Somehow i’ve omitted to mention the report released in November on my first survey of Chinese public opinion on the country’s maritime disputes: Exploring China’s ‘Maritime Consciousness’: public opinion on the South and East China Sea disputes.
If you’re reading this blog you would probably have come across the report already. But since it’s based on on 1,413 conversations on the South China Sea and Diaoyu disputes, it probably does warrant a mention on this blog.
I’m doing a presentation and panel discussion on the report today (Monday, March 2) at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which Canberra-based readers may be interested in. I think the RSVP date has passed, but it’s probably a case of the more the merrier so if you’re keen i suggest clicking the link and getting in contact with ASPI.
Also based on the survey, a recent piece published on the University of Nottingham’s excellent China Policy Institute blog, as part of a special issue on nationalism in Asia. My contribution to that below:
China Policy Institute Blog, February 3, 2015
By Andrew Chubb
Few terms in public political discourse are as contested, contradictory and downright slippery as nationalism. Deployed to describe an enormous variety of social movements, ideologies, popular attitudes, mass sentiments, elite policy agendas and even consumption patterns, use of the word carries with it a risk of stringing together superficially related phenomena with very different causes under the same label. The recently released results of a survey on the South and East China Sea disputes offer further reason for caution when approaching Chinese public opinion through the lens of nationalism.
Robert S. Ross built a reputation over the 1980s and 1990s as one of the leading realist analysts of Chinese foreign policy. He published a seminal article in 1986 highlighting the importance of the US-USSR-PRC “security triangle” in explaining China’s behaviour under Deng Xiaoping, and after the Cold War made a successful switch into the richer and murkier terrain of the domestic security situation of the CCP leadership and its relationship to Chinese foreign policy.
Ross’s shift in emphasis towards the importance of domestic factors in explaining China’s behaviour towards the outside world was foreshadowed in his 1986 piece, which noted:
The relative importance of domestic politics has been a function of the range of choice allowed by the pattern of triangular politics [ie. the international environment]. When the range of choice was narrow, domestic politics had a small impact on China’s US policy. When the choices expanded, domestic critics wielded greater influence on foreign policy making.
In recent years, the Boston College professor and Harvard Fairbank Center associate has become very keen on the idea of nationalistic public opinion as a singular driving force behind the Communist Party’s foreign policy.
One early example was 2009’s ‘China’s Naval Nationalism’, which argued the PLA Navy’s modernization, especially its aircraft carrier program, was irrational and against China’s national interest. Instead, Ross wrote, “widespread nationalism, growing social instability, and the leadership’s concern for its political legitimacy drive China’s naval ambition”. This contention provoked a lengthy response from Michael Glosny and Phillip Saunders, who pointed out a range of national interest arguments that could be made for China’s naval modernization.
Evidently unmoved by this critique, a 2011 piece in the National Interest produced a greatly expanded list of PRC foreign policy actions designed to appease nationalist public opinion. Although there is no question that domestic public opinion, including its loudly hawkish trends, form an element of the CCP leadership’s decision-making environment, there are plaisible interest-based explanations for each of the examples on Ross’s list:
- The Impeccable incident in the South China Sea, in which a motley flotilla of fishing boats and patrol ships harassed a US surveillance ship. (Undesirability, from the PRC’s strategic perspective, of having US surveillance ships gathering data on its new submarine facilities at the bottom end of Hainan Island?)
- China’s intransigence at the Copenhagen climate change conference. (PRC delegation was led by the National Development and Reform Commission, which has responsibility for China’s economic planning and thus a vested interest against binding carbon reduction targets. Repeated studies showing Chinese people to be very climate-aware.)
- The harsh reaction to the announcement of US arms sales to Taiwan in 2010. (US military support for Taiwan stands between the PRC and fulfillment of its long-stated “sacrosanct mission” of “national reunification”. This could be termed a tenet of nationalist ideology, but it is a very long-standing one, rather than a recent development.)
- China’s repeated strong protests against joint US-Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea in June-July 2010. (Also cited as an example of media-driven nationalist influence by Michael Swaine & M. Taylor Fravel, though China wound back its statements somewhat when further exercises were announced in November 2010.)
- The PRC’s lack of denouncement of North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan. (Perhaps because North Korea is China’s only true ally in East Asia?)
- The party-state’s overreaction to the September 2010 detention of Captain Zhan, the Chinese fisherman who rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the Diaoyu Islands. (Japan’s deviation from the established precedent of quickly releasing detained Chinese fishermen? Opportunity for China to use its burgeoning maritime law enforcement fleets to advance its sovereignty claims?)
- Denouncing the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. (CCP opposition to democracy activism in China?)
- The treatment of Google. (The refusal to censor its search results?)
“[T]he source of all the aggressive Chinese diplomacy,” wrote Ross, is “the party’s effort to appease China’s nationalists”.
The same list has been extended and wheeled out again in the latest edition of one of the US’s top foreign policy journals Foreign Affairs, in a piece called ‘The Problem With the Pivot’.
For the benefit of any time-stretched readers, my problems with Ross’s argument, detailed below, are that it:
- Relies on the mistaken premise that there has been a severe economic downturn in China since 2009, from which a legitimacy crisis has ensued.
- Wrongly assumes that China’s assertive foreign policy actions are seen as such by nationalist sections of Chinese public opinion.
- Discounts the huge strategic and economic interests China has, or perceives it has, in advancing its claims to disputed islands and maritime space.
- Claims, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, that the Chinese party-state is unable to prevent anti-foreign protests.
- Argues that the recent protests over Diaoyu caused the PRC’s foreign policy escalation, dismissing how protests might help in advancing the government’s policy objectives.
CDs with a song (one song) were being handed out for free at the anti-Japanese protests on September 18.
The song was specially recorded after the protests began by Lu Haitao 陆海涛 and Mi Li 米粒, two moderately successful contestants from the CCTV talent show Star Avenue. (Lu made the grand final, Mi won one round of the competition last year.)
I don’t know who bankrolled its production, and neither did any of the other bemused attendees who, like me, rushed over to grab whatever everyone else was grabbing. But according to this BBS post, Mi Li herself shelled out her own money for 1000 of the CDs to be pressed.
As horrid as its mixture of Han-chauvinist and Maoist nationalism is, i have found it compulsive listening….and strongly advise against giving up before you get to 2 minutes in — for a spectacularly hammy rap section awaits there. Yes, Diaoyu RAP!
I particularly love the way the guy’s “之” syllables just become growls. Being based on the language of officials during imperial times, it’s not surprising that the Mandarin language is amenable to the kind of haughty authority the song attempts to voice.
As for the diva, well, she may be rather nastily screechy, but not nearly as screechy as the lady who sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Paracel Islands’ to celebrate China’s victory over hapless South Vietnamese remnants there in 1974:
Source for the background image is Chineseposters.net.
“The whole world’s Chinese people are going”: decisive moments, and the perils of Diaoyu nationalismPosted: August 19, 2012
Located to the northeast of Taiwan, just under halfway to Okinawa, the Diaoyus have been controlled by Japan since the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. China (both of them) claims that the islands were imperial Chinese territory before that, so Japan’s annexation of them in 1895 was an illegal land grab, and that they should have been returned to China at the end of WWII under the Potsdam Declaration.
The Diaoyus are not tiny coral atolls like the Spratlys and Paracels. They are (well, five of the eight features) genuine islands, albeit barren and uninhabited. Like the South China Sea islands, however, there’s believed to be black-gold in their bellies.
While the competition for the oil and gas resources can basically explain the two sides’ determination to claim sovereignty, on the Diaoyu the influence of nationalistic public opinion on the Chinese government’s behaviour appears more significant than on the South China Sea. To begin with, the public ill-will on both sides is deep-seated and getting worse, and political opportunists have the opportunity and motive encourage and exploit this.
The ICG’s Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt recently commented that the leaders of China and Japan have little “political capital” to spend on defying “nationalist or populist sentiment”. In this excellent interview, SKA identifies nationalist sentiment as a constraint on governments’ ability to compromise or back down during a dispute. There are counter-examples where Chinese and Japanese leaders have appeared to defy pressure to be uncooperative and confrontational, such as Noda’s government’s speedy release of the recent protagonists, and China’s decision not to send patrol boats to guard them. But the two countries’ recent record suggests this has been difficult at times in the past.
Public opinion offers an explanation for what learned observers consider to be China’s counterproductively hardline stance in the previous Diaoyu confrontation in September 2010 (itself a response to Japan’s abnormally trenchant action in detaining an infringing Chinese fishing boat captain for several weeks rather than releasing him swiftly, as they did yesterday). And the ill-will on the part of both publics may have had a lot to do with the non-implementation of a deal negotiated back in 2008 for cooperative development of some of the oil and gas deposits in the area.
Nationalist activists on both sides are true believers in their cause, so even where their actions may be deliberately incited and/or tacitly sanctioned by their governments, they nonetheless impact the dispute by necessitating responses from the other side. Once the Qifeng-2 escaped the clutches of the Hong Kong police and sailed beyond the reach of the PRC authorities, for example, Beijing had little or no control over whether the passengers of the Qifeng-2 would actually manage to set foot on the island last Wednesday.
At the same time, the PRC government has on numerous occasions proved willing and capable of preventing Diaoyu activists from making their journey in the first place, whether in Hong Kong or on the way to the Diaoyus. This suggests that where Chinese citizens’ action has an impact, a decision to allow this must be made at some level of leadership — which could be made as low as a local PRC Coastguard official, a China Maritime Surveillance branch commander or as high as the Politburo Standing Committee.
Such decisions have certain easily foreseeable outcomes (a diplomatic incident of some kind was almost inevitable once the Qifeng-2 left PRC-controlled waters) yet their exact consequences in international politics are unpredictable. Moreover, these leadership choices occur in a domestic political context, which in China includes not only party politics and ideology, but also domestic nationalist discourse — what groups of people are thinking about where the country is or should be going.
The recent episode illustrates vividly what a dynamic and contested process of simultaneous group interpretation and elite engineering ‘nationalism’ really is.
Take the above photo, for example — taken at the critical moment when the activists jumped ashore. Is the ROC flag something to be proud of, or ashamed? Is its appearance here a symbol of Chinese unity or division?
Weibo’s microbloggers appeared to see it more as a sign of cross-straits collaboration, enthusiastically forwarding it around as proof that the activists had made it onto the island. According to Weiboscope, it was at time of writing the most-forward image of the incident.
The PRC internet authorities also don’t seem to object to its dissemination, intact, on Weibo and other online news sources (see here and here). In stark contrast, however, the propaganda authorities overseeing China’s print media clearly saw it very differently to the online public, for among China’s main newspapers the ROC flag was either cropped out, crudely paint-bucketed red, or otherwise blotted out in very nearly every instance (among hundreds of covers on Abbao i found only one exception, the obscure Yimeng Evening News). The same was the case on mainland TV.
This might have had something to do with the gloating the official media have recently been engaging in over the fact that a group of Diaoyu activists from Taiwan last month waved a PRC flag to proclaim sovereignty from seas near the islands — even though they got an escort from the ROC Coastguard.
There was also perhaps the inconvenient fact that this time around the ROC authorities had pressured local activists into abandoning their trip and refused all but the most elementary assistance to the Qifeng-2 when it tried to stop past on its way from Hong Kong to the Diaoyus. According to the Global Times (English):
Earlier on Tuesday, the ship anchored in the waters near Taichung, after the local marine authority denied their application to reach land. The activists were only able to procure limited freshwater supplies.
The news on Tuesday that activists from Fujian who had wanted to join the expedition had canceled their plans due to “reasons of weather and procedure” also raised the question of exactly which of the ‘three regions’ (Taiwan, Hong Kong and the PRC) actually represents the Chinese people best. The top comments on Phoenix’s 111,000+ participant thread for ‘Mainland activists cancel trip to Diaoyu, citing weather and procedures‘:
“I know the reason you can’t go, I understand, backup is lacking, speechless.” [11,790 recommends]
“Clearly a crock of shit. Whoever believes it has got water in their brain.” 
“Such a loss of face………speechless. Support the Hong Kong and Taiwan compatriots.” 
“The whole world’s Chinese people are going, it’s just the mainland…” 
Once again, the idea of the PRC government’s rule being based on anything that can be usefully understood as “nationalist legitimacy” appears questionable. And the idea that the party-state is trying to build up such “nationalistic legitimacy” via its foreign policy actions looks patently absurd.
“This is the Hong Kong people that Kong Qingdong said are running dogs! Is he cross-eyed?” [17,489]
The other widely-circulated decisive-moment photograph from the scene of the confrontation further illustrates how deficient in nationalistic credentials the PRC state is:
This stunning image cast the Chinese activists in an intensely helpless position. When i first saw it i couldn’t believe that it was real; Photoshop-wielding nationalist students wanting to raise a rabble could hardly have done better. Taken by a Japanese photographer for the Yoimuri Shimbun, it makes the two Japanese Coastguard boats look positively evil.
But it also rams the viewer with an almost unavoidable question: why was no-one there to help?
The giant comment threads on the portals indicate that exactly this kind of question is in the forefront of many ordinary PRC people as they read the news on the internet.
Perhaps this contributed the speed and fervour with which Sunday’s protesters turned their destructive powers onto the authorities:
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:
Just in case the Yuzheng 310‘s scaring-away of three “warships” from an unnamed country wasn’t enough to convince the Chinese reading public of the heroism of the Fisheries Administration, we now have a juicy follow-up: ‘Guangxi fishing boats surrounded by foreign gunboats, rescued by Fisheries Administration vessel, one-versus-five‘.
Cheng appears to be travelling with the Fisheries Administration, as Zhang Fan did when he “re-planted” the Chinese flag on Scarborough Shoal, and has done some more extended pieces purportedly giving expression to the fisherfolks’ voices. One recent feature piece was framed to be critical of the government’s current position, specifically the idea of China not firing the first shot, being titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.
In his new scoop, after briefly recapping the previous incident involving China’s Most Advanced Fisheries Law Enforcement Vessel Yuzheng 310, Cheng Gang describes:
In this latest incident, it was Yuzheng 302‘s turn for conscientious bravery. A Guangxi fishing boat with nine crew on board had been encircled and brought under the control of five gunboats from another country 另一国. It was being towed behind one of the gunboats towards a port in that country. After nine hours of pursuit, and a one-versus-five battle of wits and courage, Yuzheng 302 actually saved the fishing boat.
It was the Fisheries Administration boats’ actions to protect fisherfolk that prevented the two incidents from becoming bigger diplomatic problems, avoiding adding new chaos to the already-tense South Sea situation.
That last line suggests that the recent props for the Fishing Administration’s South Sea forces may be aimed more at the ruling party than the public. Even if the Ministry of Agriculture and FLEC are jumping up and down, and using media like the Huanqiu Shibao to say, “Hey, look what we’re doing in the South China Sea,” they’re more likely saying this to the allocators of funding than the actual reading public at large.
The story appeared in the print edition of the Huanqiu Shibao on June 1, which is behind a paywall, but other newspapers such as the Hanyang Evening News (Wuhan) picked it up on June 2, running it complete with a photo of the heroic ship.
It’s the second-most commented story of the week in Sina’s news forum, #1 for the week at Phoenix, and #2 for the week at Tencent (QQ). The top comments on all five threads can be summed up as asking:
- Where the Chinese Navy was, given that the unnamed other country had sent in naval vessels.
- Why the offending country wasn’t named.
In a further illustration of why the Fishing Administration’s recent publicity campaign is more likely to be aimed at the party rather than the public, the top comment on the 123,000-strong QQ thread took direct issue with Cheng Gang’s singing the praises of the Fishing Administration boats for preventing “bigger diplomatic problems”. After all, the people, at least the online commenting public, were never going to appreciate that message, that great achievement:
The South Sea is already in chaos, producing a great number of vested interests. This kind of tranquility has already caused great loss for China. Therefore, we should not fear chaos in the South Sea, the fishermen’s bold behaviour is excellent. If there is some chaos added as a result of the courage of fishermen, that’s an entirely good thing for China, looking at the big picture. Great rule comes from great chaos, and without new chaos there will be no new order. Only by butting up against the vested interests can we we start to get some bits of our rights back. I strongly suggest enacting some policies to encourage fishermen to go to the disputed areas and fish, and let the clowns [other countries] perform to their hearts’ content, for if the emperor is to eliminate them, then he must first make them crazy! [25,392 supports]
At Netease 103,000 participants produced the following as their top comments:
Which country is it? How can you not even dare to say its name? Do you think if you don’t say the name the other country will save your face? If they really did take you as a good neighbour, good friend, good comrade, would they send in warships against defenceless fishing boats? Less wishful thinking! [20,611 dings]
I’m laughing to death…lamentable, pitiful, hateful!!! I feel ashamed to be Chinese!!! [14,939]
Your own people fishing in your own waters get chased, and you still have the nerve to take credit [12,431]
No-one seemed to notice Cheng Gang’s specification that the two incidents had been committed by different country. The first comment above clearly assumes the perpetrator to have been Vietnam.
Which country could it be this time? Malaysia?
Neither of the confrontations appear to have been picked up by the foreign press, and nor have any of the English-language Chinese media (e.g. Global Times, China Dailyand the People’s Daily online) have published it. The Foreign Ministry doesn’t seem to have answered any questions on the topic.
South Sea Special Correspondent Cheng Gang himself has talked here on the professionalization of journalism in China. But i can’t help but wonder: being embedded with the the Fisheries Department, is he under some kind of spell — like Western journalists embedded with troops in Iraq? Are these tales even true?
On Friday, May 11, noticing the disconnection between the outrageous outrage raging in the media and the lack of action in the streets, a media consultant called Shenzhen’s Old Cui 深圳老崔 made some enquiries with a friend in the police, which he then reported back to his 60,000-odd followers on Sina Weibo.
His post read as follows:
I just talked with a PSB pal, and asked him why the government wouldn’t approve a demonstration by the people against the Philippines government. He said, you’re tapped in the head, as soon as you have anything resembling a demonstration the slogans will change to “down with corrupt officials”, and who’s going to clean that up — the sergeant?
This weibo was reposted more than 11,000 times in the 13 hours before it was deleted. But although 11,000 reposts was impressive, Old Cui’s effort wasn’t quite as viral as another weibo that linked to footage of CCTV host He Jia’s now-famous slip-up a few days earlier, in which she stated twice that the Philippines was part of China’s historic territory. The latter was reposted more than 15,000 times in the same period of time, despite the fact that its originator had less than 1,000 followers.
Two hilarious takes on the standoff summed the smart, worldly and urbane spirit of Sina Weibo’s opinion leaders. On May 10, a day when the #1 Sina Weibo topic was Dragon TV 东方卫视 journalist Zhang Fan’s 张帆 superhuman, gonzo-patriotic mission to “re-plant” the PRC flag on Scarborough Shoal’s rock, weibo superstar Zuoyeben 作业本 described the motley crew China would be sending over to kick the Philippines out for good:
Word is, our country is organising a crack force to go and liberate Huangyan, an ever-victorious force of tigers and wolves. Advance party: Weibo Navy [commenters paid by PR companies]. Assault team: China’s city management forces [城管, famed for brutality and unreasonableness]. Canine division: one Kong, one Wu and one Sima [referring to rabid nationalists Kong Qingdong, Wu Fatian and Sima Nan]. Party branch: the Fifty-Cent Party. Bomb disposal: Chinese forceful eviction teams. Medic: none. Logistical supply team: none. Oh, and the flagship that will take this army there: Fang Zhouzi [方舟子 “Son-of-a-boat” Fang, known for quixotic attempts at debunking].
Zuoyeben has more than 2.9 million followers, and the post appears to have been in circulation for eight days before finally being deleted on May 18.
Wang Wei 王巍, another weibo heavyweight with 1.4 million followers, has brazenly mocked non-combatant army officers with high military ranks, including Major-General Song Zuying 宋祖英 of the PLA’s song and dance troupe, and Major-General Li Shuangjiang 李双江, singer of red songs (and disgraced-by-association father of a violent young whippersnapper). Wang’s post was forwarded more than 9,000 times, but the censors have apparently decided to leave it in place, complete with the image at the top.
I’ve collected a few graphs from Sina Weibo on the topic of Scarborough Shoal. The first one, generated on May 18, illustrates the same pattern observed in relation to the five news portals that i generally concentrate on here (generally to the detriment of everything else) — a steep rise on May 9-10 as people started entertaining the possibility that China might actually take military action over Scarborough Shoal, a plateau over the weekend as inflammatory stories kept coming, followed by a gradual loss of interest when the crisis started showing signs of being alleviated.
This suggests once again that the “wave” that came ashore in different areas of China’s media — from the centrally-controlled mouthpieces to semi-commercialised provincial media and commercially-oriented/state-compromised online news providers — successfully penetrated the much more user-directed discourse on Weibo.
They’re slightly misleading, these graphs. To start with, the Y-axis doesn’t start at zero, meaning the trend lines are exaggerated somewhat, though it’s not grossly distorted — the shape is still pretty much accurate. The discussion didn’t cease when the graph hit the bottom — it just went down to, well, “3,283”…
3,283 what? Are the figures on these graphs actually referring to the overall number of weibo sent? The number forwarded? The number of comments? The number of searches? Or is it some kind of composite index involving some or all of the above?
If anyone happens to know the answer do please let me know in the comments.
This graph was taken about 18 hours after the one above:
This time May 16 is shown as a spike and May 17 as a decline. The figures are completely different, the reason being that the points on the graph represent the figure (i’ll just refer to it as the “discussion factor”) for the 24 hours leading up to that point in time. The first graph was generated close to midnight, so it actually shows the trend in terms of calendar days. The second one was captured just before 7pm, so it shows 6pm-6pm cycles.
The first graph shows a “discussion factor” of about 3,000 for May 15, midnight to midnight, and the second shows the same figure as being above 12,500 between 18.00 on May 15 and 18.00 on May 16. So discussion on the topic of Scarborough Shoal was actually reignited on May 16, rather than May 17 as the first graph seems to suggest.
A third graph, with 7pm as the reference point, appears to further isolate the time of the spike in Huangyan discussion:
This indicates the “discussion factor”, supposedly formed over 24 hours, rose from 12,500 or so at 6pm to more than 18,500 at 7pm. So did something happen between 6 and 7 o’clock on May 16? Well if it did, then Sina isn’t revealing what it was, because according to the “Advanced Search” function there were only 2,328 Huangyan-related results in total during that time, so my best guess would be that the graphs depict the numbers of keyword searches. Once again, please leave any suggestions in the comments.
In any case, they do provide an indication of the general level of interest towards the issue among weibo users. Even then, however, the varied scales of the graphs can result in them obscure trends rather than illustrating them. Like, for example, my final graph of the Huangyan Island 黄岩岛 topic, taken on May 28:
Although it looks pretty much the same as the others three graphs, there’s a huge difference in the scale of this one. If this line were on any of the other graphs it would be scudding along the bottom. The graph obscures the most important trend in the period it purports to illustrate: the decline in enthusiasm and interest in the issue, with the weibo public leading the way.