China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet EraPosted: June 9, 2014
Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:
China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era
China Brief, Volume 14 Issue 11 (June 4, 2014)
After the worst anti-China violence for 15 years took place in Vietnam this month, it took China’s propaganda authorities nearly two days to work out how the story should be handled publicly. However, this was not a simple information blackout. The 48-hour gap between the start of the riots and their eventual presentation to the country’s mass audiences exemplified some of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sophisticated techniques for managing information during fast-breaking foreign affairs incidents in the Internet era. Far from seizing on incidents at sea to demonstrate China’s strength to a domestic audience, the official line played down China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and emphasized Vietnamese efforts to stop the riots, effectively de-coupling the violence from the issue that sparked them. This indicated that, rather than trying to appease popular nationalism, China’s leaders were in fact reluctant to appear aggressive in front of their own people.
By framing the issue in this way, China’s media authorities cultivated a measured “rational patriotism” in support of the country’s territorial claims. In contrast to the 2012 Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, when Beijing appears to have encouraged nationalist outrage to increase its leverage in the dispute, during the recent incident the Party-state was determined to limit popular participation in the issue, thus maximizing its ability to control the escalation of the situation, a cornerstone of the high-level policy of “unifying” the defense of its maritime claims with the maintenance of regional stability (Shijie Zhishi [World Affairs], 2011).
Vietnamese diplomats are saying Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided today in the disputed Paracel Islands, where China has stationed the massive oil and gas drilling platform HYSY-981. The incident may be in some ways unprecedented as the first time China has attempted to drill for hydrocarbons in a disputed area of the South China Sea. But it also resonates with the past in some surprising ways, from the PRC’s initiation of the incident, to Vietnam’s response, and even the information environment facing the two sides.
Hu Jintao met with his Vietnamese counterpart yesterday at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, and made a rare official comment on the South China Sea disputes. From the China Daily’s report:
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Chinese President Hu Jintao said China and Vietnam should keep cool-headed and show restraint on the South China Sea issue.
. . .
Hu urged the two countries to adhere to bilateral negotiations and political solutions, and stay on the path of joint development.
Hu said the two sides should keep cool-headed and show restraint, and avoid taking any unilateral measure that would magnify, complicate or internationalize the dispute, in order not to let the South China Sea issue affect East Asian cooperation or regional stability.
These cool-headed, restrained, joint-developing, dispute-shelving remarks were all over the PRC official media yesterday (Friday September 7), from when i first heard it on China National Radio, to the CNS report and the Foreign Ministry’s website.
The online mass media soon followed suit, with all the five top news portals except Netease having the story in their #1 or #2 headline slots by 12.25pm, and keeping them near the top until late in the evening.
Not surprisingly, given that “Hu Jintao” is a sensitive search term on the PRC internet, the comment threads were heavily censored. Phoenix’s has 25,000+ participants but only 92 comments (representing a KimLove Incredibility Ratio well above 250:1), the latest of which was posted at exactly 20.00 last night:
Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s long and broad vision, national defence needs fundamental strengthening, diplomatic solutions are the official policy, war is an action of last resort.
in reply to
Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s proposition, uphold the unwavering Sino-Vietnamese friendship, even if Vietnam occupies even more Chinese territory we will still go on with the friendship, if worst comes to worst we’ll give them Hainan too, could they really still be unsatisfied with that? If so, how about Hong Kong, and Guangdong province?
Being the last comment the website’s editors have decided to allow through, this earnest defence of Hu has stayed in place at the top of the page — but only those who choose to click the “newest comments” tab will see it.
By default, it’s the top comments, not the latest comments, that appear on readers’ screens, and they have to scroll a long way down through those, to the 14th comment to be precise, before they find anything remotely complimentary about Chairman Hu’s remarks — and even that appears to be posted by a foreigner.
Over at Sina, where as of 4am Saturday it remains the #3 story on the front page, the involvement of the censors is even more blatant: 1700-odd “participants” and only eight comments. In fact, that means i can translate the entire “conversation”. Here it is as it appears for readers (ie. from latest to earliest):
First strike Japan, then Vietnam, and then the Philippines, don’t talk about it just do it [3 supports]
Patriotism and protecting the country rely on actual power. 
Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be beaten 
Vietnam cannot even feed itself. 
Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be hit 
Patriotism has one word: hit 
[We] must clearly distinguish enemies from friends 
The pattern on the thread attached to the same story on Tencent’s news portal also appears to be the same as those on Phoenix and Sina: calls for war, sardonic criticism of Hu’s policy, and KIRs high enough to suggest most comments are being either deleted or hidden from view.
Given the importance of Chairmen Hu and Truong’s meeting, the high profile given to this story by all the PRC media, the fact that the story sat* prominently among the leading headlines on the portals, and the very obvious signs of rigging, it’s hard to see how the comments could represent anything other than exactly what the censors had decided the netizens should be seen to be saying.. The question in my mind is, who were the censors?
By default, of course, we must assume that the censors of news comment threads are always individual employees of PRC internet companies, in this case Sina and Phoenix. There’s presumably a management/command chain above them that leads up to some decision-making group within the company, though i have no idea of a.) how far above the “grass-roots” censors they are; b.) how far below the company’s top management they are; or c.) how they connect with the various relevant government bodies — e.g. MIIT, SCIO, Central & provincial Propaganda Depts.
It really seems a stretch to impute that the party or government would put out an instruction to major websites telling them to only allow comments calling for war with Vietnam on the day that the President calls for cooperation with Vietnam during a headline bilateral meeting at a major international forum.
Especially in CCP China, where the same president’s name cannot be searched on the country’s most vibrant social network.
* It continues to sit there even now at 4.50am the next day
Former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan made a foray into the PRC media last week on the Diaoyu issue, and the censors on mainland China’s most visited news portals seem to have been actively shaping online comment threads on his remarks.
Last Wednesday (29/8) Tang spoke at a CASS-organised forum to mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of Sino-Japanese relations. Tang was Foreign Minister from 1998 to 2003 and a State Councilor from 2003 to 2008, and is now the Chairman of the Sino-Japanese Friendship Association.
According to the People’s Daily Online’s English-language report published two days later:
Tang pointed out that the root cause lies in that some forces in Japan do not want to see the smooth development of China-Japan relations, and they attempt to stir up opposition from the public through the issue of Diaoyu Islands and gain political capital. “If they succeeded, the issue of the Diaoyu Islands will be seriously out of control and lead to endless troubles in the future.”
Tang stressed that China always insists on the consistent and unwavering position and proposition. The Diaoyu Islands and the affiliated islands have been China’s territory since ancient times, which is irrefutable whether in history or in the legal principle. Any unilateral measures taken by Japan are illegal, invalid and in vain. They cannot change the fact that the sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands belongs to China and shake the will of Chinese people to safeguard their sovereign rights.
This report continued in the above vein, with Tang quoted blaming Japan entirely for the incidents. It was a translation of a Chinese-language report, whose title translates as ‘Tang Jiaxuan talks Diaoyu: if Japan is determined to avoid the issue, it will back itself into a dead end‘. Interestingly, Google searches (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) indicates the story has probably not been republished on any of the biggest five mainland news sites, although Sina’s Hong Kong site has it here. It wasn’t that Tang was denied publicity for his interventions on the Diaoyu issue though — it was just that domestic audience was given a very different version of what he said.
On Friday, May 11, noticing the disconnection between the outrageous outrage raging in the media and the lack of action in the streets, a media consultant called Shenzhen’s Old Cui 深圳老崔 made some enquiries with a friend in the police, which he then reported back to his 60,000-odd followers on Sina Weibo.
His post read as follows:
I just talked with a PSB pal, and asked him why the government wouldn’t approve a demonstration by the people against the Philippines government. He said, you’re tapped in the head, as soon as you have anything resembling a demonstration the slogans will change to “down with corrupt officials”, and who’s going to clean that up — the sergeant?
This weibo was reposted more than 11,000 times in the 13 hours before it was deleted. But although 11,000 reposts was impressive, Old Cui’s effort wasn’t quite as viral as another weibo that linked to footage of CCTV host He Jia’s now-famous slip-up a few days earlier, in which she stated twice that the Philippines was part of China’s historic territory. The latter was reposted more than 15,000 times in the same period of time, despite the fact that its originator had less than 1,000 followers.
Two hilarious takes on the standoff summed the smart, worldly and urbane spirit of Sina Weibo’s opinion leaders. On May 10, a day when the #1 Sina Weibo topic was Dragon TV 东方卫视 journalist Zhang Fan’s 张帆 superhuman, gonzo-patriotic mission to “re-plant” the PRC flag on Scarborough Shoal’s rock, weibo superstar Zuoyeben 作业本 described the motley crew China would be sending over to kick the Philippines out for good:
Word is, our country is organising a crack force to go and liberate Huangyan, an ever-victorious force of tigers and wolves. Advance party: Weibo Navy [commenters paid by PR companies]. Assault team: China’s city management forces [城管, famed for brutality and unreasonableness]. Canine division: one Kong, one Wu and one Sima [referring to rabid nationalists Kong Qingdong, Wu Fatian and Sima Nan]. Party branch: the Fifty-Cent Party. Bomb disposal: Chinese forceful eviction teams. Medic: none. Logistical supply team: none. Oh, and the flagship that will take this army there: Fang Zhouzi [方舟子 “Son-of-a-boat” Fang, known for quixotic attempts at debunking].
Zuoyeben has more than 2.9 million followers, and the post appears to have been in circulation for eight days before finally being deleted on May 18.
Wang Wei 王巍, another weibo heavyweight with 1.4 million followers, has brazenly mocked non-combatant army officers with high military ranks, including Major-General Song Zuying 宋祖英 of the PLA’s song and dance troupe, and Major-General Li Shuangjiang 李双江, singer of red songs (and disgraced-by-association father of a violent young whippersnapper). Wang’s post was forwarded more than 9,000 times, but the censors have apparently decided to leave it in place, complete with the image at the top.
I’ve collected a few graphs from Sina Weibo on the topic of Scarborough Shoal. The first one, generated on May 18, illustrates the same pattern observed in relation to the five news portals that i generally concentrate on here (generally to the detriment of everything else) — a steep rise on May 9-10 as people started entertaining the possibility that China might actually take military action over Scarborough Shoal, a plateau over the weekend as inflammatory stories kept coming, followed by a gradual loss of interest when the crisis started showing signs of being alleviated.
This suggests once again that the “wave” that came ashore in different areas of China’s media — from the centrally-controlled mouthpieces to semi-commercialised provincial media and commercially-oriented/state-compromised online news providers — successfully penetrated the much more user-directed discourse on Weibo.
They’re slightly misleading, these graphs. To start with, the Y-axis doesn’t start at zero, meaning the trend lines are exaggerated somewhat, though it’s not grossly distorted — the shape is still pretty much accurate. The discussion didn’t cease when the graph hit the bottom — it just went down to, well, “3,283”…
3,283 what? Are the figures on these graphs actually referring to the overall number of weibo sent? The number forwarded? The number of comments? The number of searches? Or is it some kind of composite index involving some or all of the above?
If anyone happens to know the answer do please let me know in the comments.
This graph was taken about 18 hours after the one above:
This time May 16 is shown as a spike and May 17 as a decline. The figures are completely different, the reason being that the points on the graph represent the figure (i’ll just refer to it as the “discussion factor”) for the 24 hours leading up to that point in time. The first graph was generated close to midnight, so it actually shows the trend in terms of calendar days. The second one was captured just before 7pm, so it shows 6pm-6pm cycles.
The first graph shows a “discussion factor” of about 3,000 for May 15, midnight to midnight, and the second shows the same figure as being above 12,500 between 18.00 on May 15 and 18.00 on May 16. So discussion on the topic of Scarborough Shoal was actually reignited on May 16, rather than May 17 as the first graph seems to suggest.
A third graph, with 7pm as the reference point, appears to further isolate the time of the spike in Huangyan discussion:
This indicates the “discussion factor”, supposedly formed over 24 hours, rose from 12,500 or so at 6pm to more than 18,500 at 7pm. So did something happen between 6 and 7 o’clock on May 16? Well if it did, then Sina isn’t revealing what it was, because according to the “Advanced Search” function there were only 2,328 Huangyan-related results in total during that time, so my best guess would be that the graphs depict the numbers of keyword searches. Once again, please leave any suggestions in the comments.
In any case, they do provide an indication of the general level of interest towards the issue among weibo users. Even then, however, the varied scales of the graphs can result in them obscure trends rather than illustrating them. Like, for example, my final graph of the Huangyan Island 黄岩岛 topic, taken on May 28:
Although it looks pretty much the same as the others three graphs, there’s a huge difference in the scale of this one. If this line were on any of the other graphs it would be scudding along the bottom. The graph obscures the most important trend in the period it purports to illustrate: the decline in enthusiasm and interest in the issue, with the weibo public leading the way.
“There are cocoons growing in my ears!”: Hong Lei and Huang Shanchun’s responses to warmongering ‘netizens’Posted: May 28, 2012
Two weeks ago, with the state–inspired media wave receding, a timely fishing ban arriving to diffuse tensions, and China’s economic leverage and superior law-enforcement capabilities combining to put it on top in the dispute over Scarborough Shoal, the Foreign Ministry had a message for the world: the PRC authorities will continue to ignore public opinion on the South China Sea.
Only problem was, the way the message was delivered probably made it clearer, and definitely louder, for domestic audiences than foreign.
On Tuesday May 15, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spokesman Hong Lei “responded” 回应 to some of the online public advocacy of a military solution to the Huangyan Island issue. The Ministry’s website documents the following exchange [EN|ZH]:
Journalist: Some netizens have advocated the use of military means to resolve the Huangyan Island issue. What is your response to this?
Hong Lei: The Chinese government’s determination to uphold territorial sovereignty over Huangyan Island is firm. At the same time, we are working to resolve the current situation over Huangyan Island via diplomatic consultation.
Hong didn’t actually address the issue of the “netizens'” advocacy of war at all — his answer just restated the official Chinese position that the PRC is committed to resolving the crisis through diplomacy. In fact, so little did Hong Lei say, and so widespread the reporting of it, it might even be (over-)interpreted as an application of the Taoist doctrine of “acting without acting” 为无为.
After all, it was the journalist’s question, rather than the spokesman’s answer, that created the media story.