Distracting the public

May 10, 2012

The Chen Guangcheng affair barely made a ripple in the Chinese media, and the Chinese Internet has been almost completely cleansed of postings about him, aside from some frothing on websites such as the English Global Times (see links at bottom of this post for examples). Some of Chen’s supporters in China still have his image as their avatar on social media websites; Chinese journalists and activists continue to follow news about him, but he has been effectively purged from the media diet of the broad masses.

The de facto expulsion of Al Jazeera English service correspondent Melissa Chan from China likewise has not made any headlines in this country, nor caused concern to any numbers of people outside of media circles. Again, the Global Times English website bravely steps up and gives us the official newspeak on the case with a deranged editorial.

Not so the tensions with the Philippines, where China is engaged in a standoff with the island nation over a chunk of rock in the South China Sea: Xinhua reports:

For nearly a month, Manila has not only turned a deaf ear to Beijing’s position on resolving the dispute over China’s Huangyan Island through diplomacy, but made repeated provocative moves to heighten the tension, severely infringing China’s sovereignty in the process.

It is widely accepted Huangyan Island has been an integral part of China since ancient times, both on a historical and a legal basis. The surrounding waters are China’s traditional fishing grounds and Chinese fishmen have fished there for generations.

The Global Times English and Chinese versions have published an editorial headlined ‘Peace will be a miracle if provocation lasts‘. State and commercial media, newspapers large and small, and all the news and social media websites (e.g. QQ, Sina, Netease) are reporting on the standoff.

Jingoism is by no means limited to the usual pro-government newspapers and media commentators. A browse through the comments on Sina Weibo or any other Internet forum you choose shows overwhelming public support for a war.

On my own Weibo account, I posted the question “Would ordinary people support a war with the Philippines?” Usually the comments on my posts tend be very critical of the government and cynical about China and its place in the world, but the answer to this question was a rather bloodthirsty yes.

The Xinhua piece excerpted above also includes this line:

Furthermore, as some media point out, the Philippines’ tough stance in the recent confrontation with China over Huangyan is an attempt by the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to distract the public and revive its dwindling popularity.

A cynic might observe that this might be the very tactic being pursued by the Chinese government. The chattering classes in my Weibo feed and the garrulous old men I pass every morning in a hutong on my daily bicycle commute were just last week still talking about the fall of Bo Xilai. Today in Beijing, that seems like so much old news.

Update: ShangYang2 on Twitter called the above a ‘naive analysis ignoring China’s intention to challenge the status quo, as its capability increases’. He is right that China is going to challenge the status quo, but I think he’s being naive himself if he thinks the events of the last few months in Chongqing and Beijing have not been a factor contributing to the bellicosity we’re seeing right now.

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