China, North Korea and the Tale of Two Fishing Boats

Is the Chinese government’s uneasy friendship with North Korea costing it the public’s confidence? A curious confluence of recent events involving two fishing vessels suggests that might be the case.

The crisis began in the waters of Scarborough Shoal, a set of fish-laden reefs and small rocky islands west of the Philippines and the source of territorial disputes among the Philippines, China and Taiwan. (China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and thus sees Taiwanese territorial claims as inseparable from those of the mainland.) On May 9, after a month of escalating tensions between China and the Philippines, a Filipino coast-guard vessel fired on the Guang Da Hsin 28, a Taiwanese fishing boat in the region, killing one.

The incident, and the Philippines’ lack of a formal apology for it, set off fierce popular anger in Taiwan. President Ma Ying-jeou responded with -- among other measures -- a hiring freeze on Filipino workers and threats of a naval exercise in the disputed waters.

In China, the Communist Party-owned media lauded such a response. On May 16, the Global Times newspaper, a hawkish voice widely believed to echo hardline elements in the People’s Liberation Army, opined on the justness of Ma’s approach and its unifying appeal: “The lesson the Ma Ying-jeou administration taught the Philippines will not only benefit Taiwan in the long run, but also contribute to the interests of the whole Chinese people.”

On China’s microblogs “Philippines” has appeared near the top of trending topic lists for much of the last two weeks. Given that such lists are subject to censorship, the term’s prominence suggests that it is an officially acceptable, if not encouraged, topic of discussion.

Most tweets expressed solidarity with the Taiwanese people (though not with Ma, who is widely viewed as a weak and unpopular U.S. stooge), with many suggesting that such incidents could be prevented if only Taiwan would align more closely with China. “On the international stage there is only the People’s Republic of China, with Taiwan as the younger brother,” tweeted an anonymous Sina Weibo user Wednesday. “The Taiwanese fisherman incident is a sorrow for all Chinese.”

Enter North Korea. Chinese netizens soon learned that on May 5, the Liaoning Generic Fishing No. 25222, a mainland Chinese boat from Dalian, was out fishing when it was seized by North Koreans demanding almost $100,000 ransom. The seizure took place against the backdrop of rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program. According to the Global Times, the more immediate cause was probably North Korean military police “using the ambiguity of maritime borders to make a quick buck.”

According to press reports, China’s Foreign Ministry learned of the seizure on May 10, after a call from the ship’s owner, but the Foreign Ministry didn’t publicize the incident. That makes a certain amount of diplomatic sense: had it done so, the anger directed at the Philippines would almost certainly have been redirected at North Korea -- already deeply unpopular in China -- at a time when relations between the two countries are at a low point. The Foreign Ministry probably isn’t inclined to reveal why it has befriended a country whose military supplements its pay by kidnapping Chinese fishermen.

Late Saturday night, the boat’s owner began tweeting for help on the Ten Cent microblogging platform. “The fate of my crew is unknown,” he wrote. “I implore online friends and the Foreign Ministry to pay attention to this matter.”

Both parties did. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry announced it was working on the problem and had “made representations” to the North Korean authorities. The phrase, which basically indicates a polite dressing down, is notable mostly for how much it irritates Chinese microbloggers impatient for a show of force. Last summer, popular frustration with China’s diplomatic approach to territorial conflicts with Japan helped provoke anti-Japanese riots. The message then, as now: The Communist Party is failing to protect the core territorial and historical interests of the Chinese people.

The North Korean seizure wasn’t a territorial conflict, but because it, too, involved a fishing boat, it invited comparisons of Chinese and Taiwanese responses to foreign aggression. “The Philippines dares to show scorn toward Taiwan, and they are punished,” noted a Shanghai microblogger on Monday. “The North Koreans dared to show scorn toward China and ha ha ha China showed deep concern …… extraordinary.”

Some of the most popular tweets on Monday contemplated what China’s comparatively limp response to North Korea says about how far the Communist Party will go to protect its people. Lian Peng, a well-known freelance columnist, tweeted: “A Taiwanese fisherman was shot by the Philippines and the whole world knows it. Our official media extensively reported the news, and some people even criticized Ma Ying-jeou as a weakling. But when our fishing boat was detained and extorted, there was no news about it even after two weeks. The people are always required to love the government, but when the people are at their most vulnerable, where is the government? When the people need it most, where is the government?”

Lian’s tweet has been forwarded more than 11,000 times and quoted many thousands more. Even Tuesday’s release of the fishing vessel by the North Koreans, after several days of measured, apparently successful, diplomacy, has done little to stop the retweets. Sentiments like those expressed by Lian resonate with a public accustomed to revelations of high-level Communist Party corruption and suspicious that the party exists to serve itself. Historically, that skepticism didn’t extend to foreign policy, where the party has been assumed to operate with China’s best interests in mind. But as a couple of fishing boats showed, such good will is no longer a given.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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