Conflicting Signals on the Refugee Issue, and a KCNA-Xinhua Pastiche

By | February 27, 2012 | No Comments

While the refugee issue metasizes in Seoul and curiously grows on the Chinese internet, life continues its rhythms in Pyongyang, and in the hallways of state media. — Editor

Conflicting Signals on the Refugee Issue, and a KCNA-Xinhua Pastiche

by Adam Cathcart

– There were some very strong hints following Li Keqiang’s visit to both Koreas in October 2011 that some possible changes were underway whereby refugee repatriation could be handled more case-by-case.  I find it somewhat shocking that this episode seems to have gone completely un-remarked upon with reference to the present case, as it seemed to indicate that a generational shift in China’s leadership could result in changes to the refugee policy in the PRC. The citable article here is Hao Di’s “DPRK Defectors in Limbo,” November 13, 2011.

– As regards the recent characterizations of the Chinese internet being aflame with pro-refugee sentiments: Not to be lost here is the notion of fury being directed at statements from Japanese mayors about Nanking; there is less oxygen than there might be at the moment for public focus in China on Kim Jong Un and what he represents to pro-North Korean refugee elements. At the same time, given the capacity of the Chinese government to completely shut down the widening public refugee discussion if they so chose — this is, after all, a regime that has sent people to jail for a single Tweet mocking the Party’s Japan policy — opening up a space for discussion about the topic also creates more latitude for the CCP if they do want to change policy. If properly channeled, public sentiment is useful for all kinds of things.

Pro-Government Chinese Students Protest in Seoul, April 2008 | Image courtesy Fox News.

Today and as usual, the Party wants to have it both ways, encouraging the North Koreans to open up with the reassurances that the  ruling party can control and channel all popular discontent among the increasingly wealthy and growing cosmopolitan class (legal reform insofar as personal liberties are concerned is not a high priority in the Sino-North Korean relationship), but then when it suits the CCP’s purpose, the Party also wants to essentially tell the North Koreans “Sorry, our hands are tied, there is really nothing we can do to help you on this issue; you see, our masses have been enflamed andhaving satisfied their material needs, we must now heed their impetus.” The ongoing online discussions of North Korean refugees on the Chinese internet seem to fit into the latter strategy and fit into the larger pattern in PRC media of having lower-echelon information-carriers publicly consider the implications of a North Korean collapse.

– Has no one considered the climate at Chinese universities lately? It’s possible that while they are at it, the Party’s recent focus on Japan aims to provoke a small wave of protests (like those described by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and further analyzed in my dissertation), a pre-spring blast for the regime, if only to apply a little pressure to Tokyo and much more importantly to tease out the would-be student leaders on campus so as to identify networks of all kinds. A handful of of LiNK-like organizations forming on Chinese campuses (very unlikely, but the digital trails are clear enough) could serve the same purpose. Just see it from Zhou Yongkang’s perspective!  Or, borrow a metaphor from Chiang Kai-shek – ten or twenty thousand North Korean refugees are a disease of the skin, but students mobilized to challenge the core of CCP power in China’s major cities are a disease of the heart. The Japan cross-talk aside, if the pro-refugee Weibo campaign continues, then for the first time we may be able to consider the intersection between the CCP’s “student problem” (or just the role of students in the PRC more generally) and the refugee issue within Chinese civil society.

– The North Korean Consul-General has been relatively active of late, and was in Yanji earlier this month. No evidence whatsoever exists of any knd of possible quid pro quo, but given his interest (and the evident interest of the whole North Korean foreign service) in making money, if North Korea could be convinced that adjustments in refugee policy could be made up for with some guarantees of foreign currency, then we might get somewhere. This kind of Chinese-led and probably rather corrupt way of solving problems is one way of muddling forward through change that does not require UN inspectors in to monitor the Sino-North Korean border or, for that matter, result in Lee Myung-Bak patrolling the Mongolian-PRC frontier with combat boots and a hundred thousand tents.

– Yanbian Public Security Bureau’s materials are a wonderfully-micro way to get into the question of policy changes. Local dynamics on the border are serious considerations for the PRC.  The Yanbian PSB recently reminded folks that no change in marriage laws to foreigners without hukou (residence permits) can be honored locally and that the provincial authorities in Changchun remain in charge.  Yanbian has enough problems with crime, counterfeiting, and commercial fraud as it is. According to one group whose name will not be mentioned — they are affiliated with the little old ladies who do breathing exercises and hand out pamphlets outside my door in Seattle’s Chinatown — the provincial authorities are still having problems with Falun Gong flareups on the Chinese side of the North Korean border.


Pastiche: KCNA-Xinhua 

– KCNA, “Kim Jong Un Enjoys Concert of Unhasu Orchestra,” February 24, 2012.

Is this just another funerary gesture by Kim Jong Un?  Certainly it is an homage to his old man, the subject of the show, but it is much more than that. This performance is nothing less than the North Korean equivalent of the Mozart Requiem, right down to the Tuba Mirum-with-trombone aria “Thinking of the General.” The arts are being amped up as never before to represent the unbounded nature of the Kim family and its love for what B.R. Myers calls “the child race.”  To my knowledge, the DPRK has never seen a show quite like this, an animation of the Kim Jong Il spirit of the arts mixed with CNC technology (in the form of a huge digital screen, decidedly not the famous flip-cards).

The February 11 lashing out by the KCNA at Chosun Ilbo for having the audacity to mock the performance indicates how seriously one is supposed to take this activity in North Korea, even if the weeping has become occasional rather than obligatory and constant.

Kim Jong Un’s visit to the Unhasu performance also has a foreign affairs component.  The orchestra, as reported last week, will be venturing soon to none other than the X Arrondissment and Paris’ famous Salle Pleyel, essentially the equivalent of Carnegie Hall.  Kim Jong Un has already taken pains to be shown as a connaisseur of the musical arts, and what amounts to an on-site inspection of Unhasu’s performance allows him to put one of his first diplomatic stamps on the administration and give an indication that he, presumably, is intimately involved with the running and the strategy of the country’s foreign affairs and the direction of its cultural diplomacy.

Nearly precisely a year a go, after all, we had this, at a musical pastiche no less:

Ambassador Liu Hongcai 刘洪才, left, with Kim Jong Il 金正日, Mansudae Auditorium, Pyongyang, February 17, 2011 | Photo courtesy PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

The musical revue was not simply a chance for the PRC Embassy employees to see some of the leaders their country was supporting, but for Xinhua reporters to get the onged-for camer angles of their very own on Kim Jong Un, and to visualize other power triumvirates. (Click above photo for more.)

A final word on Unhasu: Unhasu’s work needs to be reviewed before they head to France. For the musicians, it is almost certainly a case of playing Beethoven during the day rehearsals and playing the “old” material — that is, the played-in cantata that becomes monotonous for the pit players at night, lacking even the excitement of an erratic forward physical progress, the blast of jets or high-speed Chinese trains so recently experienced by the Sea of Blood players on tour.

— KCNA, “DPRK Premier Learns about Work at Coal Mining Complex,” February 24, 2012 —

Visualizations of mining, of natural resource extractions, suffice here:

Prime Minister Chae Yong Rim, Rodong Sinmun, February 25, 2012

And on the same day that this news emerged:

– KCNA, “DPRK-China Science and Technology Cooperation Committee Meets,” February 24, 2012.

Pyongyang, February 24 (KCNA) — The 45th meeting of the DPRK-China Science and Technology Cooperation Committee was held in Beijing on Thursday.

Signed there was a protocol of the 45th meeting of the DPRK-China Inter-governmental Science and Technology Cooperation Committee.

Present there were the visiting DPRK delegation of the State Science and Technology Commission and officials of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

– In other news, the Beijing Youth Daily threw the North Koreans a bone and covered, very with a minimum of editorialization in any register, Kim Jong Un’s attending to fatherly mourning via the Unhasu Orchestra concert.

No Comments

  1. Adam,

    Does everything the CCP does have a sinister or at least convoluted motive behind it? So the CCP is trying to provoke “a small wave of protests” against Japan? What is the basis of your observation?

    Adam, if possible please shed more light on the person who was allegedly sent to prison for mocking CCP’s Japan policy.

  2. Juche, thanks for the comment and the critique. The activist who received the prison/labor sentence for the Japan-related Tweet in 2010 is Cheng Jianping, reported on here by BBC:

    The basis of my observations about the “small wave of protests” against Japan is not some inner-Party document a la The Tiananmen Papers, just deductive logic stemming from having looked at multiple similar examples of how the CCP uses anti-Japanese sentiment in combination with political mobilization of Chinese youth. This is a subject that is, more or less, at the core of my dissertation, “Chinese Nationalism in the Shadow of Japan, 1945-1950” (Ohio University, 2005). Generally I agree with Jeffrey Wasserstrom about China’s exciting upward trajectory, but remain somewhat pessimistic about regional reconciliation due to historical problems and their exploitation on various sides. Which I recognize is rather easy for me to say as an American academic, not a Chinese professor or student whose university had to pick up and move to Yunnan or Sichuan in the 1930s…So I hope I don’t sound hopelessly cynical, but there is some reason to be cynical as far as this particular issue — official stoking of anti-Japanese nationalism — is concerned.

    Ah, I was also in Chengdu in October 2010 during the last spasm of university-originated unrest vs. Japan, and did some writing about that experience. (“I was there, therefore I understand everything” — I sound like Anna Louise Strong in Tibet, 1959, no?)

    Incidentally I’m hoping to have a post up at some point on Sinologistical Violoncellist or another op-ed outlet as regards the Nagoya mayor’s remarks, because part of what he said (his father’s recollections of Nanking in 1945, which I have quite a few archival and historical documents about) needs more context.

  3. Incidentally (and though it hardly matters and probably goes without saying), I find most politicians “sinister.” But you’re right to keep an eye out for word choice insofar as Western writing about China is concerned and you have my word that I will not use words like “voracious” lightly, or at all. Generally speaking, the discourse on China needs to be more rational, but occasionally the leaders will really hit a personal nerve (this often happens when one is in the PRC, wildly pinballing between absolute love for the entire experience and pure hatred for the assumption that, politically speaking, one really needs to behave with the intelligence of a four-year-old in order to never do anything wrong). So I apologize if I sounded unduly jaded.

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