Consensus at the top? China’s opportunism on Diaoyu and Scarborough Shoal

“New facts on the water”

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.

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“Hit’em”: APEC peacemaker Hu Jintao gets red carpet treatment from portal censors

Truong Tan Sang and Hu Jintao’s meeting at APEC 2012

Hu Jintao met with his Vietnamese counterpart yesterday at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, and made a rare official comment on the South China Sea disputes. From the China Daily’s report:

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Chinese President Hu Jintao said China and Vietnam should keep cool-headed and show restraint on the South China Sea issue.

. . .

Hu urged the two countries to adhere to bilateral negotiations and political solutions, and stay on the path of joint development.

Hu said the two sides should keep cool-headed and show restraint, and avoid taking any unilateral measure that would magnify, complicate or internationalize the dispute, in order not to let the South China Sea issue affect East Asian cooperation or regional stability.

These cool-headed, restrained, joint-developing, dispute-shelving remarks were all over the PRC official media yesterday (Friday September 7), from when i first heard it on China National Radio, to the CNS report and the Foreign Ministry’s website.

The online mass media soon followed suit, with all the five top news portals except Netease having the story in their #1 or #2 headline slots by 12.25pm, and keeping them near the top until late in the evening.

Not surprisingly, given that “Hu Jintao” is a sensitive search term on the PRC internet, the comment threads were heavily censored. Phoenix’s has 25,000+ participants but only 92 comments (representing a KimLove Incredibility Ratio well above 250:1), the latest of which was posted at exactly 20.00 last night:

Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s long and broad vision, national defence needs fundamental strengthening, diplomatic solutions are the official policy, war is an action of last resort.

in reply to

Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s proposition, uphold the unwavering Sino-Vietnamese friendship, even if Vietnam occupies even more Chinese territory we will still go on with the friendship, if worst comes to worst we’ll give them Hainan too, could they really still be unsatisfied with that? If so, how about Hong Kong, and Guangdong province?

Being the last comment the website’s editors have decided to allow through, this earnest defence of Hu has stayed in place at the top of the page — but only those who choose to click the “newest comments” tab will see it.

By default, it’s the top comments, not the latest comments, that appear on readers’ screens, and they have to scroll a long way down through those, to the 14th comment to be precise, before they find anything remotely complimentary about Chairman Hu’s remarks — and even that appears to be posted by a foreigner.

Over at Sina, where as of 4am Saturday it remains the #3 story on the front page, the involvement of the censors is even more blatant: 1700-odd “participants” and only eight comments. In fact, that means i can translate the entire “conversation”. Here it is as it appears for readers (ie. from latest to earliest):

First strike Japan, then Vietnam, and then the Philippines, don’t talk about it just do it [3 supports]

Patriotism and protecting the country rely on actual power. [56]

Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be beaten [160]

Vietnam cannot even feed itself. [117]

Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be hit [222]

Hit’em [129]

Patriotism has one word: hit [246]

[We] must clearly distinguish enemies from friends [446]

The pattern on the thread attached to the same story on Tencent’s news portal also appears to be the same as those on Phoenix and Sina: calls for war, sardonic criticism of Hu’s policy, and KIRs high enough to suggest most comments are being either deleted or hidden from view.

Given the importance of Chairmen Hu and Truong’s meeting, the high profile given to this story by all the PRC media, the fact that the story sat* prominently among the leading headlines on the portals, and the very obvious signs of rigging, it’s hard to see how the comments could represent anything other than exactly what the censors had decided the netizens should be seen to be saying.. The question in my mind is, who were the censors?

By default, of course, we must assume that the censors of news comment threads are always individual employees of PRC internet companies, in this case Sina and Phoenix. There’s presumably a management/command chain above them that leads up to some decision-making group within the company, though i have no idea of a.) how far above the “grass-roots” censors they are; b.) how far below the company’s top management they are; or c.) how they connect with the various relevant government bodies — e.g. MIIT, SCIO, Central & provincial Propaganda Depts.

It really seems a stretch to impute that the party or government would put out an instruction to major websites telling them to only allow comments calling for war with Vietnam on the day that the President calls for cooperation with Vietnam during a headline bilateral meeting at a major international forum.

Especially in CCP China, where the same president’s name cannot be searched on the country’s most vibrant social network.

Results for “Hu Jintao” not displayed due to relevant laws and regulations (02:17 September 8, 2o12)

* It continues to sit there even now at 4.50am the next day