UPDATE FRI PM: the detainees are being released in two batches, with 7 sent by plane to Hong Kong and the other 7, including the captain and bosun, told to sail their boat back. The activist group says a second landing attempt “cannot be ruled out” (see Twitter for details and sources).
China and Japan are now engaged in their second nasty diplomatic confrontation in the past 2 years, over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. There were anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday, and the issue is dominating China’s entire newsmediascape. But it’s the Chinese government that is copping most of the wrath of online opinion.
On Sunday (August 12) a group of mostly middle-aged-and-older activists set out from Hong Kong on a rusty old tub called the Qifeng-2, to proclaim China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands by landing on one of them and raising the Chinese flag, or flags as it turned out.
Even at that early stage domestic Chinese internet opinion was focusing on the PRC government. The Huanqiu Shibao got the activists a great deal of online media attention by picking up their public request for a PLA Naval escort for the Qifeng-2 in the (inevitable) event that they were intercepted by Japanese Coastguard patrols.
Top comments on the portals were divided between expressions of support for the Hong Kong activists, and criticism of the government. Five out of the top ten comments on the 184,000-strong Tencent thread, ‘Activists from two sides [of the Straits] and three regions plan to proclaim Diaoyu sovereignty, Japan orders interception‘ directly challenged the government to match the activists’ patriotism:
“Strongly demand the Central Committee of the CCP send at one of the Politburo Standing Committee or a ministerial-level official to Diaoyu to declare sovereignty! If you agree please ‘ding’!” [28212 dings]
The PRC’s internet users frequently serve us with reminders of just how much scepticism we should have regarding the purported market imperatives of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), published by the People’s Daily.
In February 2010, according to a Wiki-leaked cable written by Jon Huntsman, a Huanqiu Shibao editor told a political officer from the US embassy that their newspaper was “market-driven” and therefore had to “reflect public opinion in order to make money”.
The same day, a Beijing University academic told embassy staff that “the Global Times’ more ‘hawkish’ editorial slant [is] ‘consistent with the demands of the readers and normal for a market-driven newspaper.’ ”
This view seems to be shared by some liberal Chinese intellectuals, such as Michael Anti, who has been quoted as saying “its position is to make money — nationalism is Global Times’ positioning in the market”.
Susan Shirk, a highly influential US analyst of PRC foreign policy, even claims that Chinese officials somehow see the Huanqiu Shibao as representative of popular opinion, and that they read it to understand the population’s views on hot-button issues. At least, that is what Shirk’s sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tell her, and she raises no questions as to this information’s veracity.
Other analysts, however, like those interviewed in this excellent Asia Sentinel article, suggest at least four different domestic and international purposes that Huanqiu may serve — none of them involving monetary profit:
“Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoffPosted: April 26, 2012
It’s one of the great puzzles of Chinese foreign policy in the 21st century, and particularly when it comes to the PRC’s behaviour in the South China Sea: which of China’s actions are co-ordinated, intentional, directed by the central leadership – and which are the result of individual agencies, political factions, and other actors in competition for resources or policy supremacy?
The International Crisis Group released a report on Monday this week emphasising the former, the “lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies” leading to an incoherent policy on the South China Sea. The same day, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College published a piece that argued China’s “small-stick diplomacy” strategy in the dispute – principally the use of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies – is likely to succeed.
One of the problems is there are very limited ways of working out what’s actually going on, and one of the principal windows we do have is the Chinese mass media, including online media like news portals, the content of which we know to be shaped by the directives of the State Council Information Office and Ministry(s) of Propaganda. However, the Chinese mass media also operate to a large degree on commercial premises, so it’s a constant challenge to work out whether their coverage is best explained by sensationalism or political direction.
Watching the PRC’s media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff over the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of bewildering. In one particularly strange example this week, the China Youth Daily, online news portals, and decision-makers combined to create a veritable firestorm of outrage against the government – all based on what appear to be false reporting.
Just a few days ago the Philippines military announced its intention to purchase another second-hand US warship to patrol its South China Sea claims – on the very day President Aquino left China after a successful state visit. Combined with exaggerated state media accounts of China’s beneficence in agreeing to billions of dollars of new investments in the Philippines, this left many Chinese “netizens” feeling that China had been humiliated.
Today we saw an ideal follow-up, from the perspective of China’s commercial media:
The Philippines government announced yesterday that US$117 million in licence fees from the country’s Malampaya gasfield in the South China Sea will be used to upgrade military installations.
According to reports, the money will be used to purchase helicopters and warships and build radar stations to strengthen “defence” of oil and gas resources in the sea, where disputes exist with China.
The Chinese government has not yet expressed its view of these developments.
Although the story originated with provincial website Zhejiang Online (link now broken), it was among the top headlines on the front pages of major web portals NetEase, Sohu and Phoenix Online, and remained on prominent display throughout the course of September 8.
Predictably, the response from readers was a storm of indignation. The following responses are the most popular among the NetEase discussion, which involved 45,505 participants and 1,356 comments:
Anonymous (Taiyuan, Shanxi): China is going to provide RMB 20 million of free technological assistance to the Philippines. I can only laugh [8153 recommends]
Anonymous (Shanghai): They just sign a deal worth hundreds of millions, go home and use the money to build radar stations…..
qqlzl (Shanghai): Before when I saw this kind of news I would be majorly angry, but today I’m just indifferent. 
qzm196505 (Fujian Province): A few days ago Philippine president Aquino visited my hometown, Zhangzhou, to pay respects to his ancestors and see the locals in his family’s village. The locals were as happy like it was Spring Festival, and Aquino said to them: “Fellows, my ancestral home is in China, in Jiaomei, Longhai County, Zhangzhou, in the village where I am standing! The Philippines wishes to learn from China’s development experience, invest more, extract more oil, and support local people!” The villagers were moved to tears— 
iamkangroo (Foshan, Guangdong): Should . . . must . . . 
Anon. (Changchun, Jilin): Nothing to do with me 
The wits-end tone of these comments, and in particular the popularity of the third comment, might suggest that “nationalists” are accepting that their (possibly GFC-inspired) hopes for a more muscular foreign policy were unrealistic. If so, this could be a positive trend in the sense that hardline factions within the state who might want to mobilize public pressure in favour of militaristic goals or their own ascendancy within the Party will have a hard time making that happen. A case of the Hawks Who Cried “Wolf!” perhaps?
It is also interesting to find the view that the South China Sea issue is irrelevant finally find expression. Of course, this comment could be (and probably was for at least some of the 1600+ readers who indicated agreement) an ironic, indirect way of disowning the CCP government’s weak actions (i.e. that the CCP’s weak policies have nothing to do with the commenter, not that the South China Sea issue is irrelevant), but it should be assumed, despite all the anger and ranting online, that indifference may well represent the views of a usually silent but overwhelmingly large majority.
More generally, this latest episode adds further weight to the conclusion that the Communist Party’s often-touted “nationalist legitimacy” may in fact be largely irrelevant. If people care at all, they seem to think the party-state is acting in their own interests, as distinct from the national interest.
By all accounts Philippines President Benigno Aquino III’s visit to China from August 30 to September 3 was a roaring success. More than 300 businesspeople and 13 cabinet members went along with the President, and they apparently got what they wanted and more: $1.3 billion in guaranteed Chinese investment in the year ahead, and up to $14 billion over the next five years.
The South China Sea front was relatively quiet, in keeping with the official rhetoric in the lead-up to the trip (Google news finds 2,375 stories on the topic of , namely that the dispute would not be allowed to affect economic cooperation.
However, on the day the President left with billions in new investments secured, the Chinese press pounced on the Phillipines military’s announcement* of the upcoming purchase of another second-hand US warship: Just as Aquino concludes China visit, Philippines announces purchase of another warship for the South China Sea, shrieked headlines across the country, from Chongqing to Fujian and seemingly everywhere in between.
After such a high-profile state visit accompanied by the usual heavy official media coverage, with China’s virtuous international kindness being extolled, this was widely seen as yet another serious loss of face for the Chinese government. The story provoked more than 22,000 responses on Sohu, one of China’s main web portals. Here’s a selection of the top comments:
Using China’s money to buy American warships to interfere with China. That’s really lofty!
This is a good model of “shelving disputes and developing jointly”!
China and the Philippines are friendly, increase investment!???
America’s running dog, this is exactly the American way.
Shelve differences, jointly develop, yes! yes! yes! yes! yes! yes!
After I finished reading this article I thought of that picture of Hu [Jintao] clinking glasses with Aquino and couldn’t help but admire the rulers’ “IQ” [. . .] if people are good they get taken for a ride, if a horse is good they get ridden – this idea was completely proven long ago, did you really not know?! How long are you going to make the Chinese people lose face for? Are you alright? If not, get someone else in quick~~
It’s a pity the Sohu thread doesn’t include information about how many people recommended each post. More than 22,000 individually written comments would suggest, at a guess, at least 100,000 participants in the discussion, a pretty big number even by Chinese standards.
The discussion on Phoenix Online attracted 48,072 participants and 219 comments. The top responses once again suggest that for a great many Chinese people this was a massive loss of face:
When I saw this headline I just laughed! [4109 recommends]
Remember Chairman Mao, he really was a strategist and statesman! 
The Filipino people are warmly congratulating their President on his consummate successful in his visit to China! 
Don’t abuse others! We always knew they were shameless, we just thought we were too cool, insisted on giving them face and money and now they’re buying weapons to fight us with – we’re a great big international joke! 
We should bear in mind the ancient teaching: a bowl of rice nourishes a saviour, a ton of rice nourishes an enemy. 
It’s hard to disagree – Hu does indeed seem to have been slapped with a wet trout. But the “netizens” don’t seem to realize that people around the world pay almost no attention; what seems to them to be a loss of face for the Chinese nation in front of the world is far, far more of a loss of face for the Chinese Communist Party in front of the Chinese nation.
* Philippines military chief Eduardo Oban announced that he expected to buy a second Hamilton-class cutter from the US to help safeguard the country’s South China Sea interests. AFP appeared to see nothing inflammatory or contradictory about this:
MANILA — The Philippines hopes a territorial dispute over the South China Sea will ease after President Benigno Aquino’s trip to China, the nation’s military chief said Saturday.
But Manila will continue to build its naval patrol capability, General Eduardo Oban said, adding that he expects the Philippine navy to acquire a second Hamilton-class cutter from the United States next year.
On the morning of July 20, 2011 it was announced that ASEAN and China had reaffirmed their commitment to abide by the 2002 code of conduct.
The official news release from Xinhua, reposted immediately by Phoenix Online that afternoon, was titled China and ASEAN agree on implementing the ‘Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea’. Predictably it was airy and light on detail, and the response to the story on Phoenix online was an overwhelming demand for more specific information:
“Hottest comments” from 33,884 participants/227 comments as at July 26, 2011, 12.20 p.m. BJ:
aloros (Huanggang, Hebei): I strongly demand the main content of the ‘Declaration’ be made public. The Chinese people have a right to information. [8881 recommends]
曹新华 Cao Xinhua* (Dalian, Liaoning): I strongly demand to see the content of the declaration. [3384 recommends]
wangyi3695555 (Guangdong): What are the specific contents of the declaration? [2467 recommends]
预备123123 (Luzhou, Sichuan): The contents should be made public. [1941 recommends]
as636789 (Wuxi, Jiangsu): Does the South China Sea belong to China? If so, why are we discussing it with others? [1853 recommends]
weizhaochuan (Shunde, Foshan, Guangdong): “We only need not attack for now. China is getting strong. When America falls into its next crisis, China will actually control the South China Sea.” People who think like this are just unloved dreamers!!!!! If you say something does that make it come true? You’ll fall into crisis before they do! [825 recommends]
* Possible pun as it sounds like “fuck Xinhua”, but also a relatively common surname and first name.
However, if July 20 was looking like a day of decreased South Sea tensions, five Filipino MPs and the Global Times had other ideas. Just over an hour after Xinhua’s announcement of the breakthrough agreement with ASEAN came the following:
Zhong Weidong (Global Times Online): A few days ago, five Filipino MPs shrilly claimed that they would “visit” Zhongye Island in the South China Sea. On July 20 local time, they carried out their plan to set foot on the island. They claimed Zhongye Island was “Filipino territory” and raised a new Philippines flag, and encouraged local residents to start calling the surrounding waters the “West Philippine Sea”.
“Hottest comments” on Phoenix online from 41,373 participants/877 comments as at 26/7/11 1.30pm BJ:
South Sea Summer 南海之夏 (Hangzhou, Zhejiang): Countless negotiations, countless protests, countless stern [statments], and no-one has ever paid heed. This time we get it: no negotiation, no protest and no sternness. Then we won’t be a joke to everyone. [4284 recommends]
oldsoldier2000 (Shenyang, Liaoning): Enraged! China’s government and military, why aren’t you doing anything? [2673 recommends]
Tuolikushui 脱离苦水 (Xuancheng, Anhui): A bunch of old men leaning on their walking sticks have squandered the property of the ancestors. These days we don’t even dare fart. What face do we have left on this earth? [2048 recommends]
wzm73123 (Zhangzhou, Fujian): I don’t know what the Chinese government has done about the South China Sea besides protest!!! Get a dose of reality!!! The Spratly Islands are being lost one after another, when can we end this state of affairs? [1767 recommends]
efang_michael (Beijing): Quoting background information from the bottom of the news story, ” Zhongye Island. . . second largest island in the Spratlys . . . named after a ship that received sovereignty over the Spratly Islands on behalf of the KMT government in 1946 . . . occupied by the Philippines since 1971, it now has a garrison, airport, shops, power plant etc, and forms the command centre for the Philippines’ rule of the Spratlys.” Reading this, seeing the Filipino servants’ [菲佣] military planes hovering over the motherland’s territory, the rage in my heart will burn for ages, what oh what oh what is wrong with our motherland???? [1684 recommends]
IFXDD (Chengdu, Sichuan): A day of national humiliation. I will remember 2011-7-20. 
x090909 (Shenyang, Liaoning): China cannot sit and ignore this! The people of China are watching! The world’s Chinese people are watching! The whole world is watching! 
haiying222 (Hangzhou, Zhejiang): If it doesn’t affect the basic interests of interest groups, the country’s weaponry is just playthings, whatever, just let them keep screwing. 
sxxwli525 (Heze, Shandong): China’s military is a bunch of soft eggs. 
. . .
万里青山 (Tianjin): There’s nothing that can be done. The common people are worried, the elites in the capital are not. 
The message could not be clearer: for many Chinese people this is nothing less than a national humiliation, a collective loss of national face. Meanwhile the old men of the corrupt government rest on their walking sticks. The comment that the military are “soft eggs” appears to imply that they should be disobeying the weak civilian leadership and taking matters into their own hands. The Chinese government often cops international criticism for claiming that this or that country has “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, but these comments illustrate the high degree to which many Chinese people are emotionally invested in the state’s continuing upward fortunes on the “international stage”.