In last week’s Sinica Podcast, M. Taylor Fravel discussed the March 1988 Sino-Vietnamese battle in the Spratly Islands, recounting how the PLAN Commander was moved from his post afterwards as a result of his unauthorized decision to open fire on the Vietnamese Navy.
This could make the 1988 battle appear as a historical example of uncoordination in the PRC’s behaviour towards the outside world — a rogue commander taking foreign policy into his own hands. However, the decision to send the Navy in to establish a presence on unoccupied reefs in the Spratlys was a centralized, high-level one.
Today, the Chinese Navy is better equipped and better trained, so the chances of something similar happening are small. The unwavering non-involvement of the PLAN in China’s maritime territorial disputes, even as tensions have risen to boiling point, is a testament to the navy’s professionalization, and a site of consensus among China’s policymakers. The US Department of Defense in 2011 presciently pinpointed (see p.60) the increasing use of non-military law enforcement agencies to press China’s claims in disputed waters as an important component of PRC policy. Since then, this approach has become ever-more salient.
China’s maritime law enforcement fleets have long been seen as a source of policy disorganization, both within China and abroad; back in 2002, for example, the Hainan Provincial NPC delegation tabled a motion to establish a unified maritime law-enforcement fleet.
But in the podcast Fravel drew attention to how this year the China Maritime Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement fleets have actually coordinated rather well, both with each other and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in advancing China’s maritime claims.
On Friday (May 11), as PRC-Philippines tensions eased with the reopening of diplomatic dialogue, the emphasis of Chinese media was very much on the small size of the touted “anti-Chinese” protests in Manila. But they were positively huge compared with the protests in Beijing the same day.
Phoenix’s Manila correspondent described the scale of the Manila protests as being “far from the scale the Philippine side had previously said”. However, many other media, including the official CNS news agency, specifically contrasted the small gatherings with the PRC Foreign Ministry’s ominous warnings.
After noting the arrest of a protester in Manila who tried to burn the Chinese flag, the short CNS report also carried, in its second paragraph, the Philippines government’s comment that the protests were initiated by ordinary people and were not encouraged by the government. Other reports also emphasised the non-official (“民间”) nature of the protests, which also contrasted with the continuous official rhetoric accusing the Philippines government of whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment.
NetEase’s editors almost seemed to be implying that the government had overemphasised the threat posed by the protests. The top headline cluster on Friday ran:
Philippines people hold small-scale anti-China demonstrations
More journalists than demonstrators | Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag | CCTV report on “large-scale anti-China demonstrations” not proven correct
But the NetEase comment thread on “Arrests for trying to burn Chinese flag” was full of wild rumours, stated as fact, of Chinese casualties in Manila — complete with shops torched and deaths in the dozens.
Today the little Pippos demonstrators torched the Chinese market! 18 people dead! The Chinese media is swindling people! [17,362 recommends]
Report from Manila, 11/5: Philippines anti-China forces rampage, burning Chinese shopping malls, killing at least 24 (delete this comment and I’ll kill 9 generations of your family!!) [14,412]
If it was an anti-American rally, “itching-to-death 痒死” [CCTV] would definitely say there were more than a million there. [5,618]
The third comment suggests why the top two comments were so popular, and why the Chinese government has to sometimes take drastic action to curb rumours: when people start really caring about an issue, one of their first instincts is to disbelieve whatever the official media says.
If the regime knew about these explosive rumours doing the rounds, however, it appears to have seen them as useful rather than harmful. Like the calls for human-flesh searches in previous days, they were not censored, and in fact they remain in place today, six days later.
But if the online-commenting public had been given carte blanche for their outrage, the same privileges certainly did not extend to the real-world public. At the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing, a handful of patriotic Beijing residents actually stared down the heavy policy presence to attempt to inform the Philippines that Huangyan Island belongs to China.
Their actions were barely reported by the Chinese media. A correspondent from China Radio International did make it down there, and found:
On North Xiushui Rd, where the Philippines embassy is, there were a certain number of police vehicles parked and four or five police officers on duty. A few men came and protested in front of the embassy. One male wearing a shirt with, “Protect Huangyan, diplay our country’s prestige,” written on it. He unfurled a banner with his fellows that read, “Huangyan is China’s historic territory, do not challenge China’s bottom line,” on one side and, “When one can restrain no more, one cannot keep restraint, 忍无可忍不会再忍” on the other.
Around 3.30 a male surnamed Li was preparing to protest when an embassy car drove in. Standing across from the main gate, he immediately pulled out and raised high a white paper sign with the slogan, “Love China, Love Huangyan,” written on it.
This report was certainly not widely publicised; it’s been deleted from the CRI website, and NetEase has done the same to its version. On Saturday morning 21cn posted a stub and the full article was posted on Phoenix, where it remains available, but it hasn’t been given any prominence at all judging by the mere 300 or so participants on its heavily-censored comments thread.
There is a certain logic in the general paucity of coverage — after all, the PRC media were all reporting on the lack of protesters in Manila. The few hundred who gathered in Manila were still roughly 100 times more numerous than their counterparts in Beijing. The CNR article even began with the observation that:
On the Huangyan Island issue the Philippines has incited its people’s emotions and encouraged its domestic and overseas populations to launch demonstrations aimed at China. But the Philippines’ actions have certainly not caused the Chinese masses any great worry, and there were definitely no large-scale gatherings at the Philippines’ embassy in Beijing to oppose its unjustifiable conduct, [just] sporadic protests by the masses.
It would probably have been more accurate to say that the Chinese government’s campaign to focus media attention and public anger on the issue, and its dire official warnings about large-scale anti-Chinese protests, have not caused large-scale gatherings.
With a leadership transition just around the corner it is unlikely that the regime would want to see any kind of street protest anywhere, least of all in Beijing. It could just be my skepticism about the degree to which Chinese people care about the South China Sea issue (for a fascinating individual case-study that vividly illustrates why, read the “Confessions of a patriot-used-to-be”), but surely the security forces must have been expecting a bit more than this feeble show of patriotism. Maybe most people who might have protested just knew better than to try in 2012. Photos found here.
That doesn’t mean the Chinese public, particularly the public when reading news and interacting online, did not or does not care about the Huangyan issue. I’m really just stating the obvious: that all the media attention and anger online has failed to translate into offline protest.
But the internet’s systems of collective expression amplify extreme voices, while at the same time its anonymity can also prompt people’s voices to become more extreme. The question i’m left with is: was the feebleness of this protest, in particular the fact that so few even tried to make their outrage heard, the result of government suppression, a reflection of Chinese people’s knowledge of the cycles of CCP politics, or is it just the result of not enough people actually caring?
It’s still early days, but my money would be on the latter. If my hunch is right, then the government will struggle to credibly play the audience-costs nationalism card on this issue because for that strategy to work, CCP China must convince its international adversaries that it genuinely beholden to public pressure. In the case of Scarborough Shoal, it has demonstrated just the opposite.