“You cannot not support this”: the passport saga impresses China’s online nationalists

New PRC e-passport and old version

Students of PRC foreign policy constantly come up against the question of whether the actions of the Chinese state are the result of decisions made by the centralised leadership or individual state agencies.

Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox’s 2010 SIPRI report, ‘New Foreign Policy Actors in China‘ provided an excellent overview of the range of players on the Chinese foreign policy scene. Taking a similar approach in relation to the South China Sea issue, the International Crisis Group’s ‘Stirring up the Sea (I)‘ report earlier this year emphasised the incoherence that can result from individual (and sometimes competing) agencies acting according to their own priorities rather than a consistent centralized policy.

In the PRC’s latest diplomatic disaster, images embedded on the visa pages of the PRC’s new passports have managed to simultaneously provoke the official ire of Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Taiwan.

Close-up of nine-dash line depiction in new People’s Republic of China passport

The two South China Sea claimants have protested the inclusion of a map including the nine-dash line representing China’s “territory” in the disputed sea, India disputes the maps’ depiction of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet, and the passports’ pictures of Taiwan landmarks prompted rare expressions of anger from Ma Ying-jeou and the ROC’s Mainland Affairs Council.

This looks to be a classic case of policy uncoordination resulting from a domestically-focused agency taking actions that directly impinge on other countries’ interests. From the FT’s report breaking the story:

China’s ministry of public security oversees the design and issuing of the new Chinese passports, according to an official at the Chinese foreign ministry who declined to comment further.

The next day the Guardian quoted MFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying, “The outline map of China on the passport is not directed against any particular country.” Yet neither the Chinese nor the English versions of the official transcript of Hua’s November 23 press conference include the comment, suggesting that the Foreign Ministry remained disinclined to take responsibility for the move.

The SIPRI and ICG reports mentioned above didn’t focus much attention on the Ministry of Public Security as a player in PRC foreign policy, but it has certainly become one, inadvertently or otherwise.

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“There are cocoons growing in my ears!”: Hong Lei and Huang Shanchun’s responses to warmongering ‘netizens’

Guangdong Military Region commissar Huang Shanchun 黄善春 meets “netizens”, May 14, 2012

Two weeks ago, with the stateinspired 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.

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“The irony is exquisite”: Is Phoenix trying to ruin the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s credibility?

Today China’s major websites appear to have been instructed to prominently publicize Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin’s comment [EN] about the recent Sino-Vietnamese agreement on the South China Sea dispute having nothing to do with any other country.

Liu was responding, mundanely, to Philippines President Aquino’s equally mundane reiteration that only multilateral negotiations can solve the dispute.

But Sina, Sohu, Netease, Phoenix and QQ all have the story on the front page of their news sites, the latter three particularly prominently. Beneath the main headline “Foreign Ministry: China and Vietnam solving their maritime disputes has nothing to do with any third country” there appear links to reports about the announcement of the joint declaration and Aquino’s protest, and this is the case on both Netease, Phoenix and QQ, a good indication that some kind of edict is governing the story’s treatment.

While evidently toeing the line and following instructions, however, Phoenix seems to have slipped a sneaky little spanner into the propaganda machine as it works to sell the government’s latest diplomatic achievement. Below the headline, Phoenix has helpfully added a third subsidiary link, to a story from 6 days ago titled, “India, Vietnam sign agreement, will exploit oil in disputed areas of the SCS”.

This story was a translated summary of AP’s report outlining Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s trip to New Delhi to oversee the signing of a new accord between Indian and Vietnamese state-owned oil companies’ to promote oil exploration in Vietnamese-claimed waters. President Truong’s trip took place precisely as Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was over in Beijing, signing the above-mentioned joint declaration with China – a very inconvenient dampener on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s happy tale of Sino-Vietnamese agreement.

With the stories placed alongside one another, the obvious conclusion was not lost on readers, as the top comments from the 41,000-strong Phoenix discussion indicate:

Is this diplomatic wisdom? [5597 recommends]

Sign agreements with both sides, masterstroke. [4012]

Compare this with the so-called agreement between China and Vietnam . . . the irony is exquisite! Well done, Vietnamees! [4009]