“The headline speaks to the Chinese people’s heart!”: Zhong Sheng on Diaoyu patrols, gets a Phoenix twist

‘China needs to stand its ground like this’ by “Zhong Sheng”, Renmin Ribao, October 8, 2012, p.3. Phoenix and Sina changed the headline to ‘People’s Daily: if the territory cannot even be protected, what significance does China’s rapid development have?’, misrepresenting the article as an attack on the policy status quo.

Monday’s “Zhong Sheng” article in the Renmin Ribao set out to tell the world that the People’s Republic’s fisheries and surveillance ships are going to continue their patrols around the Diaoyu Islands.

The basic point was simple (official English translation):

Not only will the ship fleet of the Chinese Fishery Administration continue to stand its ground, but the Chinese Marine Surveillance ships will also stand their ground.

Beginning October 1, Chinese government boats have entered the 12nm territorial zone twice (on October 2 and 3) and patrolled in the 12nm “contiguous zone” every day since then. Zhong Sheng offered an explanation of sorts for the timing:

China needs to stand its ground in this manner. Otherwise, China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate right and interest could never be truly maintained, and Chinese people wouldn’t be able to celebrate the festive season securely and happily.

So the patrols recorded each day from October 1 to 7 were probably aimed in part at giving China’s holidaying families a sense that their government taking the requisite action to protect the homeland during National Day Golden Week. The Japanese media were of course crucial to the effectiveness of this.(†)

“Zhong Sheng” repeatedly claimed that the patrols were regularized and would not go away, but in so doing, effectively admitted that China had changed the status quo on the waters out there: “Japan is not accustomed to this . . . Japan must learn to adapt to these regular actions of China.” In fact, the writer(s) even went one step further in this direction, nominating the specific date for one significant change in PRC policy:

The Chinese Fishery Administration has normalized the fishery-protection patrol in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands and its subsidiary islands since as early as 2010.

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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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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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“This is a request to go to war!”: Chinese media stir-fry PLA Navy admiral Li Shihong’s comments

Li Shihong (李士红), a PLA Commander, speaking in Hong Kong, April 30, 2012

In Hong Kong on April 30, a PLA Navy Rear Admiral, Li Shihong, stated that “the moment the Central Military Commission makes a decision we will be dutybound to act”. If we needed another example of Chinese media sensationalism, the treatment of this story today looks like a pretty classic one.

Admiral Li’s statement was an entirely innocuous response, it appears from the video here, to a journalist’s question about what the PLA navy thinks it should should be doing about the ongoing Scarborough Shoal standoff: await instructions from the Central Military Commission.

However, 3 of China’s 5 major news portals have done an exemplary job of “stir-frying” this into a serious online news sensation. The headline on QQ.com’s front page lead headline read: “Chinese Navy Rear Admiral on Huangyan Island issue: awaiting decision from the centre”.

Sohu went with: “Navy Commander: If the centre makes a decision, the navy won’t hesistate to act”. Phoenix was slightly closer to the mark with, “PLA Officer: the moment the centre makes a decision, we will be dutybound to act”.

Front page of QQ.com news portal, May 1, 2012. The lead headline is: 'Chinese Navy Rear Admiral on Huangyan Island issue: awaiting decision from the centre'

I know i was taken in; the headline and the treatment of the story made it seem as though Rear Admiral Li, who also happens to be Deputy Chief of Staff for the PLAN’s South China Sea Fleet, was implying that the central leadership had failed to be decisive in its handling of the issue.

The story became QQ.com’s most-commented for the day, and the sixth-most commented for the week.

Daily ranking of most-commented stories on QQ's news portal, with report about Rear Admiral Li Shihong's comments at #1

On Phoenix it’s currently the #4 most-commented story. The top comments from both the Phoenix and the QQ.com discussion threads suggest that i was far from alone in my initial mistaken reading of Commodore Li’s words. First Phoenix’s 59,000-strong thread:

I have confidence in our military, but I wish the decision-makers would draw their swords when they should. [12,525 recommends]

This is a request to go to war! Courageous, the whole country’s everyday people support the PLA! [7396]

This approach is very good. The people are all waiting for the centre to issue the order! [5444]

And the QQ.com thread, with 110,000+ participants,

So the military’s top levels have declared they are not afraid of war, now the ball is back in the central [leadership’s] court. The central Party should declare its position as to whether or not it is afraid of war! Today South Korea seized more Chinese fishermen and fishing boats, so which is it to be – war or suing for peace? [20,805 supports]

The people are being held back, and actually the PLA are being held back even more, yelling slogans all day like “protect the country, serve the people”! But, since orders must be obeyed, they can only watch those stupid idiots prancing around on our territory and claiming that they’re the ones being invaded. In decision-making, although war harms both sides, and it might affect us into the future, if we don’t attack then China will forever be the one to suffer. [17,251]

Don’t forget, Philippines, China has a full 5,000 years of history [. . .] <—- Nonsense, what can you do with your distinguished history? <—- If we don’t attack then this 5,000-year thick skin should stand us in good stead. [6,032]

[. . .]

The PLA Navy are good, the people eagerly await your victorious fight. [2,656]

What that means is, there is now no-one who can make decisions! Helpless! [2,385]

This treatment of an innocuous, standard comment would do any of Rupert Murdoch’s rags proud. However, if commercial imperatives, and hence the market, is what is driving such behaviour, then this indicates a growing demand for news about the South Sea issue on from the Chinese public. It will be interesting to do some case-study comparisons between South China Sea coverage during this Scarborough crisis, and other high-profile incidents in the past three or four years.

Aside from the Impeccable incident, which directly involved the US rather than Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia, i doubt any past altercation in the South China Sea became quite the media event that this one has.