Unpacking Beijing’s “Sinocentric Narcissism” during the Loudspeaker Crisis
About two days into the recent inter-Korean negotiations in Panmunjom, the state media in Beijing declared openly its concern that the Chinese Communist Party’s upcoming military parade and orchestrated media event of the decade could be “abducted” by the escalation on the peninsula:
— John Delury (@JohnDelury) August 24, 2015
Even for Delury, a scholar for whom any given Chinese expression of power ought rightly to sell a few books, the headline seemed untoward. The Global Times article was quickly incorporated into a few assessments of “China’s view of the Korean crisis,” the best of which was written by Hannah Beech, Beijing bureau chief for Time (also including views from the cheerfully ubiquitous John Delury). Yonhap also assumed that the English-language Global Times piece was the best available window into Chinese Communist Party opinion in a piece that argued that Kim Jong-un had declined an invitation to Beijing.
An editorial so universally cited as the key insight into Beijing’s thinking about the Korean crisis probably deserves a bit more than passing attention.
It had originally been published in Chinese by Huanqiu Shibao, the foreign affairs tabloid controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship paper People’s Daily, at 2:35 a.m. on August 24. Like the English version, the Chinese version of the article indeed appeared to take North Korea to task–not for creating a regional crisis, but for doing it expressly to prevent Park Geun-hye from going to Beijing’s World War II “victory parade” on September 3. In a recent panel discussion in Washington, Michael Green called the upcoming event China’s “shock and awe” parade, and this assessment is not far off the mark.
But what did the editorial really say? And who was its intended audience?
Generally speaking, the best way to accurately portray CCP intentions and public messaging about North Korea is to read the Chinese-language versions of essays. In other words, the English language versions are useful as a point of entry to “the Chinese point of view,” but they do not represent an unadulterated window into what the masses of readers in the PRC are reading, nor do they fully portray the full range of open-source signaling to North Korea.
Now, as pointed out by Jonathan Pollack, sifting through the published Chinese-language debate about North Korea is itself no guarantee of accuracy in predicting Chinese government or military behavior. But it is absolutely important in at least understanding the kind of policy options and directions that are put before the literature and policy-fluent public. North Korea policy and public opinion does not develop in a vacuum, and Global Times and Xinhua translations are pale versions of “the real thing.”
The following translation is based on the Chinese version of the editorial in question. I found there are a handful of sentences which had been left out entirely of the English version, most of which reveal a rather sharper set of Chinese complaints about and level of menace toward Kim Jong-un and North Korea. I’ve added Chinese characters into some sections where the phrase is particularly piquant or was inadequately translated before. The DPRK Foreign Ministry statement that was the proverbial spark that lit this prairie fire can be referenced here.
“Editorial: China is closely watching the Korean peninsula, but will not be taken hostage by it” [社评：中国关注半岛纠纷，但不会被它绑架], Huanqiu Shibao, August 24, 2015.1)The original English title, published by the Global Times, was “Korean tensions won’t take China hostage.”
The Korean Peninsula has just experienced a weekend which was impossible to unravel [扑朔迷离]. On the one hand, talks at the Panmunjom truce village among senior officials from both North and South Korea resumed. On the other, however, the military standoff was not eased.
North Korea did not launch military strikes against South Korea after the former’s ultimatum [最后通牒] and deadline passed for the latter to stop propaganda broadcasts over the border. But it has been detected that “70 percent of North Korea’s submarines have left their bases,” which has made the South Korean side nervous.
Two minor points here. First, in the English version of the editorial, the opening line presents a picture of entertainment rather than vexation: “the weekend appeared to be a cliffhanger.” In the original, the events in Korea are depicted instead as deeply confusing: As readers of Chinese mainland press, we are steered toward an emotional response. There is no room in this interpretation for “we have seen this all before, it’s another typical cycle of inter-Korean low-level violence and bluster.”
Secondly, the Chinese version is technically more accurate in describing that North Korea poses a danger not just to “Seoul,” but all along the inter-Korean border. After all, the DPRK Central Military Commission (which for some unknown reason was drawn together rather than National Defence Commission) had promised or threatened attacks all along the front.
But these are minor details; on to the complaints:
Moreover, North Korea, without mentioning names in the present situation, has rejected the idea of “restraint” [反对“克制]. Some people noticed that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson had just called for “restraint” from all sides on the peninsula.
South Korean media put forth the analysis that Pyongyang’s statement was a “deliberate rebuff against China” [故意针对中国], owing to the fact that no specific country was mentioned in Pyongyang’s declaration. But South Korean media always especially takes pleasure in placing China and North Korea in opposition; it is for this reason that the Chinese side must maintain its own assured way of deciphering the message.
This is classic Chinese government messaging (or “opinion channeling“) in the current era: Allow some rumors to spread online on outlets like Duowei that build up resentment among the sensitive masses that China is being disrespected by the DPRK, add some fuel with a short People’s Daily commentary promising to kick some ass if necessary. Then, shortly thereafter, re-voice precisely the same complaints as South Korean in origin and counsel the masses to keep a cool and dignified attitude in the face of possible misinformation.
Incidentally, in the above section, we can see that the original Chinese is, again, more exasperated and openly frustrated than the English version: China didn’t receive an “apparent rebuff” from North Korea, but a “deliberate rebuff.” Now whose opinion is being channeled? It’s the English-language reader.
At this point Hu Xijin, the Chief Editor of Huanqiu and probably the lead writer on this piece, moves into non sequitur territory:
Now, there are many analysts who believe the current tension on the Peninsula must have something to do with China’s military parade on September 3. Among all the driving forces which are making the situation on the peninsula worse [半岛局势恶化的推力], a desire to prevent South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye from attending Beijing’s parade is believed to be one of them, and could be near the top of the list.
Is this just sensitivity perceived by we Chinese people, or do certain forces in Pyongyang, South Korea, or elsewhere outside the Peninsula exist which are influencing the peninsula as part of a gamble? If there really is a person gambling like this, China will definitely feel displeased [不悦]. If this is some kind of game, then it is very sensitive, and the other gamblers will not reveal their next move [下赌者不会挑明].
But if China’s September 3 military parade is to be actually interrupted, everybody in the outside world knows that such interference entails malice, and China certainly will not sit on its hands and do nothing [中国肯定不会无动于衷]. China has no lack of methods, which it does not need to disclose, but which are recognized by the outside world as a powerful type of response [方式做出强有力回应].
The key sentence in the English version is vague disapproval: “China will definitely feel displeased.” But for Chinese readers get a very strong sense that Kim Jong-un is the unmistakable gambler on the peninsula. Moreover, a couple of threats are made. It is as if to say directly to North Korean readers, such as that very sensitive audience sitting in the DPRK Embassy on the leafy outskirts of Beijing’s Chaoyang Park: “You think you’re gambling? We know how to gamble, too; you have no idea what we can do to you.” Even if China does nothing at all punitive in the short term, this is a very satisfying sentence for a Chinese reader to take in. With a little sting of imagined vengeance, the reader can operate under the assumption that the CCP has all kinds of options of dealing with North Korea, if not be reassured that the CCP has not totally lost its guerrilla edge, especially when dueling with other former guerrilla regimes.
We can therefore see why Huanqiu Shibao is so much more fun to read than People’s Daily, or the Global Times. It is Hu Xijin’s inner voice, his utter internalization of China’s entitlement to power that makes this writing interesting. But does this same quality move the writing outside the circle of Party policymaking?
No bureaucrats are going to sit down in the PRC Foreign Ministry with this editorial as a guide, but they might discuss its impact on their North Korean colleagues, who have made a habit of ringing up the MFA and the Huanqiu Shibao when they find things in it which are not to their liking. Such as the specter of increased sanctions or other means “recognized by outsiders” as representing Chinese ways of leveraging any gamblers on the peninsula and those who would interfere with long-planned celebrations of the CCP’s global power.
The references to those “outside of China” remind us that this editorial itself plays a role in what it references; a question of managing external perceptions about China’s relationship with North Korea. It continues:
Of course, this kind of analysis from outside of China does not necessarily make sense; all kinds of information about the Peninsula is difficult to distinguish as real or fake [虚虚实实], many issues contain intricate factors which themselves have “twisted roots and intertwined joints” [盘根错节]. China will not be led by the nose, passively responding to events. On the Peninsula, there is no power that can maneuver China around however it pleases [半岛上不存在可以随心所欲调动中国的力量].
The most important thing is that the means of China’s deterrence strategy consist of a superiority in strength and a regional dominance which is not merely symbolic [中国的实力优势和地缘优势具有的战略威慑力不可能被架空]. Those who plan to oppose China will be under extreme pressure; the hazards for them are extremely high, and it’s not really possible for them to effortlessly get whatever they want [不太可能轻松地得到挥洒/lit. ‘write in a free style.’]
Obviously, China does not wish for its September 3 military parade to encounter any disturbance, but if it does encounter a bit of a disturbance, it’s also not something that could not be endured. Besides, if there were such a disturbance, it would mean that the Peninsula had already landed in a catastrophic predicament.
That is to say, if our feet on this side of the Yalu River get a bit wet, it is likely that the water surrounding any power on the Peninsula would up to the thighs or back [半岛上的各方力量大概已经淹了大腿甚至腰以上]. Presumably all parties on the Peninsula are very extremely clear about this. It is a rare person who has the gall to provoke China without being outflanked, confronted, and forced to settle accounts [鲜有人敢于通过招惹中国来迂回在他们彼此之间进行清算].
Again, it feels like the article is being written with one specific troublemaker in mind. And the final threat, “to settle accounts” can also mean “eliminated,” like the CCP did to the bandit population in Yanbian in 1946 with the help of some of Kim Il-sung’s closest friends.
The article concludes with a bromide about wanting peace in Korea, “protecting the common interests of all the nations within the region.”
Did it work? Well, Chae Ryong-hae has suddenly agreed to attend the parade in Beijing on September 3, which will put him in close proximity to Park Geun-hye.
As one pliant scholar told China Daily today, “The diplomatic activity on the sidelines is one of the most advantageous aspects of the parade and I hope all the countries in the region will take advantage of the opportunity to talk with one another in a friendly atmosphere.”
In spite of the chest-thumping in the Huanqiu Shibao editorial, the contradiction China faces is contained in itself–China has to be passive toward North Korea and its strength dissipates immediately if it takes overt action. We will have to see if Beijing, “the other gambler” at the table with North Korea, lays a different type of bet.
Armed with a slightly better idea of what it has actually said, we now need to get down to the business of figuring out if the editorial should be interpreted as a diplomatic signal rather than as a simple sop to public opinion and Chinese nationalistic sentiment.
Source: “Editorial: China is closely watching the Korean peninsula, but will not be taken hostage by it” [社评：中国关注半岛纠纷，但不会被它绑架], Global Times, August 24, 2015. Translation by Adam Cathcart.
|↑1||The original English title, published by the Global Times, was “Korean tensions won’t take China hostage.”|