended the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by every country in the South China Sea under international law, but firmly opposes any country harming China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of [Freedom of Navigation].

Lu Kang: The Chinese side resolutely defends its own territorial sovereignty, security and its legitimate and reasonable maritime rights and interests. China will firmly respond to any country’s deliberate provocation. We will continue to closely monitor the situation in the air and on the water, and adopt all necessary measures as needed.

CCTV voiceover: Lu Kang said the Chinese side strongly urges the American side to earnestly take heed of the Chinese side’s solemn representations, immediately correct its mistakes, not engage in any dangerous and provocative behaviour that threatens China’s sovereignty and security interests, and strictly abide by its commitments not to take a position on sovereignty disputes, in order to avoid further damaging Sino-American relations and regional peace and stability.

A Xinwen Lianbo report like this not only directly announces the party line to a massive audience, it also legitimizes other media to focus on the issue. As far as i can tell, this must reflect the propaganda authorities’ understanding that the party leadership wants the issue near the top of the broad public’s agenda, at least in the short term. If this assumption is sound (and please let me know if you disagree), the next question is why.

I’ve been watching the Chinese media treatment of the issue over the past 2-3 weeks, and will try to put together something more comprehensive together when we see how this plays out, but for now i’ll just try to point out a few features of the CCTV report’s content.

1. The CCP has chosen to make this an issue of sovereignty. Graham Webster noted recently in the US-China Week newsletter, China has carefully maintained ambiguity regarding its claims around the Spratly Islands and reefs. In particular, it has not explicitly stated which reefs it considers to be surrounded by 12nm territorial seas 领海. That deliberate ambiguity is continuing, as reflected in the term “adjacent waters 邻近海域” in the PRC statements today (see above). Subi Reef, where the US Navy patrolled today, is almost certainly not entitled to a (sovereign) territorial sea under international law, and as i argued in East Asia Forum last month, this actually makes the patrols less provocative than they might otherwise be. But five mentions of “sovereignty” in CCTV’s 100-second report makes clear that the PRC wants domestic discussion of the issue to be on these terms. The MFA spokesman mentioned “security interests,” “maritime rights and interests,” “provocation” and “dangerous behaviour” — the CCTV report could have focused on any of these complaints, but instead repeatedly emphasized “sovereignty,” a choice that is likely to capture everyday people’s attention and potentially inspire nationalist mobilization.

2. The lines about some countries’ “delusions” about obstructing China’s Spratly construction projects will allow the CCP to depict itself as bravely defying foreign pressure as it moves forward. The line appears to be primarily domestically oriented, given that it is missing from the MFA’s account of Lu Kang’s remarks on the topic. It sets up a kind of straw-man idea that the patrols are aimed at forcing China to stop its construction work on the artificial islands. Pushing this line to domestic audiences makes good sense, because it will frame any future updates about new Chinese facilities in the Spratlys as shows of unwavering determination in the face of US pressure.

3. The high-handed demand that the American side “correct its mistakes” leaves the CCP well positioned to claim that its stern response forced an aggressive hegemon to back down. At least one US official has described the patrols as “routine“, suggesting there will be more to come. Even if the US patrols happen, say, once a month from now on, it will be up to the CCP to decide how often Chinese mass audiences hear about this. Having established a high level of domestic publicity on this occasion, the CCP might well be able to (implicitly or explicitly) encourage the perception that it forced the US to back down, simply by not affording the same level of publicity to future FoN patrols.

So there are three speculative domestic rationales for the CCP’s decision to publicize the issue. A more internationally-oriented answer with plenty of explanatory purchase is the “strategic logic” of nationalist protest Jessica Chen Weiss outlined in her book Powerful Patriots and elsewhere. The theory focuses on the state’s decisions to allow or disallow anti-foreign street demonstrations, and who knows, those might be just around the corner…

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on what China “going public” like this means, so please leave a comment or get in touch.

China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new

China's Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

China’s Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.

The subject, in summary:

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.

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


Latest Jamestown China Brief piece, with links to sources:


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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Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn toward Japan


As seen on TV…well, not quite but almost

Apologies to anyone who may have visited in hope of new material in the past few weeks. This year I need to write a PhD dissertation so posts will be even more sporadic than usual. There are a number of unfinished ones in the pipeline that I really hope to get around to completing at some point, and I will try to also post some of the summary translations of significant PRC media articles and comment threads that I normally keep to myself.

What follows is a piece I wrote for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief which came out last Friday: Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn. This version here has the addition of links to the sources at the end.

Also, since there are no comments on the Jamestown website, I encourage anyone who wants to discuss to leave comments here on this post.

Thank you for tuning in and making this blog such a temptation to write on.

Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn Towards Japan

China Brief, Vol 13, Issue 4

February 15, 2013

On February 5, Japanese Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori told the world that a Chinese Navy frigate had pointed “something like fire-control radar” at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer some 100-150 kilometers north of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands on January 30. He said the same may have happened to a MSDF helicopter on January 19, though this remained unverified (Daily Yomiuri, February 7; Sydney Morning Herald, February 7).

This marked the first direct involvement of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships in the ongoing confrontations around the islands since Japan’s government purchased three of them from a private Japanese owner on September 10 last year. Accordingly, much reportage and analysis has characterized this as part of an ongoing series of escalatory Chinese actions in the East China Sea. Yet the radar incidents ran counter to a distinctly conciliatory trend since mid-January in China’s official rhetoric, diplomatic action, media discourse and even maritime activities.

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“Evacuate all Chinese people from Japan”: warning shots in the East China Sea, or just media war?



[Updated 16 Jan 3.45pm BST]

On Tuesday afternoon the Chinese online media, led by Huanqiu Wang (Global Times Net), started reporting, “Japan official explicitly states for first time that warning shots will be fired at Chinese planes“.

HQW’s reporter Wang Huan 王欢 quoted the Asahi Shimbun website quoting Defense Minister Onodera, when asked about warning shots, replying that “any country would make this response if its airspace was intruded upon”.

Onodera’s comment may well have been coaxed out of him by reporters looking for a juicy headline, as it comes across as a contradiction of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s comment last week as reported by CNS (the other Xinhua) as reported by CNS that there were no plans for firing warning shots.

According to the Chinese internet media headlines that have relayed the story, Suga “denied” 否认 plans to fire warning shots, but now Onodera has “explicitly confirmed” 明确表态 that they will occur.

The news that Japan “will fire warning shots” was still the top splash on HQW’s website more than 12 hours later:


Whether Onodera’s statement has been reported accurately or not, the result is that the Diaoyu ball game now rests with the PRC, and the party-state is playing on a big-time court with a packed house looking on.

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How does an average Chinese migrant worker become a “nationalist” rioter?

Shenzhen rioter Li Zhiwei appears on CCTV

How does a normal migrant worker who doesn’t even know the national anthem suddenly become a nationalist rioter? One of the great things about the Chinese media is how they are willing and able to interview suspects under arrest, or in this case out on bail, to get some direct commentary on their own actions.

Henan migrant worker Li Zhiwei was one of the 20 most-wanted from the violent anti-Japanese protests in Shenzhen on September 16. According to his interview with CCTV, and the extraordinary China Youth Daily story that follows, he was the first to surrender.

This is one of many stories from the PRC official media in the past few days that appear to be aimed at lowering public animosity towards Japan, specifically:

  • The People’s Daily’s [ZH]October 23 edition running the news that the Japanese Coastguard rescued 64 Chinese sailors from their burning freighter on page 3, and the Global Times’ claim that “all netizens praised Japan’s actions”;
  • Global Times [ZH] and CCTV reports on October 22 emphasizing that Japanese Deputy PM Katsuya Okada had “recognized the sovereignty dispute over Diaoyu”, and the subsequent CCTV report on Okada having donated 100 million yen to the Wenchuan earthquake relief effort and had been labelled “China’s spokesman”;
  • A separate CCTV story on the same day explaining clearly the view that the right-wing Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara had created the whole dispute by moving to purchase three of the Diaoyu islands and build infrastructure on them;
  • Global Times [ZH] October 21 and 22 reports on the warm welcome for 2,200 Shanghai tourists who visited Japan on the weekend, which sparked an uproar (unintentionally?) from readers across PRC’s major news sites, which in turn prompted the official media’s most strident attack on anti-Japanese nationalism…
  • …’Forcing others to hate Japan carries a dangerous logic‘, published on a page 2 of the October 23 CYD, which brought together most of the above to defend the Shanghai tourists and forcefully attack anti-Japanese nationalism, going so far as to equate China’s “extreme anti-Japanese figures” with Japanese right wingers. The headline even sounds like a veiled attack on the patriotic education system that does so much to demonize Japan.

In humanizing Li Zhiwei as a downtrodden battler, simple and good-hearted, the CYD story shifts the blame for the violence primarily onto the social ills of exclusion, money-worship and corruption. But, in the context of the latter article on the above list, i think it can also be read as a warning of the dangers of deliberately inflaming public sentiment in China. Since it is the official mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League, could this be a sign that Hu Jintao did not entirely approve of how the PRC media handled, or were instructed to handle, the issue? [NB on reflection 24 hours later, another strong moral of this story seems to be that there was insufficient guidance of the protests by the authorities, given that people of low educational levels (and by implication low suzhi) were taking part.]

As a case study in the nature of “nationalist” violence in China, Li’s story really speaks for itself, but for the benefit of those who don’t have time to read it start-to-finish, in the translation below i have bolded what i found to be the crucial sections.

Read the rest of this entry »

The halting of the anti-Japan protests (and bagpipes in Beijing)

Last night i tweeted, ill-advisedly, that since the official media remain in saturation-coverage mode over Diaoyu, i thought the protests would continue today. I quickly found i was emphatically wrong.

I knew my hunch was mistaken even before i arrived at the embassy area this morning. A glance over some of the newspapers suggested a qualitative shift in the coverage, which i had missed last night: while the quantity of Diaoyu news remains overwhelming, the emphasis is now on good news much more than the ghastly deeds of the Japanese.

The Beijing News (pictured above), for example, led with “12 [Chinese] official boats patrolling at Diaoyu“, and put the “Two Japanese right-wingers, falsely claiming to be fishing, land on Diaoyu” on page 8. Likewise, the Huanqiu Shibao had “12 Chinese boats approach Diaoyu” (image not available online at present) , and i have failed to find the Japanese landing story anywhere in the paper.

This pattern echoed precisely what happened in the online news sector yesterday. The Japanese right-wing landing was a dominant headline (ie. large-font at the top) on all of the top five PRC news portals as at 4.30 yesterday afternoon — understandable given the story’s sensationally provocative nature as summed up in the text of the headlines, which all slapped the move with the “serious provocation” tag. But by 8.30pm the story had been relegated to the sub-dominant headlines (ie. small-font, still at the top) in favour of the presence of China’s government ships patrolling in Diaoyu waters, which at that point numbered eleven (it’s now up to 14).

When my buddy and i arrived at Yanshaqiao, the embassy area, we were greeted with the following text message from the PSB:

Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau alerts you: In recent days the broad masses have expressed their patriotic enthusiasm and wishes spontaneously, rationally and in an orderly way. Protest activities have now concluded, and the embassy area has returned to normal traffic conditions. It is hoped that everyone will express patriotic enthusiasm in other ways, will not come again to the embassy area to protest, and will cooperate with relevant authorities to jointly uphold good traffic and social order. Thankyou everyone for your understanding and support — Beijing City Public Security Bureau.

SMS text message from Beijing PSB, automatically sent out near Japanese embassy, September 19, 2012

It doesn’t get any clearer than this. The protests were acceptable, indeed laudable, to the authorities until today. Now they are banned.

Sure enough, when we reached the street corner i had to check the road sign to know whether i was in the same place as i had been the past few days. It was full of fast(ish)-moving traffic, and there was not a single five-starred red flag in sight.

We walked up towards the embassy, and quickly encountered a marching column of about 100 police. Beyond, individual police officers were stationed approximately 3 metres apart for the next 800 metres or so.The People’s Armed Police and barricades in front of the Japanese embassy remained, and in the carpark of the International Youth University opposite the embassy we found busloads of PSB officers waiting in reserve.

The scene at the Japanese embassy, approximately 9am, September 19, 2012

All up, there appeared to be approximately as many police as there had been over the previous days of thousands-strong protests. That is to say, there were probably less plain-clothes officers and roughly the same number of uniformed ones, whose function had changed from facilitation and crowd control to prevention of any sign of protest whatsoever. In 45 minutes of wandering up and down, in and out, literally the only Chinese flags i saw were those covering up the signs on the Japanese restaurants.

One of many Japanese (and even Korean) restaurants on Beijing’s Chaoyang Park Rd, diagonally opposite the Japanese embassy, September 19, 2012

To (hopefully, temporarily at least) end this dark chapter on a happier note, check out this 特牛 bagpipe-player, kilt and all, filmed during the massive demonstrations yesterday. William Wallace’s military spirit, or a fiercely patriotic Chinese Scot — who knows? Also the police presence.

Apologies for the appalling jerkiness of the video (i blame the police and their determination to keep everyone moving), but for me it would be worth copping that just to catch a glimpse of him:


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