Crouching Hostage, Hidden Tiger

By | May 29, 2012 | No Comments

Crouching Hostage, Hidden Tiger

Adam Cathcart

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. [1]

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. [2]  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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

No Comments

  1. Adam,

    You are kidding, right? “the possibility (of seeing anti-North Korean demonstrations) should not be discounted out of hand”, wow, just wow. Where did you see anger simmering to the point that protests and demonstrations must be held to vent such anger or sentiment? Even the Chinese netizens themselves questioned the Chinese official stance that those fishermen were grabbed in Chinese waters (the location provided by Xinhua clearly shows the spot is much closer to North Korea than to China).

    The fact of the matter is, unlike us, a bunch of zealous NK watchers, most Chinese people (netizens or not) simply don’t care about North Korea. They might not like North Korea particularly, but they are certainly not at the point that the feelings are so strong that they have to let them be known, far from it. There is absolutely nothing the Chinese government can work with, even if they wanted to, to leverage on the North Koreans, in terms of Chinese public sentiment.

    Finally, state-promoted maritime nationalism in China? Ha, on the contrary, in the case of Huangyandao/Scarborough Shoal and Diaoyudao/Senkaku, and especially in the case of Suyan Rock/Ieodo, I see a Chinese government, intimidated and pressured by the public sentiment (expressed by many netizens in particular), trying to appear determined and unfazed. Adam, what would they do to satisfy you? Being OK with perceived Chinese territories being violated and trampled on and saying or doing nothing about it? It is funny that these days anything the Chinese do to protect its sovereignty, national interest etc. is labelled a nationalistic act by western commentators. Yet you will never, ever see this applied to the Americans. Hypocrisy, no?

  2. Thanks for the corrective to the tendency, JCM, it’s appreciated. On the double standards front, there was a wonderful program on CCTV 1 last night at about 12:30 a.m. BST that juxtaposed China’s expansive claims on South China Sea with the massive, massive, American Pacific maritime defense perimeter, which is even a little bigger now than it was in 1945. Incredible size differential there.

    I’m not sure what to think about who is doing the pushing/pulling with regard to public opinion. There are only so many Chinese individuals one can talk to every day or every week in the PRC and expecting any one person to represent is difficult, whereas the state is much more easily pinned down. I certainly don’t see the state as backpedalling or improvising on the Diaoyudao/Senkaku issue, if anything it’s amping up, amping up. Haven’t seen so much writing about the Jiawu/Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 in China since 2010 since I was a graduate student eating the stuff up in a big basement of a state university library. Of course the state has the right (you might say responsibility) to educate people about territorial conflicts, etc., but the desire to redeem and overdeem failures of 1894-95 (to undo Shimonoseki entirely, you might say) is still very present. I don’t know if you call that “popular nationalism,” “state-driven nationalism,” “patriotic education,” “history,” “propaganda” or some mixture of all of it.

    All I know is that if Li Hongzhang were to show up today with a huge fleet of destroyers, no Cixi, and promises of clean government in a new regime based in Tianjin, you could have free elections tomorrow and he’d win in a landslide.

    Your points about Chinese attention to North Korea are also interesting, don’t mean to ignore those, thanks again for the comment, always a worthwhile insight.

  3. Just to clarify, I do really disagree with you on the point that there is nothing Chinese gov. can do to rile up public with regard to North Korea: the whole point is that Party guidance of public opinion and the very existence of it in China — and its alleged volatility — is yet another strategic gambit the CCP has at its disposal with regard to North Korea which this episode indicates they are not entirely afraid to use or at least brandish.

  4. Dear 主体朝鲜万岁 – it’s always encouraging to see folks engage in discourse. I’d like to offer some comments and of course welcome your thoughts:

    –Chinese anger: China usually have upwards of 80,000 protests/rallies/disturbances a year. Exact numbers are understandably difficult to obtain. However, we only hear about a miniscule number. Anecdotal evidence indicates most of the protests are domestic: land grabs, corrupt officials, unpaid wages. Things that impact daily life.
    And that’s why China was careful to point out several times to North Korea, “ensure the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the fishermen.”

    I recently posted a look at the Chinese media campaign that started as soon as all the mainland newspapers stopped coverage. “Das Boot: Fishing in troubled waters” also available on this blog. Why did they move it to Hong Kong? The elites in China and some of the netizens could still see it and be satiated. International elites would see it, but it allowed Mainland to maintain arms distance while still satiating an increasingly unsatisfied

    There has been plenty of Chinese netizenry/weiborati upset at China. I don’t have any direct evidence, but it seems that There’s a fine line between letting them vent and that point of incipient demonstration. The rheostat of control seems well-calibrated at lower levels, but more unpredictable on the high end of the scale. Even with that, sometimes things get out of control, e.g. riots against U.S. after Belgrade bombing (burning consulate in Chengdu) or protests against Japan (buring Japanese Ambo car), but by and large, China knows when and how to turn on a protest. They also know how to turn one off pretty quickly.

    The takeaway is that China can start or stop a protest, ANY protest very quickly. When that protest involves another country, the scrutiny is higher, but once the political decision is made, the rest of it is pretty straightforward. I would agree with you that DPRK is not foremost in Chinese. However, I think it is very possible to come to a different conclusion than “There is absolutely nothing the Chinese government can work with, even if they wanted to, to leverage on the North Koreans, in terms of Chinese public sentiment.”

    There are a few newspapers in the U.S. and elsewhere accusing the U.S. of being “hegemonic”, nationalistic, hyper terror conscious. They are in a distinct minority.

    Where do you see the NLL issue playing into this or do you think it’ll be on the sidelines?

  5. Adam,

    First off, perhaps it is just me, but I don’t really see the Chinese government bringing up Jiawu to stir up anti-Japanese sentiment or public support on Diaoyudao/Senkaku. They don’t have to. Public awareness of Diaoyudao is pretty high already.

    Secondly, in comparison, public awareness of how much a baggage North Korea is to China is not high. People simply not love or hate the North Koreans the same way they do vis-a-vis the Japanese or the Americans, there is simply no comparison there. That’s why I think there is very little the Chinese government can use here.

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