Crouching Hostage, Hidden Tiger
Crouching Hostage, Hidden Tiger
Pierced by its most serious domestic political crisis since the late 1980s, China’s leaders have this spring returned to “riding the tiger” of nationalism, hoping to drain off public anxiety and attention from Beijing and focus on China’s sea disputes with, well, just about everybody.
Cue an exceptionally-timed act of piracy from the South Hwanghae coast and the reporting in China not only of a new sea dispute, but shamefully brazen acts of violence by North Korean soldiers on Chinese fishermen. Short of an act of rape in a public space in Beijing, nothing riles up Chinese netizens like a bunch of Chinese fisherman getting beat up, robbed, and humiliated in disputed waters. 
What we now see is the rare but distinct possibility of Pyongyang becoming bound up in an antagonistic relationship with an uncontainable popular Chinese nationalism. Clearly, this could represent a conclusive change to the unique bilateral relationship. Or, does the whole thing just represent a localized, momentary, and containable crisis?
North Korea’s Missteps | If North Korea came to be viewed by the Chinese leaders and netizens as not just a black hole for Chinese largesse, but a dangerous thorn in the side of the Chinese northeast, the development would not occur without reason. In the past three years, Chinese observers have been provided with ample evidence of an interpretation of North Korea as a danger to China.
A steady stream of examples can be cited in support of this point: The May 2009 nuclear test which created an earthquake near the Chinese border, reports of poison gas floating out of Sinuiju in October 2009, multiple incidents flaring up on the shared border including the shooting of three Chinese citizens near Dandong in June 2010, the penetration of Chinese air space by a rogue North Korean jet which crashed in Liaoning in August 2010, and the recent launching of a missile from North Pyong’an which was supposed to go into orbit more or less over Ningbo. (This is not even to mention ongoing Chinese nervousness over a possible third nuclear test, much greater public attention to the problem of North Korean refugees since March, or general and widely published Chinese doubts about Kim Jong Un’s commitment to the “lips and teeth” relationship.)
Take these incidents, add them to a pyre of burning Party-induced but tangible anger at China’s neighbor’s “provocations” at sea, and you have the media context in which the overt North Korean attack on three Chinese boats in the Yellow Sea erupted.
Nationalistic Context | While the danger seems to have passed for anti-North Korean demonstrations to erupt in Beijing or other cities, the possibility should not be discounted out of hand. Surely, the Chinese Politburo and its remarkably pliant, facile, and omnipresent battery of media organs have available to them the capability of allowing such an explosion. In the springtime, out of college campuses, in particular, this becomes extremely feasible. Embassies or businesses can be targeted, as in the case of anti-Japanese protests in 2005 and 2010 or anti-US protests in 1999, or the whole thing can go global, as in spring 2008, preferably after some galvanizing event embellished with pulse-pounding videos and photos.
Within a massive wave of state-promoted maritime nationalism in China, the PRC could very easily have released more photos and interviews with abused fishermen, published more angry editorials, and allowed protests outside of the North Korean embassy in Beijing. However, such visceral protests have not yet been forthcoming even in China’s strained relations with the Philippines or Japan, and were vetoed in the North Korean case as soon as they were suggested on Weibo.
Chinese Media Treatment | In fact, the way Chinese media covered the event indicates that China wanted very much to express a limited displeasure at the North, but not use the incident as pretext for a full rupture in relations. This truncated discussion was not entirely to the satisfaction of China’s riled consumers of web content.
China has a highly elaborate and forceful method of forcing “apology diplomacy” in the case of its adversaries, but it has also cultivated in China the survival tactic to be able hold two ideas simultaneously. Anti-foreign sentiment is mother’s milk for the Communist Party, but it ought not to be pushed into sensitive areas. Because of North Korea’s strategic importance to China and historically close ties, no one took to the streets to publicly challenge the corrupt and arbitrarily forceful one-Party state about what it chose to do or not do.  Chinese control of the media, of demonstrations, and of the foreign policy discourse is as strong as ever, and this is a fact that should bring Pyongyang both comfort and fear.
Conclusion | By publicizing the fishing incident to the extent that it did, the leadership in Beijing has simultaneously provided the North with a fresh threat – a real turn in public anger in China directed at Pyongyang – and a reminder that it can all be turned back by a benevolent Party whose desire to do business with the WPK outweighs any need to respond genuinely to the very public opinion which the Party itself has helped to foster.
At the end of the day, among the thousands of complaints held by the Chinese public, the policy toward the DPRK is nowhere near the top of the list; as long as North Korea doesn’t start a war, it doesn’t even beat poisonous cabbage as a public enemy. Meanwhile, when it comes to sea disputes, not too many questions will be asked of this incident, it will stay safely out of news magazines, and the focus can remain unrelenting on the descendants of the “Japanese devils” in Tokyo and their ostensible allies in Guam and Manila. In the meantime, that list of North Korean danger points when facing China is getting longer, and one has to wonder for how longer the Chinese Communist Party can keep its tiger of nationalism from leaping over the Yalu.
 Roger Cavazos adds: “China has an interest in keeping the status quo: a dormant non-argument. Bringing it to the forefront risks a multi-party dispute. Both ROK and DPRK have to fiercely guard public challenges to a water border. If China engages in a multi-party conflict with the Peninsula, China’s arguments in the South China Sea come under threat.” Correspondence, May 27, 2012.
 Cavazos further adds: “Lv Ningsi is even advocating a method for strengthening Kim’s authoritarian rule. He may be a bit glib or ‘modest solution proposal’ about it, but the message is understood: keep your folks under control and don’t mess with us.” Correspondence, May 27, 2012.