Don’t Fear the Tiger: Huanqiu Shibao, Chinese Delegations, and Netizen Responses to the North Korean Rocket
by Adam Cathcart and Roger Cavazos
People’s Daily (人民日报/Renmin Ribao）is the official voice and canon of “truth” as it is vetted, pared down, and defined by the Chinese Communist Party. When it comes to Party statements both to and about North Korea, there are few more authoritative outlets: the People’s Daily is, in Stalin’s memorable phrase, “the Party’s lips and tongue.” But People’s Daily’s staid format provides no relief valve, feedback mechanism, or popular ethos. It provides little rhetorical flexibility for the Party; indeed, analysts are still shocked at the use of a single verb (“brazen”) employed by the Party in its official response to the North Korean nuclear test in 2006.
Enter the PD‘s tabloid spin-off, the wildly successful Huanqiu Shibao, known in watered-down English as the Global Times. The Chinese version of the paper is the real deal, and most of the paper’s most interesting content doesn’t even make it into English. In short, it’s a great place to watch a more “hand-to-hand combat” kind of approach to China’s North Korea policy.
Through its coverage of the leadup to the missile launch, Huanqiu is making it immediately clear that average Chinese reader-netizens — and even some prominent PRC scholars who must retain good relations with North Korea, such as Lü Chao (吕超） – are closer to getting fed up with the DPRK, or at least less and less worried about voicing their criticisms of Kim Jong Un’s policies. In the last few days, China has been talking openly with South Korea about responses to any test, and Huanqiu (using the voice of a Russian academic) asserted that the rocket test was mainly about piquing China. And then there was this off-key op-ed that made Kim Jong Un sound like Qin Shihuangdi.
In this short essay, we want to lay out individual responses by both the People’s Daily and the Huanqiu Shibao to the rocket test announcement, and provide some detailed translation of a very interesting blog post which Huanqiu elevated to its editorial page, surely not without reason.
Scoff and Awe: People’s Daily and the Delegation Factor | Given the CCP’s close and complex relations with North Korea, it is unsurprising that People’s Daily statements in both Chinese and English have been perfunctory at best about North Korea’s recent announcement of a rocket test. Indeed, the People’s Daily even uses the DPRK’s preferred phrase for the action as a “satellite launch” while only hinting at exasperation via statements pledging that China will stay in communication with North Korea and hopes “all parties will handle this calmly (希望各方冷静对待)”.
People’s Daily points out that China maintains that all sovereign powers have a legitimate right to peaceful uses of space. (Presumably, this also includes the Palestinian Authority, but, as can be gathered from the works of Scott Bruce cited at the end of this essay, having the theoretical right and actually using it are two very different things.) However, caveats the CCP organ, North Korea should also take into account the current conditions on the Korean Peninsula and relevant UN sanctions. Neither in Chinese nor in English does the People’s Daily even point out that the DPRK’s previous launch cost an estimated 2% of the national GDP and it still failed to reach orbit. The North Koreans simply have to remember that the last time they launched a rocket (on April 13, 2012), the PRC media was in line with world media, almost gloating over its failure. Such signals mean that the North Koreans need to take into account that relations with China could take a turn for the worse as North Korea enters into a cold winter, again, without enough food.
China had scheduled a delegation led by Liu Qibao to go to North Korea and present a letter from Xi Jinping after Xi assumed the triune powers as head of China’s Party, Military and Government when the 18th Party Congress closed. One of the first delegations he dispatched was to North Korea. Originally, Liu Qibao, the Party’s new propaganda chief, was to go to DPRK and brief comrades on the just-concluded 18th Congress. However, either shortly before departing or just after departing to DPRK, China announced Li Jianguo was travelling instead, and the DPRK press also reflected the change.
We have endured much puzzlement about the composition of the North Korean assemblage of leaders selected to greet the Chinese party. Why was Kim Ki-nam chosen to serve as Kim Jong-un’s #2 at the bilateral meeting in Pyongyang? The answer could lie in the portfolio of Kim and of the nixed Chinese guest: both men are in charge of propaganda for their respective regimes. This embraces the realm of cultural and academic exchanges — hardly the top of the bilateral list, but one the North Koreans surely take seriously.
Playing a less prominent but hardly insignificant role in the Chinese delegation was Wang Jiarui, the head of Chinese Communist Party International Liaison Department (ID). That office, rather than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a more significant stakeholder in Sino-DPRK relations as Nathan Mustafaga-Beachamp outlines in his aperçu of Chinese bureaucratic politics and the Sino-DPRK relations. Wang had only finished sharing kimchi with South Korean participants in the Fifth Republic of Korea – China Strategic Dialogue when he waded into Pyongyang, armed not just with hugs, but with the kind of exquisite involvement in the ROK’s relations with China that the northern brethren have learned since the late 1980s to detest. South Korean participants in the dialogue with Wang surely knew this also, and would have likely have stated things to Wang with the goal of having them relayed to the North Koreans.
Don’t Fear the Tiger: Reading Chinese Nationalism in Netizen Responses to the North Korean Rocket | Speaking of unofficial messages, there are many in the following op-ed, which was posted on the Huanqiu Shibao BBS on December 3. Because the author is anonymous (he/she goes by the handle “Vietnam”), and because of the tone, and the prominence of the piece (it was listed on the normally-bland Huanqiu op-ed page), it was more than likely placed on the Huanqiu Shibao website by a People’s Daily editor seeking to let off a little steam and “channel public opinion” toward a quiet nursing of resentment. This was a very difficult piece to translate because the author’s intent only gradually becomes clear: it appears to be savage satire, attacking the Chinese Foreign Ministry for its mousy statements over the missile launch when, presumably, the PRC should have launched a few rockets itself over Incheon and Okinawa to show support for its little North Korean brother.
In spite of the piece’s critiques of the Foreign Ministry, the ultimate conclusion — that Chinese should feel ashamed at their country’s lack of assertiveness when asked to contain the DPRK along with the ROK/Japan/the US — goes along nicely with Xi Jinping’s call for a new patriotism and a strong military. While some items placed in the Chinese media sphere are obviously put out as bait for North Korea’s news agency or as clear signals to the North (in the latter case, a quotation from PRC professors Lu or Zhang is usually a good clue), but the following op-ed appears to have more of a domestic audience. How else to read criticisms of China’s tentativeness on the world stage, the assertion that China is “fearing the wolf behind and the tiger ahead”? Once again, North Korea plays out as proxy.
Anonymous, “Regarding North Korea’s ‘Ambitious’ Second Missile Launch, China Finally has an Opinion: Congratulations!”, posted on Huanqiu Shibao BBS, December 3, 2012, < http://bbs.huanqiu.com/thread-2291775-1-1.html>.
Question: When the DPRK announced it would soon launch a satellite, what was China’s comment?
Answer: We [China] expressed concern towards the DPRK announcement, and also noted all the reactions of all the parties. North Korea has the right to the peaceful use of outer space, but this right is limited by the relevant Security Council resolutions [朝鲜有和平利用外空权利，但这一权利受到安理会有关决议等的限制］. (We) hope the relevant parties do more things conducive to peace and stability on the peninsula, that the parties act calmly and avoid escalating the situation.
On March 16, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun [张志军] met with North Korean Ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong (池在龙, 지재 룡) and had a frank exchange (i.e., diplo-speak meaning there were unresolved disagreements) on Sino-DPRK relations and the situation on the Korean Peninsula. China expressed concerns and worries over North Korea’s announcement that North Korea would launch a satellite in Mid-April. Zhang said that China had taken note of the international community’s reaction to the DPRK’s plan, and that it was the common responsibility of all parties to maintain peace and stability of the Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, in line with the common interests of all parties. We sincerely hope that the parties concerned keep calm, exercise restraint, and avoid escalation of the situation leading to a more complicated situation [更加复杂局面].
On that same day (March 16), Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin indicated, “We noted the DPRK announcement of its news. Maintaining peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia is in line with the common interests of all parties, and the universal expectation of the international community. This requires all parties concerned to play a constructive role .”
Reviewing the ‘Grassroots’: Whether it’s North Korea or South Korea, they’re really two of a kind [难兄难弟]. It doesn’t matter if they have “no right,” or if they have a right, to launch satellites: both have repeatedly failed to launch a satellite. North Korea, under pressure from several superpowers [在众强权大国打压下], tries again and again, and yet again to launch a satellite, although each time ends in failure. Now they’re ambitiously talking about launching again; how commendable! Whether or not this launch is [about their] ambition is, for the time being, not worth discussing [暂且不论]. Thus, the flavor of statement made by the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
In March, when North Korea announced it would launch a satellite, China revealed its tension and frustration [over the affair]. Like brothers playing at cross purposes or overbearing hegemonic adversaries [兄弟耍横, 对手霸道] this situation made life difficult, and China began “to fear the wolf behind and the tiger in front” (前怕狼后怕虎和事佬; i.e., to become needlessly fearful or overly cautious). We are taking care of the brothers, terrified of offending the hegemon (i.e., the US), going along with the hegemon’s demand, fearful that the brothers will be set against one another, but even our own (Chinese) family members aren’t promised anything. Just look those people working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose faces are full of embarrassment and fear [照顾兄弟吧，怕得罪霸权，顺应霸权吧，怕兄弟反目、自家人也不答应，只见到的是外交部那些人的满脸尴尬和惶恐。].
This time around, it’s different (than it was in March/April). China has made it clear that “North Korea has the right to the peaceful use of outer space,” and this closely followed by the statement “but this right is restricted by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” Containing a faint idea of resentment [隐隐含有不满之意], China states that it “hopes the relevant parties do things conducive to peace and stability on the peninsula, act calmly and avoid escalating the situation [希望各方冷静对, 避免局势轮番升级].”
Can these phrases be understood as containing the undertone of a warning?
“Relevant party” is a relatively well-known phrase, but to whom does it point?
Although the phrase isn’t explicit, most people know in their hearts who are the most reckless people [on Earth], don’t they? Obviously, it’s the little Japanese! Actually, China is sending a warning to little Japan that it should not do things which are not conducive to peace and stability on the peninsula. At the same time, [China is endeavoring to] pacify the other parties, namely South Korea and the United States (using the derogatory homophone mei [霉国, Meiguo= “mildew country”] for the United States [美国, Meiguo, “beautiful country”]).
Seldom in the history of problems on the Korean Peninsula has China held such a clear and firm attitude [这是在朝鲜半岛问题上，中国少有的坚定、明确的态度]。
We must assume that, based on their suspicion of other people, the US, Japan and South Korea want to develop long-range weapons and even deprive other people of the peaceful use of outer space; classic gangster logic! Even worse, they act contrary to the principle of the presumption of innocence in modern civilized society and cling to the “presumption of guilt [有罪推定],” which is the logic of power.
There is no time when the US, Japan and South Korea are not thinking about ways to overthrow the North Korean regime and topple the DPRK [推翻朝鲜政权、搞垮朝鲜]. One side in this argument is aggressive and menacing, an intolerable bully, never allowing other people to develop the ability to protect themselves — and what’s the motive? ! North Korea is an important strategic buffer zone for security, and all the Americans and Japanese can think about is how to make trouble on China’s doorstep. But the Chinese people will not allow it, will not accept it, nor will they agree to it!
What really makes a person infuriated is the lack of strategic vision among those who think they know it all, looking down on the “little people.” They think the sky is falling when America is unhappy; they don’t want to argue with America. But then America goes to our brothers’ home (i.e. North Korea) to give everybody a lesson in terror and threats [吓唬和要挟]!
This time, as North Korea has another ambitious launch of a missile, China finally has an opinion: Congratulations!
Recommended Reading | Scott Bruce’s work is an excellent entry point into understanding the tensions that are still emerging between China and the DPRK over North Korea’s professed desire to have a space program:
Scott Bruce, “Space is a Common Wealth: North Korea, China, and the Peaceful Development of Outer Space,” SinoNK, February 8, 2012.
Adam Cathcart, “Tracking Responses to the DPRK’s Planned Missile Launch: Scholars, Propagandists, and Chinese,” SinoNK, March 20, 2012.
Adam Cathcart, “Chinese Responses to North Korea’s ‘Muddle-Headed Move’,” SinoNK, April 13, 2012.
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