Sept. 4 (Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. prepares for a potential attack on Syria, China is left in the awkward position of reacting to the news and occasionally justifying opposition to any U.S. action.
This is not new. In early 2012, China joined Russia in vetoing a United Nations Security Council draft resolution condemning Syrian violence and supporting an Arab League peace plan. It was a controversial move at the time, and the criticism was so overwhelming that People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper, felt compelled to editorialize in favor of China’s veto -- after the fact.
That move itself was unusual for a government that rarely feels the need to explain itself retroactively. But on Syria, Chinese leaders appeared unusually sensitive to suggestions that they may have been insensitive to an unfolding humanitarian crisis. Referring to the U.S. as “the military giant,” the paper wrote in February 2012:
“Even if it stays for a while, it will not take protecting lives of local civilians as its primary task. The tragedies that have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved it.
“Using violence to prevent humanitarian disasters sounds just and responsible. However, aren’t the attacks and explosions that have occurred after the regime changes in the two countries humanitarian disasters?”
Needless to say, many Western critics weren’t convinced that China and Russia had blocked the UN resolution out of humanitarian motives. Writers tended to highlight that a desire to maintain a limited but critical sphere of influence in the Middle East drove China’s policy of non-intervention in Syria (and other countries). Over the last week, as evidence of chemical-weapon use against Syrian civilians has driven calls for military action, that notion has returned -- much to the irritation of China’s most prominent Communist Party-owned newspapers and commentators.
“The past couple of days witnessed a reemergence of voices hyping Beijing’s so-called strategic dilemma in the Middle East,” wrote Chen Chenchen, an opinion editor with the conservative Global Times newspaper on Aug. 30. These voices, he claims, are engaged in a kind of discussion. “Namely the conflict between China’s demand to protect its interests in this region and its lack of influence there. Beijing should not be bothered by this discussion.” Rather, Chen reiterated an informal principle established during the Security Council debate, “Beijing is simply pursuing the principle of prompting a political solution to the Syrian crisis, which should not be complicated by any external military intervention.”
It’s a high-minded claim, and one that Chen might well believe. But his commentary is hardly the last word on why China’s leadership has so far refused to get out of the way of UN resolutions on Syria. A more authoritative voice is Chen’s own newspaper, the influential Global Times, which is widely acknowledged to reflect the opinions of more hawkish elements of the Chinese military. On Aug. 30, it published an editorial on the Syria situation acknowledging that China lacks U.S. military power, and thus China must “guard against the possibility that the United States might one day take its small-state bullying to China, even though it has become increasingly difficult to do so.”
In the meantime, the paper has found a proxy to represent China’s interests: Russia. “Russia must not let the United States comfortably win this war,” it wrote. “Russia should mobilize their capabilities, maximizing the cost of the war for the Americans so that American society has as many negative memories of ‘surgical warfare’ as possible.”
However, as far as China’s news media hierarchy goes, the Global Times still isn’t the final word on the country’s position regarding the war. That lofty status is reserved for the People’s Daily, and so far that newspaper has been relatively mild in its condemnations of a U.S.-led intervention, couching its opposition in terms directed at U.S. hegemony, while acknowledging, as it did in a Sept. 2 editorial, that the use of chemicals weapons will result in “sanctions and severe discipline.” It added, “Facts are the preconditions for action.”
However, the paper neither defined what facts regarding chemical-weapons use would be sufficient, nor what might constitute acceptable action if such facts were established. In this, it reflects the broad pronouncements of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which express concern but offer few specifics, while urging all parties to await the UN’s guidance.
What is unusual is that the People’s Daily’s editorials have not enjoyed hegemony in the state-owned media. Typically, the People’s Daily editorials on high-profile foreign-policy issues are re-published across Chinese state-owned newspapers, serving as the party’s de-facto definitive statement and a substitute for whatever the individual papers might have to say.
In the case of Syria, however, smaller and less influential papers have been free to publish their own takes on the crisis. Those editorials don’t diverge dramatically from the foreign ministry’s official statements (or People’s Daily’s voicing of them), but their mere existence suggests that on the hierarchy of Chinese foreign-policy priorities, Syria probably does not rank as high as Japan, North Korea or various aspects of China’s relationship with the U.S., which require definitive, high-ranking editorials.
The Chinese news media’s relative ambivalence toward the issue at least partially reflects the lack of meaningful discussion of a potential U.S. intervention on Sina Weibo, China’s top microblogging platform. Compare that with the recent Egyptian uprising, which did garner some -- limited -- interest. Perhaps the difference is in the lack of mass protest images such as those that emerged from Tahrir Square. In China, where such protests are generally prohibited, there’s an audience for accounts of the causes and courses of these demonstrations. In contrast, Syria has offered images of what looks like a distant guerilla war and an excess of human suffering -- events that don’t command much attention in a China still scarred from a century of similar troubles. Likewise, the specter of chemical weapons barely exercises anyone.
Among those microbloggers who bother to tweet about a possible U.S. military intervention, many wearily, and warily, categorize the action as just another instance of the U.S. hegemony in regions that don’t directly impact China. “Using weapons of mass destruction as an excuse, America invaded Iraq and still hasn’t put forward any evidence,” tweeted an anonymous Sina Weibo microblogger in Beijing on Aug. 31. “Now they’re against Syria using the same suspicious pretexts.”
That message is at least partially in line with what China’s state news media and foreign ministry have been saying, in hope of undermining the case for a U.S. intervention. If and when sufficient evidence convinces China’s government, and its online masses, that a chemical weapons attack did take place, the onus will be placed on China to explain anew whether no action should be taken.
(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.)
To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at firstname.lastname@example.org