China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era


Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:


China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era

China Brief, Volume 14 Issue 11 (June 4, 2014)

After the worst anti-China violence for 15 years took place in Vietnam this month, it took China’s propaganda authorities nearly two days to work out how the story should be handled publicly. However, this was not a simple information blackout. The 48-hour gap between the start of the riots and their eventual presentation to the country’s mass audiences exemplified some of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sophisticated techniques for managing information during fast-breaking foreign affairs incidents in the Internet era. Far from seizing on incidents at sea to demonstrate China’s strength to a domestic audience, the official line played down China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and emphasized Vietnamese efforts to stop the riots, effectively de-coupling the violence from the issue that sparked them. This indicated that, rather than trying to appease popular nationalism, China’s leaders were in fact reluctant to appear aggressive in front of their own people.[1]

By framing the issue in this way, China’s media authorities cultivated a measured “rational patriotism” in support of the country’s territorial claims. In contrast to the 2012 Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, when Beijing appears to have encouraged nationalist outrage to increase its leverage in the dispute,[2] during the recent incident the Party-state was determined to limit popular participation in the issue, thus maximizing its ability to control the escalation of the situation, a cornerstone of the high-level policy of “unifying” the defense of its maritime claims with the maintenance of regional stability (Shijie Zhishi [World Affairs], 2011).

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“Why would anyone with a full belly sail to Korea?”: The coastguard stabbing incident

A South Korean coastguard officer died on Monday after the crew of a Chinese trawler tried to resist detention for illegal fishing activities in the Yellow Sea, 87km from Korea.

At least two Korean coastguard personnel were stabbed with pieces of glass after they tried to board the Chinese boat.

The incident has been the #1 headline on the popular Sina and NetEase news portals since at least yesterday evening, with both offering special saturation-coverage pages (here and here).

Here are a selection of headlines from the front pages:

Sina: Foreign Ministry: We hope S.Korea will uphold the legal rights of the Chinese fishermen//Our country’s fishermen deny stabbing Korean coastguard//China currently investigating situation

NetEase: Korea sternly demands China control “illegal fishing”//Korean coastguard death incident, 9 Chinese sailors detained//Captain suspected of stabbing coastguard officer, denies charge//China demands Korea guarantee rights of Chinese fishermen//Korea: coastguards can consider opening fire if fishermen resist

This level of attention from commercialized internet news portals can be explained by the dramatic news value of this kind of an international incident. Intriguingly, however, its continued prominence on the front pages into a second day is in sharp contrast to China’s newspapers. Scanning the front pages of 100+ newspapers on, i found only two with any sign of this story – the Wuxi-based Jiangnan Evening News, which led with the headline “Fishing tragedy” . . . and yep, the other one was the Global Times, who ran with “Korean media in frenzy: ‘Chinese fisherman kills coastguard officer’ “.

I chose the word “frenzy” there because that’s the word the Western media generally use, but the actual Chinese term the GT used is baochao 爆炒, which means “explosively stir-fry”, implying an explosion of sensationalism. Those guys really have absolutely no sense of irony.

On a more serious note though, is this contrast between print media and online news portals’ levels of coverage simply a case of 99% of China’s newspapers taking no interest in this story, or might it be an indication of the influence of different interest groups within the state authorities? Here is a quick rehash of the basics of China’s internet control system, according to the China Digital Times, which publishes leaked propaganda directives:

In China, several political bodies are in charge of Internet content control. At the highest level, there is the , which ensures that media and cultural content follows the official line as mandated by the CCP. Then there is the State Council Information Office (), which has established an “Internet Affairs Bureau” to oversee all Websites that publish news, including the official sites of news organizations as well as independent sites that post news content.

This “Internet Affairs Bureau,” sends out very specific instructions to all large news websites daily, and often multiple times per day. Those instructions do not always mean that related contents are completely banned online, but they instruct websites to highlight or suppress certain type of opinions or information in a very detailed manner.

Could these online news media portals be able to circumvent instructions from the Central Propaganda Department that print media must abide by? Or is the State Council’s Information Office (SCIO) encouraging the heavy coverage of the South Korean Coastguard stabbing via some instruction to “each website” (ge wangzhan 各网站) to place it in the “most eye-catching” (zui xingmu 最醒目) position on the home page? If there were different instructions from these different censorship agencies, why would that be?

Grasping at straws, the story could perhaps be seen to be discouraging Chinese citizens from getting active in foreign policy matters. Could it be part of a relatively doveish State Council plan to fighting back against foreign policy hawks in the security and control apparatus who would promote nationalist citizen-activism? It’s a stretch.

Let’s see what the moral or political lessons of this story might be among China’s online forum commenters. There have been 118,000+ participants in the discussion on NetEase’s early breaking report (from the GT online, in turn based on a South Korean Yonhap news agency’s report), which NetEase has run under the frank headline, “Chinese fisherman stabs Korean coastguard officer to death”:

The [Chinese] state doesn’t help, you can only rely on yourself. [25,625 recommends]

Soon it will be New Year. Whoever ‘recommends’ me will get rich and see their whole family healthy next year!!! [19,468 recommends]

Take care, brother. The great leaders cannot help you, rely on yourself. [13,856]

South Koreans are dedicated and hardworking, they search you really thoroughly at the airport, and their people’s quality is quite high. Lastly, in sum, the life of a person from any country is a life, to harm human life is a crime. [9,745]

This time let’s see how the foreign affairs ministry deals with it. [5,832]

Good form.    Korean bumpkins,      know the power of resentment. [3,847]

Good stabbing! I support! [3,553]

Many of the above users, and their thousands of “recommenders”, seem to be of the opinion that this is a case of Chinese government neglect of its citizens. This theme has developed further in a duplicate version of the same story, where there’s a 128,000+ strong discussion:

The leaders are busy taking bribes from oil companies. If not, why hasn’t there been any punishment after all these oil spills [off the coast of China]? If this was America there would have been hundreds of millions in fines handed down by now, and the money would have gone towards compensating the fishermen. Who would be willing to take the risk of going all the way to Korea to catch fish???? Who is responsible? Everyone knows clearly. If you agree with me you’ll get rich this year. [31,000]

If you demand that the leaders give you an explanation [jiaodai 交待], they will very quickly tape you up [jiaodai 胶带] [22,649]

In reply to [“On this issue, human life is paramount. The Chinese media need to stay fair and accurate, and I hope they can soon interview the person concerned. They shouldn’t just blindly relay “Yonhap News Agency” reports. What can a Chinese fisherman do against being attacked by commandos? Have they had their rights violated? Was it self-defence? The South Korean media cannot possibly say the Chinese were justified.”]: Suppose the fishermen really have been detained for illegal fishing, say their families were eventually going to getting fined, the captain would not risk his own life to commit a murder; even rabbits bite when cornered. I think the captain had no choice, that his life was in danger and the action was completely the result of instinctive self-preservation, and I hope people won’t just believe overseas websites’ disinformation. If you “recommend” then you’re a real Chinese person. [12,203]

Give them [the Koreans] a beating, but don’t murder people. They’ve all got families and kids. [8,073]

I think this is completely the fisherman’s mistake. I know something about fishing boats, and they often trawl during the off-season. In this incident they have engaged in illegal behaviour, and it doesn’t matter how you look at it, because it’s still not justified. However, the key to this issue is elsewhere. Why do they do this? China has the Fisheries Enforcement agency, and fishing boats all have to obey them. Fisheries Enforcement don’t directly intervene in many matters, but they do interfere through third parties. For example, after you catch fish you have to pay 1 yuan per kilo of fish in taxes to a third party . . . making the fishermen’s income drop, and that is why they went so far away to fish, though none of them have the guts to disobey. [6,604]

There’s a big chance it could be suicide, what does everyone think? [4,441]

Actually the key to the problem is that China’s near seas are too severely polluted, and fisheries resources are almost gone. Why would anyone with a full belly sail to Korea? Is the fuel free? Time costs? It doesn’t matter if they’re Koreans or our fishermen, they’re all the victims of the effects of uncontrolled pollution. And who is the cause of all this evil? Everyone knows. [2,979]

The interpretation of the incident by these hundreds of thousands of news article readers is overwhelmingly that  the Chinese government is somehow responsible for the actions of the fisherman. It is very hard to imagine how this kind of discussion could be beneficial to any one side in the major foreign policy debates in Beijing, which seems to suggest that the saturation coverage of the story online, and the discussion it has spawned, is the result of the news portal sites’ commercial imperatives, rather than any kind of order from central agencies.

At the same time, this once again flies in the face of those who argue that anything more than a tiny minority of discussions on the Chinese internet are somehow guided or interfered with by the state. A good of this tendency is a short article by Yun Sun for Brookings, which argues that “most discussion on the internet in China is carefully screened, and much of it is pre-approved, by the government”. I simply cannot see how this kind of discussion is good for the government-as-a-whole’s position either at home or abroad.

Sun’s article is right to remind us to be careful about attributing Chinese foreign policies Chinese public opinion. But Sun unnecessarily overreaches by trying to discount the existence of public opinion online. A piece on ChinaGeeks made this point well in relation to Sina Weibo a few months back, and even mainstream news portal comment threads that are seen by millions of people – the kind of near-simultaneous mass medium one would imagine the authorities could and would censor – are often relatively free spaces. As the posts on this site illustrate, this is the case for hardline nationalist views, but it is also true for liberals.

Chinese public opinion exists, at least among the now 500 million-plus internet users, more than 3/4 of whom use the internet to read the news. The impact of the CCP’s famous internet censorship regime seems, to me, to be both overstated and overrated.


Update 1: Reports on Tuesday about the Korean protest rallies outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul have sparked a huge discussion. The most popular three comments, expressing outrage at the protests and talk of boycotting Chinese products, accounted for around 90,000 of the 189,000 comment participants. A further 30,000 supported two comments arguing China should apologize, while 10,000 got behind the view that the only solution was for China to become world hegemon.

Update 2: The fishing boat captain has gone on trial for murder in Korea. Many NetEase commenters are speculating about a possible death sentence, with some making vague and condescending threats in the event that comes to pass (more than one uses the term laozi, meaning I, your father – e.g. “If you dare to make a death sentence, laozi will follow your every move”). However, some other readers criticzed such talk.

Update 3: NetEase trolls think they have cracked the case of the shot fired at the Chinese Consulate in LA before the suspect has even turned himself in. Based on the standard government-issued CNS report, which said witnesses had described the suspect as “of Asian descent”, very nearly every single comment said it was defeinitely the gaoli bangzi 高丽棒子, a derogatory term for Koreans.

Update 4: The shooter has been caught, and the LAPD has announced that he is actually a Chinese-American. One of the most popular comments on this 80,000-strong discussion mused at why the Global Times had continued to mislead the Chinese public by reporting suggestions he was Korean for nearly a day after this information came to light.