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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[. . .]

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

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

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

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

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Who does Major-General Luo Yuan speak for?

On Tuesday this week, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attempted to dispel any prospect of the PLA influencing China’s handling of the Scarborough Shoal standoff by expressly stating that the military would act in accordance with the needs of diplomacy. However, for at least one PLA officer, this was no barrier to openly criticising the civilian leadership’s recent decisions.

“At present we have the diplomatic departments and relevant maritime departments dealing with this issue,” Liang said, “and I believe they will do a good job.”

Now, although the Defense Ministry is not considered a powerful ministry, Minister Liang is a PLA general, and a member of the Central Military Commission, so his words carry weight well beyond his ministerial position.

For Major-General Luo Yuan, however, Liang’s warning was no barrier to publicly criticising the civilian leadership’s decisions, especially the the so-called “withdrawal” of Yuzheng-310, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s best ship, from the scene of the standoff. In yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, Luo Yuan wrote:

China, as a result of big-picture considerations, has decided, of its on volition to withdraw two law-enforcement vessels, including the most advanced “Yuzheng-310”, and this has been seen as an act of “goodwill”. It was one option for stabilising the situation, but the test of history will tell whether it was the best option.

The author believes, in light of high-level strategic considerations, we should not “withdraw firepower”, but should take this chance to increase our presence at Huangyan Island. We should raise the national flag, establish a sovereignty marker and build a military base, or at the very least a fisheries base. Huangyan Island should be a testing ground for breaking free of our South China Sea difficulties.

Luo, the Director of the Academy of Military Science Deputy Secretary-General of the China Society of Military Science (see comments), is the military’s most active media commentator, and he has been particularly vocal on the South China Sea issue of late. At the ‘Two Meetings’ in March, Luo commanded a great deal of media attention with a proposal to declare the South China Sea a Special Administrative region, increase troop numbers and naval patrols, and encourage more Chinese fishermen to trawl in the area.

His recent arguments, ‘Watch the bullying Philippines, China is giving peace its last chance’, and  ‘If Philippines dares provoke us again, the navy will attack with both fists’, have generated overwhelmingly positive reader reactions; the latter sparked a 174,000-strong discussion on Phoenix, almost exclusively, it would appear, in support of his position.

He has been particularly active in pushing his hawkish position ever since the Scarborough Shoal standoff started, and what’s particularly interesting is that he has actually started invoking the public support he has received, to buttress his argument. His article yesterday finished with the line:

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