Are China’s hawks actually the PLA elite after all? [Revised]

Yawei Liu

Dr Yawei Liu, of the Carter Center

[Updated 17 Dec: As with most things on here, this was bashed out hastily in the not-so-early hours of a morning, so i’ve taken the liberty of revising and adding some bits as i read through it two weeks later. In particular i felt the need to add in the various things i agree with from Liu and Ren’s excellent article, in addition to the criticisms i made.]


In an upcoming Journal of Contemporary China article addressing the always fascinating question of PLA officers’ belligerent media statements, Yawei Liu and Justine Zheng Ren advance exactly the opposite case to the one made here earlier this year. They argue that military commentators’ media statements represent the “consensus” voice of the PLA, fighting to influence the CCP’s foreign policy. 

Dr Liu, who directs the Carter Center’s China Program, happens to be the brother of General Liu Yazhou, most recently of Silent Contest fame. General Liu himself even features in the article, but references to his thinking are indirect (“General Liu seems to share the conviction that…”), presumably meaning that the two brothers have not talked over these work-related issues. Still, if anyone is in a position to knock the teeth out of my “propaganda, not policy” argument, Dr Liu should be the man.

To briefly recap, my argument was that, based on the backgrounds and affiliations of the main “hawks”, the belligerent military voices in the Chinese media are largely those of nominated propaganda/publicity experts (the two terms conflated as 宣传), whose job is to mould a positive image of the PLA among the domestic population and augment the military’s capabilities by shaping international audiences’ perceptions.[1]

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Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part Two)


Here is Part 2 on the PLA hawkish faction from China Brief, with added links to sources, and a couple of graphs from the utterly awesome Baidu Index (big hat tip to Kaiser Kuo). 

I’d also like to add my thanks to Xuan Cheng, John Garnaut, James Barker, Mark Stokes and Taylor Fravel for discussions and tips on this topic. They don’t necessarily agree with the content of the article.


Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part Two)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16

August 9, 2013

By: Andrew Chubb

Rise of the hawks: searches for "China hawkish faction" by logged-in Baidu users since 2008. I'm requesting further info from Baidu regarding the extremely low pre-2010 numbers. One point that can be made with confidence is that user interest in the "Chinese hawkish faction" peaked during the Scarborough Shoal and (especially) Diaoyu Islands crises.

Rise of the hawks: searches for “China hawkish faction” by logged-in Baidu users since 2008. I’m requesting further info from Baidu regarding the extremely low pre-2010 numbers. One point that can be made with confidence is that user interest in the “Chinese hawkish faction” peaked during the Scarborough Shoal and (especially) Diaoyu Islands crises.

If outspoken Chinese military officers are, as Part One suggested, neither irrelevant loudmouths, nor factional warriors, nor yet the voice of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on foreign policy, and are instead experts in the PLA-CCP propaganda system, then what might explain the bad publicity they often generate for China? This article explores how the activities of China’s military hawks may contribute to the regime’s domestic and international goals. On a general level, the very appearance of a hawkish faction—the “opera” that Luo Yuan has described—serves the domestic purposes of promoting national unity (Global Times, May 4). By amplifying threat awareness and countering perceived Western plots to permeate the psyche of the Chinese populace and army, the “hawks” direct public dissatisfaction with the policy status quo away from the system as a whole. 

In specific crises, such as the standoff at Scarborough Shoal last year or in the wake of the Diaoyu Islands purchase, hard-line remarks from uniformed commentators serve to rally domestic public opinion behind the prospect of military action, instil confidence in the PLA’s willingness to fight over the issue and deter China’s adversary. By amplifying the possibility of otherwise irrational Chinese military action and inevitable escalation should Beijing’s actions be interfered with, they have contributed to a thus-far successful effort to convince the Philippines and Japan to accept the new status quo around Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands.

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“Public opinion warfare to smear military commentators”: my plot to contain China exposed - Are PLA hawks just propaganda? special topic: Are the PLA’s hawkish statements just propaganda?

In my first foray into mainland China’s propaganda system since winning a “second-class prize” in a television language competition heavily rigged in my favour, the previous post (written for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief) was picked up by mainland online media on Tuesday, and run under headlines including:

I apologize in advance for the infelicitousness of this post, but i am a student and this is a blog, so can’t take these things too seriously 😉

My personal favourite headline was:

America: Dai Xu more provocative than Luo Yuan, gets some kind of authorization!‘ ( 

Since i now speak for “America” (or is it that i am America?), it is high time i actually went there.

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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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A “strategic communication” with India, via Luo Yuan?

Luo Yuan meets the press, July 4, 2013 - photo by Ananth Krishnan

Luo Yuan meets the press, July 4, 2013 – photo by Ananth Krishnan

To those people who subscribe to this blog via email, thankyou and i’m sorry — you guys always miss out on various additions and clarifications (e.g. headings, signpost & summary sentences) to the shoddy initial versions i post. If you’re interested in the topics but find my chaotic writing confusing, i’d always recommend waiting a few hours and then viewing via the web, rather than email.

If it wasn’t clear, the point of yesterday’s typically unwieldy post was actually quite simple: Luo Yuan, and the other “hawks”, are probably in the game of military political work, rather than policy competition.

With impeccable timing, Luo Yuan has provided a lovely example to illustrate this. [UPDATE JULY 8: Not really an example at all, it turns out.]

On Thursday, only hours before AK Antony arrived in Beijing for the first visit by an Indian Defense Minister for seven years, Luo held a press briefing and told India to be “very cautious in what it does and what it says.” [UPDATE: The briefing was not about India, and Luo only commented on India when asked by a journalist to do so. I have been told Luo made no attempt to raise the topic of India. Thus, the working hypothesis this piece was written under — that this was a carefully timed piece of strategic communication aimed at India — is invalid. It was almost certainly just a coincidence that Luo commented on India just before the Defense Minister’s visit. However, this doesn’t diminish the likelihood that Luo Yuan is in the business of political communication, only that this particular action was targeted at India.]

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Major-General Luo Yuan’s “real and fake” dove-hawk opera

Luo Yuan, which part will you sing?

Luo Yuan, which part will you sing?

As usual, I should be doing other things, but i couldn’t let this pass into the shadows: a chat session between Major-General (Retd) Luo Yuan and netizens from Huanqiu Wang  (Global Times Website) in which Luo says the PRC’s debates between hawkish and dovish factions are “mixture of truth and deceit, real and fake”.

An English-language summary of the exchange was published on Chinascope in May, but that excluded many interesting parts, including, crucially, the ending. The more i read through the original, in fact, the more it seemed that just about everything in the article was pertinent.

Luo Yuan’s hopes for the masses

It starts almost exactly where i left off in this previous piece, discussing the strong market appeal of the PLA’s “hawkish” academic corps. The Huanqiu transcript claims to be a “actual record” of the chat, though the perfect, formal language the netizens allegedly used indicates that they were carefully vetted and edited. With questions prefaced by lines like, “Our country is currently situated in a period of complicated external circumstances,” we might legitimately wonder whether there were any netizens involved in the production of the questions at all.

Huanqiu netizen: China has always practiced peaceful coexistence, but in recent years our country has faced challenges everywhere in upholding territorial sovereignty. A significant number of the Chinese masses appeal for the coming of a “Flying General” from the poem line, “But when the Flying General is looking after the Dragon City / No barbarian horseman may cross the Yin Mountains.“[1] May I please ask, General Luo, how do you view these kinds of appeals?

“Flying General” refers to Li Guang 李广, the early Han Dynasty commander known for striking terror into the hearts of the Xiongnu raiders to the northwest. This raises a basic tension in China’s contemporary nationalist identity, between peaceful coexistence and merciless vengefulness and exclusion. Chairman Mao, of course, explained this away with his famous 1939 dictum, “If others do not assault me, I will not assault them; if others assault me, I will certainly assault them,” (人不犯我我不犯人,人若犯我我必犯人). Perhaps not surprisingly, that phrase became a slogan for destroying all kinds of real and fabricated enemies during Mao’s reign.

So, how does Luo Yuan view the masses’ alleged desire for a messianic “Flying General” figure to fight those fearsome Filipino raiders?

Read the rest of this entry »

The enigma of CEFC’s Chairman Ye

The Son? CEFC & Huaxin Chairman Ye, presiding

CEFC & Huaxin Chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明

UPDATE JANUARY 2017: Lots more information about Chairman Ye has come to light, including confirmation that he is not Ye Jianying’s grandson (but he is in business with Marshal Ye’s granddaughter). Read the latest update here first.

UPDATE APRIL 2016: The following odyssey through the business and ideological world of CEFC, an apparent platform of the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department (GPD-LD), was co-written with John Garnaut. Based on new information received, I now believe it’s unlikely that Chairman Ye Jianming is a grandson of Marshal Ye Jianying. Interestingly, there may be a connection with Marshal Ye’s family by marriage, which could be confirmed in coming months or years. The evidence of the young Chairman’s connection with the GPD-LD, however, remains strong, and has been anecdotally supported by people in a position to know. Thus, the new information doesn’t substantially alter the story below, just our theory on who exactly the Chairman’s father may be.*

Read on if you dare…


The enigma of CEFC’s Chairman Ye

 By Andrew Chubb & John Garnaut

Senior Colonel Dai Xu, of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, apologised profusely for running late as he lowered his tiny frame into a plastic chair.

The display of manners and humility, in the mosquito-ridden lobby of his three-star Sanya hotel, seemed an unlikely departure point for an exploration of the evolving nature of Chinese power and how it is projected into the world.

Nevertheless, he was about to open a door into the labyrinthine universe of China’s ruling families, big oil and the most secretive and least understood corner of its military intelligence complex.

“I used to use Long Tao as pen name,” Colonel Dai said, confirming for the first time that he was indeed the “China Energy Fund Committee strategic analyst” whose incendiary writings have provoked fear and anxiety across the resource-rich South China Sea.

The most memorable article, published in the state-owned Global Times in September 2011, is now seen as emblematic of China’s “peaceful rise” entering a more belligerent phase.

“When those towering oil drilling platforms become flaming torches, who will be hurt the most?,” said Long Tao, presenting a case for waging war against the Filipino and Vietnamese “chickens” in order to scare the hegemonic American “monkey”.

The identity of Long Tao as Colonel Dai – a media pundit who holds a senior military rank yet has never commanded any troops – proved to be straightforward, however, compared with the organisation he purported to represent.


The cult of Chairman Ye

The China Energy Fund Committee (CEFC) describes itself as a “non-profit, non-governmental think tank” that strives for “a better future for mankind”.

At its apex sits a mysterious 36-year-old chairman named Ye Jianming, about whom so little is known that the Chinese-language internet has numerous bulletin board posts asking, “Who is Ye Jianming?

Chairman Ye, it turns out, heads an energy logistics megalith that came from nowhere in 2010 to claim revenues of more than US$30 billion last year.

China Huaxin Energy Company is the centre of a constellation of Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland Chinese companies that link as far as Zhuhai Zhenrong, a company that is subject to US sanctions for oil trading with Iran.

News on the company’s website details Chairman Ye leading delegations on visits to dignitaries around the world.

Despite his tender years, he has won the admiration of global statesmen from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Henry Kissinger, who apparently addresses him as “Chairman”.

Kissinger - Ye inscription - Screen shot 2013-05-15 at 9.07.16 PM

Ye Jianming and Henry Kissinger

Ye Jianming and Henry Kissinger

The young chairman’s “thought” (in the sense of Mao Zedong Thought) and “important speeches” are lauded in the pages of company publications.

His slogans adorn the company’s website: “Starting with power, finishing with virtue”, “Faith, Unity, Rigor, Devotion” and – rather strikingly for a self-proclaimed private enterprise  – “Repay the country through industry”.

“We must continue to deeply study Chairman Ye’s speeches and articles,” says a piece in the 120-page internal study journal, “to thoroughly understand the development path the Chairman has pointed out for us.

“As an enterprise, Chairman Ye has assigned Huaxin the mission of ‘repaying the country through industry’, and this is Huaxin’s fundamental pursuit and final destination.”

Rapturous scenes ensued when the chairman made an appearance at Huaxin’s Chinese New Year function in February – according to the company’s in-house publicity (propaganda) centre.

“At 11 o’clock the entire room erupted into enthusiastic applause as Chairman Ye entered the venue, cordially shaking hands with everyone . . . the children jumped up one after another to wish Chairman Ye a happy new year.”

Chairman Ye enters the room

Chairman Ye enters the room

Explaining Huaxin

Yet, despite his flourishing cult of personality, the chairman is far from satisfied with the work of his propaganda department.

In April last year he told them they had “fallen behind”, “not grasped the main themes”, and “not explained what it is that Huaxin does”.

Indeed, how does Huaxin make its billions – aside from sponsoring belligerent think tanks?

The answer, according to the man himself: “In business it is a global trading company, in industry it is centred on energy storage and new energy projects.”

According to Singapore corporate filings, Ye Jianming was previously chairman of the board at Shanghai Zhenrong, part of the Zhuhai Zhenrong family that was hit with US sanctions for oil trading with Iran.

One of Huaxin’s current projects is to build a mammoth oil storage facility on Hainan Island, with capacity of 12 million cubic metres, to absorb a large share of China’s strategic oil reserve.

“Oh yes, Huaxin – the princeling company . . . they are into everything around here,” ventured a Hainan taxi driver late last year.

“No-one dares to mess with them.”

Aside from energy logistics, Huaxin’s subsidiaries are involved in rubber, chemicals, and metals.

At a meeting last month with Mexican state oil giant Pemex, Huaxin CEO Chen Qiutu (representing Chairman Ye Jianming of couse) boasted of his company’s “great financial system made up of many domestic and foreign listed companies and equity banks, trusts and securities companies”.

Its interests even extend as far as Australia, where last year it spent about $2 million for control of an iron ore hopeful, Buxton Resources, under the name National Business Holdings.

Huaxin’s website specifies its mission as, “Expanding the country’s overseas energy economic interests, being a national enterprise.”

But some assets closely related to the Huaxin family appear to be the personal property of the chairman.

In November 2011, Singapore Petrol Development Pte Ltd (SPD) purchased a beauty products trader called Sun East, with the intention of “exploring” a move into the petrochemical trading business.

SPD promptly renamed its acquisition CEFC International.

Corporate filings indicate that Ye Jianming is the sole shareholder of SPD, as well as the controlling shareholder of Daiwah Group, a Shanghai-based company established in January 2012 with capital of RMB 100 million. Daiwah deals in rubber, palm oil, non-ferrous metals, chemicals and shipping.


CEFC (Huaxin) Energy Company

CEFC (Huaxin) Energy Company

China Energy Fund Committee logo

CEFC think tank logo

Cryptic symbolism

Huaxin’s English name, China CEFC Energy Co, is almost identical to that of the CEFC think tank and until recently it listed the think tank as one of its charitable ventures.

Their logos are also almost identical except that the corporate entity’s is tinted Communist Party red, with golden stars like the Chinese flag, while the think tank has bronze stars on a background of United Nations blue.

At the centre of its logo is a big star which represents “civil rights”, according the CEFC’s English-language version of its website.

But the Chinese-language explanation makes no mention of civil rights and, in contrast, says the star represents how “this organization will play a strong and powerful role for the interests of the Chinese state and nation”.

Three smaller stars represent its participant “organizations and individuals”. A CEFC spokesperson declined repeated inquiries as to their identity or nature.

Months of questions to CEFC headquarters have provided no answers on the question of who or what is really behind its activities.

“Sometimes you just know it’s better not to know, so I don’t even ask,” was one typical response, from an employee.

“Let’s not talk about money, let’s eat lunch.”


Friends all over the world

The fact that CEFC might be set up and owned by an opaque oil company has not deterred global statesmen from participating in its high-level events.

Last month it quietly co-hosted an “energy conference” in Beijing attended by Kissinger and former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder.

And while Huaxin’s internal structure uses Chinese government nomenclature and refers to its executives by the Communist Party appellation “comrade”, the United Nations has nonetheless vouched for CEFC’s non-government-status.

The “NGO” was granted Special Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council which, in turn, enabled it to segue away from oil and war in order to co-host a “dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity” at United Nations headquarters in New York, in November 2012.

CEFC’s partner in that venture, the Nishan Forum on World Civilizations, is another new and mysterious Chinese organisation that describes itself as an NGO.

Its personnel and aspirations overlap with those of CEFC.

The interests of the Nishan vice chairman, Xing Yunming, reach far beyond Confucius and religion and might provide a clue to what lies behind the CEFC think tank.


Political warfare?

Mr Xing is in fact a lieutenant-general in the People’s Liberation Army and, according to isolated, and perhaps inadvertent, reports in provincial media, he is director of the military’s secretive political warfare agency – the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department (GPD).

The PLA GPD Liaison Department emerged in 1955 out of an entity with a more descriptive moniker: The Enemy Work Department.

Almost unknown to civilian researchers, it behaves like an intelligence agency but with broader scope and greater power, targeting foreign political and economic elites.

In recent years it appears to have broadened the focus of its “enemy work” – a term its operatives still use – from Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities to Western countries and their allies.

“Liaison work operates at a nexus of politics, finance, military operations, and intelligence,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of a Washington think tank, the Project 2049 Institution.

“It is responsible for active measures taken to influence foreign defence policies,” said Mr Stokes, who is sifting through reams of internet material to map the department’s personnel and networks across various front organisations.

The central strategy of enemy work is to create two simultaneously contradictory perceptions in the adversary’s mind: one, that China is friendly and benign, the other (invoked at the crucial moment) that China is powerful, ruthless and inevitable.

Perhaps this might explain why CEFC, the think tank, goes to great lengths to organize friendly cultural exchanges, yet also associates itself with warmongering articles by PLA officers.

CEFC, the think tank, repeatedly declined requests to clarify the nature of its links to the PLA GPD Liaison Department.

But publicly available records say from 2003 to 2005 chairman Ye Jianming was deputy secretary general of the China Association for International Friendly Contacts (CAIFC) – one of the GPD Liaison Department’s best-known public platforms.

CAIFC has mediated many of Kissinger’s contacts with the Chinese regime.

And there is a certain similarity at the center of CEFC and CAIFC’s logos, too.

China Energy Fund Committee logo

CEFC logo

CAIFC logo

CAIFC logo


More questions than answers

Which, in turn, hints at an answer to the ultimate mystery: who is Ye Jianming, the 36-year-old who sits atop both the CEFC think tank and its sponsor, the start-up oil megalith Huaxin?

Close observers in Hong Kong and southern China note that his features bear a striking resemblance to Lt-Gen Ye Xuanning — Director of the PLA GPD Liaison Department until 1998, and long-time President the Carrie (Kaili) Group, of one the original PLA business empires.

Ye Xuanning is the son of one of China’s great marshals, Ye Jianying, and has been described by peers as “the spiritual leader” of the princelings – the children of China’s original communist revolutionary heroes, who now dominate the top echelons of the party leadership.

The close observers say the PLA GPD Liaison Department continues to be his power base, 15 years after his official retirement.

Could the young chairman be – as many suspect – the youngest and previously unidentified son of Ye Xuanning?

Are his businesses and the CEFC think tank an instrument of Chinese state power, a family fiefdom, or merely private initiatives?

Dai Xu, the Air Force colonel, who has been pictured with Chairman Ye, knows the answers but is not forthcoming.

Is Ye Jianming the grandson of Ye Jianying? “It’s not convenient to say.”

Father and son? Ye Xuanning 叶选宁 (undated picture - source), Ye Jianming 叶简明

Father and son? Ye Xuanning 叶选宁 (undated picture – source), and Ye Jianming 叶简明

The father? Long-time Director of the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department, and of Marshal Ye Jianying, Ye Xuanning 叶选宁

Long-time Director of the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department, and of Marshal Ye Jianying, Ye Xuanning 叶选宁

* Another credible alternative hypothesis is that Chairman Ye Jianming may be a grandson of Admiral Ye Fei, who commanded the PLA Navy from 1980 to 1982. Yet another fascinating character to add to the roll-call, Ye Fei was born in the Philippines to a family with deep roots in Fujian Province, the original home of CEFC. He was a close associate of Marshal Ye Jianying and apparently opposed the June 4, 1989 crackdown. 

Lieutenant-General Wang Hongguang blasts PLA pundits’ “interference” in decisions and deployments

Increase vigilance

Increase vigilance: the reasonable conclusion of PLA pundits like Dai Xu?

[I spent hours on this post, then WordPress kindly lost it without a trace, hence this is a bit out-of-date, sorry]

The April 20 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) carried an article by recently-retired PLA Lieutenant-General Wang Hongguang, directly criticizing the Chinese media’s hawkish military commentators. 

The article is brief — indeed so brief that the obligatory preface declaring support for the pundits’ patriotic mission does not even run to a full sentence:

In recent years, military affairs experts have frequently appeared on TV and in all kinds of publications, with the positive effect of strengthening the masses’ national defense awareness and arousing patriotism, but it cannot be denied that some have said off-key things, things that have misled the audience and been irresponsible.

Lt-Gen Wang, who now serves as Vice President of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, made it quite clear that by “military affairs experts” he was referring to fellow PLA academics, particularly Zhang Zhaozhong, Luo Yuan, and of course Dai Xu.

It’s unusual to hear a PLA academic criticize his comrades in public; even more so for someone of such high rank. But most remarkable was Lt-Gen Wang’s claim that PLA academics’ war talk is “interfering” with the CCP-PLA leadership’s decision-making, citing the specific example of Sino-Japanese relations:

Some experts have inappropriately made comparisons of China and Japan’s military strength, claiming “China and Japan will inevitably go to war”, and that this “would not significantly affect our period of strategic opportunity”, [thus] inciting public sentiment and causing some interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments.

Wang Hongguang is in a position to know. Until recently he was Deputy Commander of the PLA’s Nanjing Military Region.

Read the rest of this entry »

Luo Yuan: a profile

Luo Yuan at the CPPCC meeting in Beijing, March 2012

Translating the following profile on Luo Yuan led to an extremely stimulating discussion with a Chinese friend last night on the topic of this so-called “Major-General”. My friend sees the Luo Yuan media phenomenon as serving an important purpose for the central government: Luo basically acts as a layer of interference between the decision-makers and outside observers.

Among the various possibilities raised in the previous article on Luo Yuan, then, this explanation implies that his prominence in the media is very much a result of consensus at the top of both the military and the party that it is beneficial to have a hardline attack dog. The logic is strong: official-ish voices, those of like Luo and other hawkish paramilitary figures such as Major-General Zhang Zhaozhong of National Defense University, add a layer of unpredictability to Chinese foreign policy, a la North Korea’s antics.

My friend dismisses the idea that Luo Yuan could represent any kind of policy faction or alliance within the party or military; Luo has no influence of his own, he argues, and no genuine policy player would agree with him. The implication of this is that no-one in a position of power in China would actually want to act aggressively on the South China Sea issue. The players in the decision-making process, whoever they are, including military leaders, are much too rational to entertain such ideas.

The bigger picture that starts to take shape is one in which the China Threat Theory is actually something that the Chinese government wants, and perhaps even needs, in order to hide its soft underbelly.

Although the party-state’s approach to the South China Sea disputes is often publicly criticised in China as weak-kneed, my friend places this approach among the government’s continuous, long-term policies that are not subject to internal competition or debate. We can certainly discern a pattern of opportunism in China’s actual actions in the South China Sea, from the taking of the Paracels from South Vietnamese remnants in 1974, to the 1988 battle with Vietnam over the Union Atolls in the Spratlys as Vietnam’s backer the Soviet Union began to crumble, to the occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 in the wake of the US’s departure from the Philippines.

However, the question might be asked: if China is so rational on the South China Sea issue, why did it alienate its neighbours and draw the US in by stepping up its presence in 2009-2011? Well, Michael Swaine & M. Taylor Fravel have shown, convincingly in my view, that China’s alleged assertiveness, or aggressiveness (or even “aggressive assertiveness“!) during that period was largely explainable as a series of responses to the actions of rival claimant states, mainly Vietnam and the Philippines.

That still leaves the question of Luo Yuan as an opinion leader in Chinese society. My friend’s reading of the situation suggests that the CCP is so confident of its control of domestic nationalist opinion that it doesn’t feel like it’s playing with fire at all when it allows mass outpourings of support for Luo and criticism of the policy status quo online. This confidence was especially apparent in July last year when China agreed to the Guidelines for the Implementation of the South China Sea DOC, inevitably causing nationalist outrage online.

Regarding the popular online support for Luo’s views, my friend puts this down to simple venting. Indeed, the article translated below suggests that the Chinese people just want to see someone in the military express hardline views, and want to believe that someone in power agrees with them. Nevertheless, he sees the allowing or facilitating of Luo Yuan’s media profile as primarily an externally-directed tactic.

So perhaps the CCP trusts that the public, on the whole, really doesn’t agree with Luo’s standpoints. I will be testing this idea through some offline opinion polling later this year – a likely finding of little support for stronger action in the South China Sea among everyday people, would support this conclusion. (This would be exactly the opposite of prominent US scholar Susan Shirk’s claim that the leadership feels threatened by a madly nationalistic public.) After all, a tiny fraction of the population can make a lot of noise online, as many of the South Sea conversations documented here illustrate.

So in sum, Luo Yuan’s media presence, and the provocative media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff that i mused about here last week, could all be part of the same strategy of disinformation for the outside world: let guys like Luo Yuan rant, let the Chinese media make him seem credible, and let the internet users provide “evidence” that the Chinese people are angry about the South Sea and demanding tougher actions, when in fact they are apathetic, and tougher actions are not on the policy agenda.

This is basically a full inversion of the idea of China’s domestic situation dictating China’s foreign policy; instead, the domestic situation is being manipulated and used to China’s advantage at the international negotiating table. It suggests a broader and deeper application of the principles of the “strategic logic of anti-foreign protest” – aka the nationalism card.

The following profile on Luo Yuan, from the April 9 edition of Southern Window, gives the impression of an angry, impotent, and even confused Luo Yuan fighting an unwinnable battle against China’s moral decay. And despite his princeling background, he doesn’t appear to particularly well connected either.

Note: the translation is a summary one in some parts, but mostly it is sentence-by-sentence.

Luo Yuan the “hawk”

Zhang Jianfeng, Southern Weekend

The writer likens the courtyard at the Chinese Academy of Military Science to a “freeze-frame” scene. Luo Yuan sums up the peace and quiet as the site of “a battle without smoke, and a place for pre-practice of war, of concealed dragons and crouching tigers”. Some people deride the Chinese Academy of Military Science as being on the sideilnes, but Luo Yuan quotes a Deng Tuo poem on the ability of writers to cause bloodshed.

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