“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.
The Philippines’ largest warship was engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance vessels Wednesday at a disputed South China Sea shoal, after the ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen but was blocked by the surveillance craft.
The “warship” in question is the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the former US coastguard cutter transferred to the Philippines Navy last year and commissioned in December. That the Philippines is already making “good” use of it does not bode well for the future. But back to the incident:
The current standoff began Sunday when a Philippine navy surveillance plane sighted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said [. . .]
On Tuesday, Filipino sailors from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat, the department said in a statement.
Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships, identified as Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84, later approached and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels “thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen,” the statement said.
Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said Wednesday that the situation at the shoal “has not changed as of this morning. There’s a standoff.”
The big 5 Chinese news portals all have the story on their front page, though there is some variation in prominence. NetEase has it in the prime “cover photo” position (the photo above), accompanied by the caption: “Philippines Navy arrests Chinese fishermen at gunpoint at Scarborough Island”, which links to a gallery of photos related to the incident. Phoenix is keeping it among the big headlines at the top, and the other three have let it slip down into the top layer of small headlines.
As far as i can see from my cursory readings, the news that the Philippines has ruled out the use of force and agreed to resolve the situation diplomatically has not been widely reported yet in China.
The top few comments from the 35,000-strong thread attached to NetEase’s photo gallery:
We don’t need surveillance vessels, we need navy vessels (administrator, won’t you please have just enough conscience to display my comment?) [8,495 recommends]
Using maritime surveillance vessels for coastal defence, China really is unique. 
Who does Scarborough Shoal really belong to? Since it’s ours, why are we being so restrained? 
[. . .]
After I read this I was angry at first, but then I thought: if it’s this hard for me to find a place to rest my body, if I’ll work for a lifetime and still not afford a snail’s home to keep the wind and rain out, every day suffering high prices yet not being able to eat anything safely, stress levels that make me think about suicide every day, can’t afford to see a doctor, can’t afford a house, don’t dare consume,,,,,,,,,,,,,,fearing that what money I can save won’t feed a family…. What do I care who owns the South China Sea, whether Little Japan gets given the Diaoyu Islands? 
In the world outside China, the use of China Maritime Surveillance, rather than the PLA Navy, is seen as a key part of China’s strategy in the South Sea: making sure they’re civilian law enforcement agencies rather than the Navy demonstrates that China already exercises jurisdiction, where it actually doesn’t. The top comments reflect a lack of appreciation for, or more likely a lack of awareness of, that strategy.
Also interesting to see a strong expression of apathy getting a gig among the top comments. It is my hypothesis that when I do my offline polling later this year, I will find this to be the mainstream majority Chinese view of the South China Sea disputes.
Censorship appears to be minimal on this topic, too, and it’s probably not as a result of the military’s much-vaunted “rising” engagement with public debate, judging by this top comment over on Phoenix‘s discussion thread:
Why isn’t the PLA Navy protecting our territory? 
…or this, sitting in 5th position on this separate 73,000-strong (and rapidly growing, even at 2.45am) NetEase thread:
Our warships are all fake, all that [military] expenditure’s gone to Moutai. 
It should be noted that this has been an utterly extraordinary day in Chinese domestic politics, with Bo Xilai, until recently the high-profile Party Secretary of Chongqing, officially suspended from the Politburo and placed in the hands of judicial authorities pending an investigation for “serious breaches of discipline”, and his wife, Gu Kailai officially named as the prime suspect in a murder case. In fact, a Chinese friend has suggested that it might be a very bad time for the Philippines to try to play hardball, since the Party might want to divert attention from the domestic scandal by making a move in the South China Sea. However, the Party appears to be mobilising all its media resources towards publicising the Bo Xilai scandal, which would suggest just the opposite – the domestic pressure on the CCP government to use force against the Philippines will be lessened due to people’s attention being primarily focused on Bo Xilai’s disgrace.
One could even imagine a rather hilarious inversion of the all-too-often-invoked (in relation to China at least) theory of diversionary military adventurism, in which ordering the news to be dominated by the Bo Xilai scandal was a tactical decision by the government aimed at diverting people’s attention away from the South Sea standoff. That is not the case of course, because the CCP is not suppressing coverage of the standoff, but i think it illustrates the point that there’s no evidence to my knowledge of the CCP state ever having used that tactic.
Early last month, President Aquino returned from his state visit to China with a swag of new Chinese investment deals and promptly set about consolidating the Philippines’ presence in the South China Sea with a new radar station and patrol boats. (Regarding the reaction in China’s media and internet, see here.)
Late last month the Philippines followed up by staging a couple of serious diplomatic moves. The first of these was arranging a meeting in Manila of legal experts from ASEAN countries to discuss a proposal to clearly demarcate what areas are in dispute and what aren’t. From China’s perspective, this meant a proposal to clearly divide the South China Sea among ASEAN countries, in addition to forming a united front against China.*
The AFP called it the Philippines’ “plan to blunt China’s claims” (“to blunt China” in the headline).
MANILA — The Philippines on Thursday sought backing from its Southeast Asian neighbours for its plan to blunt China’s claims over disputed areas of the South China Sea and ease tensions.
Vice President Jejomar Binay made the appeal at a meeting of maritime law experts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where he alleged foreign intrusions continued in Philippine seawaters.
The meeting did rate a mention on the ASEAN calendar so it was to some extent officially endorsed, but it was buried among dozens of other events and there was no ASEAN news announcement. The VOA loved it (though fairly of course). But no-one seems to have considered it a big deal besides the Philippines and the Western media. Oh, yes, and the Chinese media. . .
The Global Times reported the AFP story the following day, probably as quickly as a translation of a foreign news story could pass the censors, and it quickly became the lead international story on the radio news updates from CNR’s huanqiu zixun and was reprinted on websites and in newspapers around the country.
The 56,000-strong comments thread in response to the GT story on Phoenix was, as might be expected, entertainingly sardonic:
Summon the President and give him some more money. [12,083]
Where are our forceful evict-and-demolish teams [qiang chai bu, gangs of thugs hired by property developers]? This is their chance to repay the country!!!!!!! 
Where have China’s “urban management” officers [the widely-feared chengguan], police†, officials, law enforcement agencies gone? 
Why don’t we study Russia? Use airplanes and big artillery to drive away the occupiers 
Tell him off. Tell him off fiercely. 
When it comes to issues of national territory, you want to use warnings, not protests. And clearly explain that there will only be one warning. 
Top comments on Sina, meanwhile, referenced the “need” for a Mao Zedong, and the UK’s example in the 1982 Falklands War.
Next, Aquino travelled to Tokyo and put out a joint communique with Japan’s PM Yoshihiko Noda, announcing that relations had moved from friendship to “strategic partnership”, with extra defence collaboration on “regional and global issues of mutual concern and interest”. It was then that Long Tao busted out with his latest hit Global Times article calling for war in the South China Sea.
Immediately afterwards, a meeting was held between Japanese defence officials and representatives from ASEAN. Once again, it may have been overplayed by the media and the host nation, but it was notable for Japanese Vice Minister of Defense Kimito Nakae’s comment that the Japan-ASEAN relationship had “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” regarding regional security issues. The People’s Daily’s Tokyo Bureau picked up on this very quickly, and on September 28 major Chinese media ran the story that Vice Minister Kimito Nakae had claimed the meeting of Japanese and ASEAN defence officials had reached a consensus on increased Japanese participation in the South China Sea and had specifically talked about measures to deal with China’s “increasingly energetic activities”. Somehow, there were only 3 comments on Phoenix and 2 on NetEase – which can only mean two things: either comments were deliberately switched off, or no-one on China’s most popular websites was the slightest bit interested in a story titled “Japan and ASEAN reach agreement to strengthen cooperation in the South China Sea”….
* Presumably no “experts” from China were invited to the “ASEAN Maritime Legal Experts’ Meeting”. China opposes multilateral negotiations and doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty because as far as it is concerned nothing is in dispute because everything belongs to it. But China likes to keep things ambiguous, if not for cultural reasons (as Kissinger would claim), then at least because time is on its side. If that wasn’t the case, it would at the very least clarify the exact course of the 9-dashed line.
† Very surprising to see this escape the censors and become one of the top comments.
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.
People’s Daily: Don’t let the South China Sea problems interfere with the general situation of cooperationPosted: August 25, 2011
The People’s Daily’s Special Commentator “Zhong Sheng” has swung between moderate and hardline rhetoric regarding the South China Sea of late.
On July 20, as China signed up to a new agreement to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the Special Commentator announced that the era of resolving territorial disputes by non-peaceful means was over, but less than two weeks later “he” was on the front page warning the Philippines that it would pay a high price for “strategic miscalculations” like advancing its claims over parts of the South China Sea.
Now the People’s Daily seems to have changed its mind again, with a strikingly conciliatory Page 3 Zhong Sheng commentary published on August 20 applauding the “restraint” of China’s main South China Sea adversaries, Vietnam and the Philippines:
Bloomberg reported on the 18th that Philippines President Aquino, in an obvious lowering of his tone, had said “the Philippines cannot overcome China by meeting force with force”. On the same day the Vietnamese government indicated it would put a stop to the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place almost every Sunday for the past 11 weeks. We welcome the Philippine and Vietnamese government’s restraint, and remain willing to deal with the South China Sea dispute calmly. Heading in the same direction remains the key to creating a favourable regional atmosphere.
Most interestingly, the the importance of properly controlling public opinion is singled out for special praise:
Territorial disputes are extremely complex, involving the people’s emotions and sometimes becoming bound up with domestic disputes. Unless extra restraint is taken, emotions could get out of control, which would doubtless result in unintended consequences.
[. . .]
Looking at the big picture, restraining impulsive sentiments, and positively guiding public opinion is always the road to finding a constructive solution to the South China Sea issue.
This message may well be aimed squarely at those within China who would seek to stir up “nationalist” sentiment on the South China Sea as a means of advancing their standing within the Chinese Community Party.
The story didn’t capture the attention of a great many internet users, with discussions involving 11,000 at iFeng and 13,000 at NetEase. Here is a selection of responses:
“Popular comments” on NetEase, from 694 comments/13,024 participants:
桜木様 Ying Mu Yang (Luoyang, Henan): I’ve fanned your face, but still haven’t given you any dates to eat, and you’re this happy…. [2400 recommends]
5人0 (Lanzhou, Gansu): They’ve talked through how it’s going to be done, the oil is flowing, and the Philippines has recently occupied islands! 
百聞不如一見 [Seeing once is better than hearing 100 times] (Minhang District, Shanghai): The result of restraint will be no oil left…and editor, if you delete my comment again I’ll f**k your whole family. 
Anonymous (Dalian, Liaoning): I now have my doubts about whether some of these sands really are China’s – what if they’re not? 
Anonymous (Zhangjiakou, Hebei): China is really f**king . . . dead cheap 
Anonymous (Weifang, Shandong): The People’s Daily has taken the bait. 
The comment highlighted in bold appears to have escaped the censors’ attention.
Popular comments on Phoenix Online, from 301 comments/11,607 participants:
minjiang138: China gains absolutely nothing yet still thinks it’s had a great victory. [3424 recommends]
为国惩奸 [Punish the traitors on behalf of the country]: The South China Sea – with the Chinese government there, you will be peaceful and harmonious 
般若齐天 [Wonderous knowledge equal to heaven]: The Philippines and Vietnam should be as restrained as China, look how restrained the Chinese people are! 
zzc_china: It only has to be beneficial to staying in power domestically, giving in to outside countries is no big deal 
The People’s Daily‘s short front-page commentary, ‘Certain countries have serious strategic misunderstandings on the South China Sea issue’ has created quite a stir inside and outside China. This was clearly the intention, since the commentary appears to have been republished or reported in every mainland newspaper, and Xinhua put out an English-language summary of the article.
This commentary by ‘Zhong Sheng’ (钟声 – Clock Sound), takes a completely different tone to the one published on July 20 under the same byline (discussed on this blog here), which was titled ‘The South China Sea problems cannot possibly be solved without a good environment’ and argued that “the time of using non-peaceful means to resolve territorial disputes has passed”. ‘Zhong Sheng’ takes aim at the Philippines for its construction of an army shelter on Feixin/Flat Island, one of the Spratly islands it occupies:
The “peace agreement” is obviously just a cheap trick by Manila. What happened on Feixin Island a few days ago shows that what the Philippines says and does are two different things, and that Manila clearly lacks sincerity in resolving the South China Sea issues peacefully.
. . .
The Philippines’ actions not only violate Chinese territorial sovereignty, they also ruin ASEAN’s position.
The article concludes with the ominous warning that the Chinese and international media picked up on:
All sides must be awake to the fact that China’s principled position does not mean it can casually allow other countries to opportunistically “nibble” at its territory. Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.
Far from dousing down public anger over recent events in the South China Sea, as it did on July 20, those in charge of the People’s Daily now appear to be consciously directing the Chinese people’s attention towards the issue. A ready explanation for this is offered by the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash that took place in the interim, and which turned the blowtorch of critical attention on the Party. As it tries to dampen down the frenzy of chatter and speculation about the causes of the disaster in Wenzhou, the Party may deploying be the very same process of “misdirection” or “shifting the people’s focus” (zhuanyi renmin de shixian) that He Liangliang says Vietnam is deploying in its escalation of the South China dispute.
However, if the aim of the article was to direct public outrage away from the CCP and towards the Philippines, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well, judging by the following most-recommended comments on the story on Phoenix Online.
“Hottest comments” from 25,154 participants/663 comments as at August 4, 2011, 6.00pm BJ:
湖 南山东人 [Hunan Shandongese] (Wenzhou, Zhejiang): If the little Filipinos’ [/nobodies’ 小非] brains are any good at all, they will listen to the subtext of this article, which says that backing off is the only wise course of action. Many things in this world cannot be solved by persuasion. China has a saying, “even the worst child fears the big stick”, and this could be very usefully applied to the Philippines and Vietnam. For them, if their morals are not up to the task, let us meet on the battlefield. [5218 recommends]
gmgb (Zibo, Shandong): By not acting when it should have China has missed a good opportunity, every day talking about how “this or that island is ours” while not a single one of the countries around us supports this. Heixiazi Island [on the northeastern border with Russia] – we’ll take half of that. There’s a large swath of territory that’s subject to unresolved disputes with India, and getting back the Diaoyu Islands is looking even more difficult. Reality has shown that “shelve differences, develop jointly” is unworkable, and this is the bad consequence of not acting when one should act. [3801 recommends]
天 地神人 [God of Heaven and Earth] (Nanning, Guangxi): The signing of the “guidelines” [with ASEAN in July] marks the latest of China’s unequal treaties. Since the South Sea is Chinese territory, on what basis are ASEAN countries deciding on rules of conduct? If China signs the “guidelines”, that means accepting that the South Sea is not Chinese territory, but rather an area of sea whose ownership is undecided. [3012 recommends]
asqcc (Wuhan, Hubei): What have China’s specific actions been? China’s intrinsic domains cannot be lost from the hands of this generation! We will not be sinners of history! [2222 recommends]
刚 才 [Just Now] (Pingxiang, Jiangxi): Who will recognize the authority of a rising great power that does not verify its capabilities through military force? When even a third-rate little country like the Philippines dares to break ground on the regional boss’s [太岁] head, what sort of regional boss are you? [1631 recommends]
易水寒禅 (Yunnan): “Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.” What price is the Philippines paying? At this point I can’t see any! [1237 recommends]
Deal1 [奈何1] (Zhejiang): They have occupied it for more than 30 years, their judgement is perfectly correct, you don’t dare do anything~ [1049 recommends]
If the Communist Party leaders really do monitor internet opinion as they say they do, they must have been able to predict the kinds of responses above – the comments translated on this blog suggest that many netizens have long been frustrated and even embarrassed by the Chinese government’s strategy, seeing it as all talk and no action. The most-supported comment on iFeng in the wake of China’s agreement with ASEAN and the subsequent news story about the five Filipino MPs’ visit to a disputed island expressed the view that in the absence of genuine actions aimed at recovering the “lost” islands, the government’s menacing words were making China a laughing stock. An alternative explanation might imagine the writers or sponsors of the article as intending to provoke public criticism of the policy status quo. This could only help the cause of any potential leftist/Maoist or conservative forces aiming to increase their influence through the 2012 leadership transition. Is the notion of Party hardliners whipping up criticism of the Party status quo a crackpot theory or a plausible explanation?
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”.
Chen Bingde: China and its neighbours will resolve the South China Sea issues appropriately, America need not worryPosted: July 25, 2011
China News Service/22-7-2011 (by Tao Shelan): After their meeting in Beijing, PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and the visiting Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen held a joint press conference. Chen Bingde noted that China and its neighbours had the capability and wisdom to appropriately resolve their South China Sea issues, and the U.S. should not be concerned, let alone anxious.
The article goes on to say that General Chen was pleased at the improving relations between the two militaries, though he “bluntly said that some on the American side were deliberately making trouble”, for example those congresspersons who recently met with the Dalai Lama. And, quoting the General directly:
“America has indicated many times that it has no intention of interfering in the South Sea disputes. Yet the formal and actual signals it has been putting out are just the opposite. Even though they had done it before, to conduct military exercises in the South Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam at this sensitive time is extremely inappropriate.”
The Phoenix online discussion of the story, which involved 242 comments and participation by 19,649 people, was notable for the number of readers who seem to have been impressed by the “hardness” of Chen’s comments. But the link between corrupt officialdom and foreign policy was once again on prominent display, and there was still plenty of support for Maoist anti-‘reform-and-opening’ sentiment.
Wan Ye (Henan): I support General Chen. Military leaders have to toughen up. [4522 recommends]
Hu Fei (Changzhou, Jiangsu): What boss Chen said is cool. If America really likes to worry, I would ask them to send back all the corrupt officials who have fled there. But I always wonder, whether we’re selling out the country’s interest – the old wolf America never does something for nothing. Unless it’s getting a bite of meat or a sip of blood it won’t even respond. [2715 recommends]
Mainland Hawk 6 (Daqing, Heilongjiang): Chen Bingde is a real military elite. When this kind of person takes the stage, his intention and role are clear, greatly increasing our national prestige. [1706 recommends]
Xiao Cun (Shanxi): General Chen spoke extremely confidently, he is worth listening to. [1412 recommends]
Eagle Talon 12 (Beijing): History has shown time and again that peaceful methods cannot solve territorial and sovereignty disputes, and only pass on more troubles for future generations. Military means are the only way out of this situation, and military means are also the only way to great power status. The Chinese people do not fear war, and all ideas of protecting the so-called fruits of ‘reform and opening’ are just selling out the country’s territory and sovereignty. It’s the behaviour of certain interested classes, and can never represent the wishes of the broad masses of China. [1207 recommends]
Mobile Phone User (Shandong): Tactful yet still domineering, Chen is definitely a worthy Chief of Staff. [822 recommends]
Yang Tianhao (Shenzhen, Guangdong): Strongly support minister Chen. [790 recommends]
The discussion over at CNS, the original source of the story, was much smaller, with only 37 comments. One of those expressed an idea that has sometime come up in South Sea conversations with Chinese friends – that of America provoking the “little countries” like Vietnam to infringe on China’s interests. I wonder how widespread this notion really is of “little” Vietnam (pop. 90,000,000) being a mere puppet for America’s grand anti-China scheme?