Where Chinese Aggression Flowers: Adam Minter

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Looking for aggressive  foreign policy opinions, the kind that Chinese Communist Party members ordinarily reveal in private and Chinese newspapers don’t print at all? Easy. Visit Sina Weibo, China’s most popular, 200-million-member-strong, Twitter-like microblog.  There you’ll find even representatives of China’s state-owned media tweeting hawkishly on foreign policy issues.

In many ways, Sina Weibo is an unsupervised platform for Chinese state media members to project passionate views on Chinese foreign policy that may clash with the official Party line but that appeal to Chinese populist sentiment.

This phenomenon was evident when, earlier this week, Chinese President Hu Jintao welcomed Philippine President Benigno Aquino to Beijing on an official state visit. Chinese media coverage and editorials about the visit were mild, despite the fact that the Philippines engenders strong feelings among China’s masses -- particularly its microblogging masses.

Wang Zhiling, an editor at Kaku.TV, a child’s cartoon paradise operated by the state-owned Beijing television network, is a representative of official media who uses Sina Weibo to split from Party rhetoric. He posted a tweet, which cursed Aquino and said: "China will never welcome you.”

Wang, like millions of Sina Weibo users (and likely millions of Chinese), is upset by Aquino's visit for two reasons.

First, Aquino is allegedly unwilling to apologize for the 2010 murder of eight Hong Kong tourists by a rogue Filipino police officer. Second, China is embroiled in an ongoing territorial disagreement with the Philippines -- and most other Southeast Asian nations -- over the 3.5 million square-mile South China Sea.

In both cases, Sina Weibo, which celebrated its second anniversary on Aug. 28., serves as an incubator for the popular -– and populist -– belief that the Party’s foreign policy is too soft and too diplomatic, especially when it comes to China’s smaller and weaker Southeast Asian neighbors.

The sensitivity over these regional issues can be gauged by the lack of editorials addressing them in newspapers. While some mouthpiece papers like People’s Daily do mention regional relations, the opinions are often muted. Any criticism of the Philippines in Chinese news is normally reflected in measured quotes given by experts; news reports tend to emphasize Aquino’s hope for more Chinese investment in the Philippines (as much as US$60 billion in two-way trade, according to some reports).

This cautiousness is in stark contrast to some of the hyperbolic anger expressed by Sina Weibo users.

Yang Jieying, a correspondent with the Ta Kung Pao -- a highly influential, Hong Kong-based, state-funded newspaper that is widely viewed as a Party mouthpiece -- is one such user. In her tweet, she referred to both Aquino's hope for greater Chinese investment in the Philippines and the attack on the Hong Kong tourists, who are, in this case, widely viewed as "Chinese brothers":

He [Aquino] refused to apologize to Hong Kong compatriots killed in the kidnapping, but asks for money when he is in need...Wait to see how our government will deal with it!

The Philippines has moved to assert sovereignty over the oil-rich South China Sea region by, among other things, referring to it as the West Philippine Sea. Such acts have generated near universal condemnation from Sina Weibo users. (Note: Hours of searching through Sina Weibo failed to turn up tweets sympathetic to the Filipino position.)

Li Jin, a product manager at a Shenzhen investment firm, asked:

Why should we invest in [the Philippines]? We ought to use this money as a military expenditure and hit the Philippines directly. Then they will not be so showy on the problem of the South China Sea.

This martial impulse is not uncommon when the topic of the South China Sea surfaces on the microblogs, but it does have its detractors. For instance, Gao Yi, a well-known music critic, tweeted: "Compared with a war, US$7 billion is much more worthwhile. Right now, we lack the off-shore staging capacity for a mid-intensity war."

Hu Xijing, editor of the influential, government-owned Global Times, agrees. Although he explains himself in more earthy ways:

This is a small country which may not be necessary to punish, but we certainly have no necessity to offer a pile of contracts to pacify them after they made troubles. I would like to believe that this US$7 billion contract is necessary for China, and not a nipple that we will plug into them so long as they’re crying.

The Philippines, however, is only a temporary focus for the sharp-tongued ire of Chinese microblogging hawks. Before Aquino's visit, they targeted Vietnam, another serious competitor for territory in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has been widely credited with encouraging the U.S. in July 2010 to declare the South China Sea a matter of American national interest. For China, this was considered an unacceptable internationalization of a local issue. China has long preferred to negotiate one-on-one (that is, from strength) with its South China Sea neighbors, rather than to negotiate collectively (that is, with countries backed by the U.S.).

In China, Vietnam is often depicted as a troublesome sibling. Vietnam's alignment with the U.S. is viewed as betraying its older, bigger and more powerful brother.

On Aug. 29, Lian Guanglie, the Chinese defense minister, and his Vietnamese counterpart pledged to resolve the two neighbors’ competing claims via dialogue without “complicating and internationalizing the issue.”

However, this led Duan Huaiquan, an everyday user of the Sina Weibo microblog, to raise a question: “I want to ask Minister Lian: if there’s a man always making love to your woman when you’re not at home, would you consider him your brother?”

It was a coarse way of making his point, but Duan’s question was consistent with the frustrated tenor on Sina Weibo.

Sun Xiaosheng, a reporter with the local Shandong Haiyang TV station, summarized the situation in this tweet, which began with a reference to the 2010 U.S. naval exercises off the Korean peninsula:

Last year the U.S. put pressure on the Yellow Sea issue. Then someone went to America to sign an $80 billion [investment] agreement. This year, the Philippines put pressure on the South China Sea issue. Today I saw news saying that "the Philippine president will arrive and make six agreements worth $50 billion." How about Vietnam? How many billions will their agreement include? … Hundreds of years have passed and we still haven't taken off the hat of the sick man of Asia.

While the Chinese public is frustrated with foreign governments for their seeming ability to manipulate the Chinese government, they are not necessarily frustrated with the citizens of those foreign governments.

Throughout the summer, some Vietnamese citizens have held South China Sea-related, anti-Chinese protests in Hanoi. On Aug. 21, the Vietnamese government finally shut down the protests. Curiously though, Chinese online opinion was relatively restrained about the Vietnamese demonstrations. Many voices expressed a belief that the Vietnamese protestors were manipulated by their government to voice anti-Chinese opinions that the Vietnamese public doesn't necessarily hold. Zhao Menglong, a netizen on Sina Weibo wrote:

The Vietnamese authorities gave permission to the previous protests and used them as a means to express their dissatisfaction toward China on the South China Sea issue … I feel sorry for the Vietnamese people who have become a tool for the government, which manipulates public opinions.

Meanwhile, Yang Xinyun, a reporter with CBN Weekly, China’s highest-circulation business magazine, explained the Vietnamese crackdown in terms that might sound familiar to protest-wary -- and inflation-wary -- Chinese officials in this tweet:

Vietnamese officials are worried that the demonstrations will become too large to control and turn their attention to domestic problems such as high inflation. Besides, a small part of the protesters are famous local dissidents.

For Shi Anbin, the assistant dean at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism, China’s most important journalism school, the problem is not so much Chinese policy in the South China Sea, but rather a failure of Chinese public diplomacy to capture the Vietnamese people's hearts. Shi tweeted:

The relevant Chinese government departments should think about how to deal with overseas publicity and public diplomacy in Vietnam: winning hearts and minds, especially of the post-Vietnam-War generation, who have a much more favorable impression of the U.S., than of China.

Perhaps Shi underestimates the strong attachment of the Vietnamese to their nationhood and sovereignty. But, by blaming Chinese policy -- and anti-Chinese sentiment -- for the protests, he fits perfectly into the consensus critique of the Party’s cautious foreign policy in Southeast Asia.

The impact of that critique, for better or for worse, has yet to be seen. But the very fact that members of state media organizations are now publicly voicing their misgivings, and in populist terms on Sina Weibo, deserves notice.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net