South China Sea Disputes cont.

Chinese Coastguard vessels in the South China Sea

As discussed in an earlier post, the issue of territorial conflict in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors hasn’t solved itself; again animosity has been prompted by neighboring nations taking affront at Chinese fishing ships working and traveling through contested waters and the naturalized waters of various states. Most recently the Sino-Phillipines wrestling match over the Huangyan Islands/Panatag Shoal as they are known in China and the Philippines has witnessed angry and violent rhetoric and twin cases of dueling Chinese and Philippine public protests.

The issue, much like recent Chinese conflicts with Vietnam, Japan and South Korea arose when Chinese fishing boat captains  challenged coastguard vessels in non- Chinese or contested waters. In this situation a group of boats were seeking shelter from a storm (according the the CPC) when the Philippine coastguard found them and upon and inspection of their cargo attempted to arrest the fishermen on board for the taking of endangered species from the islands. The Chinese fishermen resisted and radioed for help, this then led to a stand off as more Chinese and Philippine coastguard and fishing ships arrived at the scene. Although the chance for further conflict has died down now, the CPC media is still responding strongly to the incident, but is mostly riled up about the Philippine’s territorial claim to the islands. In response to this issue the media has called for a permanent base on the island, has decried the US’s involvement and their enabling of the Philippines, threatened a military response to any Philippine escalation and has crowed over the how much damage China’s reaction has done to the Philippine economy. In spite of this, the CPC has also attempted to paint itself as the honest and good natured victim.

A short China Daily article written in May this year asked for the opinion of various Chinese policy wonks on the topic; their response was relatively uniform; Hong Guo Quan, a writer and director for the CCTV Military Channel said China should hoist “the national flag, establish… the monument of sovereignty, build… military bases, or… a fishery base on the island”. He went on to state that the Islands should pose as an example for “breaking the deadlock”, in all of the South China Sea disputes. Cao Xinglong a Chinese lawyer, stated that China must “win worldwide sympathy” via the use of diplomatic and economic ‘deterrents’ only, while Hu Xijin Editor-in-chief at Global Times very bluntly went a step further in stating “If the Philippines become too provocative and break(s) the peace, they can expect a punch in the face”. These views were not chosen for their differing in opinion; in effect they all make the same point; the CPC will not strike first, knows the Philippines cannot either, but it is willing to escalate the situation in other ways; namely by building a permanent testament to China’s claim on the island and through economic measures.

A China Daily article on the issue written on May 28th summarized the details of Beijing’s stance against the Philippines; stating that the issue is really about the Philippine president “trying to shift attention from his country’s domestic woes”. Further elaborating on this narrative of China’s position, the same article made the case for China’s claim to the islands. Noting that they had been “China’s undisputable territory for centuries”, they went on to argue that the Philippines “did not officially  lay rival claim over it until 1997”. However, in reality and outside of China, this claim is easily disputed; the Philippines placed a flag pole and lighthouse on the island in 1965, furthermore Spanish and American maritime maps from the 18th century back up the Philippine claim. Whereas the first concrete Chinese claim on the Islands was made back in 1935. In its defence of their claim on the islands, China seems aware of its position and the international skepticism towards it, and has rejected the Philippine’s repeated requests to take the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Nonetheless it is very ready to back up its claims with belligerence, People’s Daily states that “China’s determination to defend its territorial  sovereignty will not be hindered by the “China threat theory”, and that “any country that carries out vexatious acts is doomed to be hit hard no matter if it is weak,  no matter how pitiful it pretends to be”.

The reason for this conflict surfacing now, rather than 70 years ago when the dispute began is that as far back as the 1930’s neither China nor the Philippines (which was not yet outside American, protectorate status) had the resources to secure the islands, neither did they have much reason to, the islands, and in-fact all of the contested waters in the South China Sea weren’t worth much.  China’s coastal fishery stocks are now almost depleted; directly leading to the increase in conflicts between Chinese fishermen and their neighbors. At the same time, huge oil finds are being speculated for in the region; the result is that now Chinese fishing boats and research ships from a plethora of nations are being seen in areas they haven’t before, leading to an increase in confrontations. Increases in mainland pollution and unsustainable fishing practices, as well as the high price of oil and increases in Asian demand for it implies that the issue is only set to get worse as an increasing affluent Asian population seeks out resources.

Considering this, the governments of South East Asia must feel great consternation and a very real sense of destabilization at the rise of China, despite its insistence towards a “peaceful rise”. Regardless of political alliances in the region, China sets its neighbors off balance and asks a lot of them regarding their foreign and domestic policies. Unfortunately the fact that China is willing to also be aggressive on issues like territorial disputes, human rights and diplomatic contact with the US only increases this dis-ease. In the South China Sea, Chinese coastguard vessels are still arresting Vietnamese fishermen for fishing in what they’ve known for generations as their maritime territory. In Korea, Taiwan and Japan, coastguard officers know that attempts to arrest illegal Chinese fishermen in their territories will result in vicious physical confrontations and indignant diplomatic confrontations with Beijing. For smaller nations like Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia, they now know that holding on to the contested territories that China claims of them puts their economies at extreme risk.

China’s stance on the expanded issue of the South China Sea territorial disputes with Vietnam, Thailand, India, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, as well as the Philippines have been historically similar. The CPC has claimed that their neighbors were the aggressor and then has limited diplomatic relations or sought to punish them economically whilst maintaining a minimum credible force in the area to guard against further action. In the case of the Philippines there has been diplomatic intimidation, with the Philippines ambassador being summoned to explain himself, there is also a very real sense of disproportion in China’s response; the Philippine Navy’s only modern ships are Cold War-era US coastguard vessels. Economic sanctions took the guise of hidden trade restrictions, with the CPC citing “tightening quality controls” on Philippine fruit and purposefully slowing down inspection times, this action has ended up costing Philippine businesses $33.6 million dollars to date. At the same time the CPC has greatly discouraged Chinese tourism to the islands and has implied that Chinese nationals in the country could be attacked. Despite this the Chinese media has been wont to portray China as the one de-escalating the confrontation, Peoples Daily stated that China has adopted an attitude of restraint and has “created a peaceful atmosphere in the South China Sea”. The same article also claimed that China alone should “make rules for the development of the South China Sea area and even the whole Asia”.

The US Navy’s 7th, East Asian Fleet

There are no prizes for guessing who the CPC thinks the guilty party responsible for all of this trouble is; it is of course the United States who is claimed to be provoking their neighbors. A People’s Daily article, entitled “No storm can shake China’s composure”, stated grandly on the topic of the South China Sea that; “China has won the respect and understanding of most neighboring countries for its ability to control itself”. This statement is possibly meant to imply that China’s lack of military action against the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and Japan is to be lauded as that of a very mature actor; it is a fallacy, China knows it cannot act for fear of US intervention. The article went on to state that the Chinese nation’s “restrained, calm and constructive attitude” has now been taken advantage of by actors encouraged by the US. The previously mentioned China Daily Article from May summarises Beijing’s sentiment perfectly; “with the United States as the puppeteer behind the scenes,Vietnam and the Philippines have chosen to rebuff China’s friendly intentions”. In this statement we see the real quarrel China has with the US, although they have stated they will not get involved, the US Navy doesn’t need to in order to stifle Chinese military activities. The US has forced China to take a more convoluted and less sure path to victory in the South China Sea. It has also allowed the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Philippines (and later if they choose to the Malays and Brunei’s as well) to contest China regarding their own territorial claims, and on a more equal playing field too. The same article states it bluntly; “the Philippines has been emboldened to run amuk… because it thinks it has the military might of the US behind it”. The fault is anyone’s but the US’s however, China’s behavior has obviously been anything but even-handed, and their flat-out refusal to seek mediation at the UN only discredits their “undisputable sovereignty” over the entire Sea further. The West is not trying to “create conflicts between China and its  neighboring countries”, as People’s daily bluntly states, the conflicts already existed and the West is trying to moderate them.

It is China’s behavior in South East Asia that has opened the door for the US’s warm re-entry into the region, despite its bullish behaviors in the past, the US can now play the ‘good guy’ and will win the battle for hearts and minds.

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Chinese Support of Assad; duplicitous and obvious

China vetoes the latest condemnation of Syria at the UN

Echoing the tone of many opinion pieces in the Western media, I too was initially confused by China’s outspoken support of the violent Syrian regime, both in the UN and through their press. The brutal year-long crackdown on Arab Spring protestors in the country has had left the Syrian government under ever weightier pressure from the UN and in the world media. This pressure has not only emanated from the West but also from the rest of the world, to the point where, barring Syria’s three active friends; Iran, Russia and China (and the “ALBA” nations of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua), the United Nations has come together to push for an official condemnation. But nothing has, or will, come of it; the international community’s efforts have been, time and again, vetoed by the small pro-Assad bloc. What is confusing to most is that China’s veto against the anti-Assad measures makes no real sense. China has no strong connections to the regime, nothing to gain from Assad by shielding it, and by supporting Syria, has very publicly isolated itself. All of this is especially confusing when it is noted that Russia was doing enough to protect the Kremlin-friendly Assad regime on its own; China had no tangible reason to get involved.

Looking through recent Chinese media discussion on the issue however, I’m no longer confused by China’s behaviour. Chinese support of Assad seems to have been tied neatly into the CPC’s diplomatic and ideological policy of opposition to the West.

Most blatantly; in papers and news sites across the country, Chinese newspapers have been wont to quote the Syrian state news agency SANA at its word while casting aspersions on other voices. Meanwhile Chinese state media has downplayed the government shelling of civilian areas, continually referred to the rebel groups as “terrorists” and cast aspersions on the credibility and ingenuousness of Western concerns. Journalists in China have not blanketed the conflict completely as they did with the opening half of the Libyan revolution; instead they are speaking out as if in chorus. Their consensus seems to be that regarding outside actors, it is the West and its allies not the Russian and Chinese led pro- Assad bloc that is to blame for the lack of a solution. Citing some nation’s propensity toward arming Syrian rebels and the US and EU’s political actions against Assad, an article from China Daily claimed that their intransigence is “only prolonging the bloodshed and making it harder to reach a peaceful solution”. The article went on to boldly claim that American condemnation of China and Russia’s pro- Assad stance was immoral, “opposing the desires of the Syrian people” and standing in the way of the nation’s stability. It comes as little surprise that the article concluded that contrary to the West, that China’s relationship and attitude towards with the Arab world was sincere, long-established, and in the Arab people’s best interests.

A similar article released late last year, this time about the end of the West’s military involvement in Libya, made the case that Western concerns in Libya amounted to little more than a smash and grab that was also intended to counter  Chinese influence in the region. The article concluded grandly that “the fall of Gaddafi is not the triumph of good over evil, but a triumph of the former colonial rulers in reshaping the African economic map”. This Bush- era conspiracy; that Western democratic altruism is always a cover for financial greed is still quite trendy in China and has been trundled out time and again to attack the Western moral character.

The strategy has also been utilised in the Chinese media to also imply Machiavellian moves by the US to reorder the balance of power in the region re Syria. Multiple Global Times articles released in early 2012 argue for the legitimacy of the Assad government by combating calls for UN intervention, despite the violent human rights abuses perpetrated. These articles claim that American behaviour in the Middle East is simply explained; “crumpling up Syria would mean cutting off an important arm of Iran”, and that China, seeing itself as a marginalised world player “now sees the need to confront it”.

The scapegoating and denigration of the US is a time-honoured practice for the CPC harking back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, though originally it was implied most often on an East Asian scale. As China’s ambitions grow, it is natural that the CPC narrative has the West plotting not just against Chinese people, but now all non Western people’s across the world. Never mind that the actors on the ground most recently in Syria (and previously in Libya) had openly stated that peace with each other was (and should be) unpalatable, making intervention necessary to protect civilians. Forget also that further atrocities have been committed and encouraged while Russian and Chinese political action protected these authoritarian regimes and that US governmental and corporate assistance was vital in keeping Egypt’s recent revolution relatively bloodless. Perhaps there is some truth in Chinese allegations of Western hypocrisy however; the US has supported its fair share of dictators and still does in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other African and Middle Eastern nations. Credibility issues crop up with China’s world view when they claim that Western intervention against dictatorships is wholly calculated though; the moral indignation felt in the West against repressive regimes is certainly real. It can also be argued that political support for authoritarianism after Bush jr. has certainly waned in the West as the political realism that marked the Cold War is slowly being replaced by ‘the peace of democracies’.

Assad and Ahmadinejad

China meanwhile, for all it’s talk of supporting the oppressed people of the world has many close relationships with authoritarian regimes and is one itself, a fact that prompts China to relentlessly ‘square the circle’; it sells itself and its authoritarian friends as nice guy alternatives to the West. The Chinese media has no problem for example implying that Iran’s political system is less repressive and nicer than America’s, or in echoing Tehran’s propaganda; that the Arab Spring protests (which the Iranians ruthlessly crushed in their own country) were inspired by the Ayatollah. The Global Times even argued recently that Western concerns about the obvious corruption and bullying at the vote this year in the Russian elections “is a way for the West to bring about splits in Russian society” and that Putin’s re-election reflected the will of the Russian people.

The PRC has a right to oppose the US through diplomatic channels and through other apparatuses of its soft power base, but it needs to be honest about itself and its complaints against Western hegemony first. Paranoid conspiracies, scapegoating others and obvious acts of duplicity will not win it the morality arm-wrestling match it has engaged in with the West… publicly supporting murderous and callous despots does not help either.

Communication is Inevitable

The PRC has recently experienced heightened instances of mass citizen unrest related to social inequalities, labor disputes and most recently, public safety and environmental concerns. As mass protests are a common occurrence in China, the seemingly constant discord has attracted international and local awareness which, despite government censorship efforts, continues to grow namely through microblogging sites. While the CCP consistently attempts to mask instances of unrest, such efforts are becoming progressively futile as communication control proves unfeasible.

The month of June saw several major mass disturbances between police and migrant workers, which received recognition from major international news outlets, yet lacked objective and complete coverage from the Chinese media. When a 3-day riot broke out after a pregnant street vendor was reportedly knocked to the ground by police, authorities downplayed the altercation, maintaining that the vendor “fell over” and understating the number of “troublemakers” at several hundred, though tens of thousands are said to have taken to the streets. Officials censored videos of the incident, writing it off as “just an ordinary clash between street vendors and local public security people, used by a handful of people who wanted to cause trouble”. Unfortunately, these clashes are indeed all too “ordinary” as reports of enraged migrant workers continue to rise. According to Sun Liping, a sociologist at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, China experienced 180,000 “mass incidents” in 2010, double the number in 2006.

A different kind of mass unrest surfaced when last month’s high speed train crash emphasized significant online government criticism, found primarily in blogs and public awareness campaigns which highlight issues otherwise concealed by the CCP. Microblogging sites beat out state media when they received firsthand information about the crash ahead of other news outlets. Despite heavy censorship, criticism of China’s railway officials, failed safety mechanisms and hasty rail construction swept the internet. Meanwhile, CCP authorities enacted a news blackout on the disaster, reporting only official government releases and positively-angled stories about the crash, such as the rescue of a toddler. According to The New York Times, official orders forced newspaper editors to tear up their Saturday editions, replacing investigative articles and commentaries with cartoons or unrelated features. Though the CCP tried in vain to keep the disaster under wraps, the cause was lost before it began; public outrage was widespread and attempts to cloak the incident only fueled resentments. The government may have truncated the issue in the mainstream media, but there was no way to hide the tens of millions of online posts questioning the crash.

Another exceptional demonstration took place in the city of Dalian this month when affluent residents called for the removal of the Fujia factory, a paraxylene plant located on the city’s coast. After learning that the potentially hazardous chemicals produced by the plant could endanger the entire city in the event of a disaster, disgruntled residents organized a sizable rally via social networks and mobile phones, despite increased censorship efforts. Thousands flooded the streets to voice their dissatisfaction. Though the government had already decided to move the factory prior to the protest, the turmoil apparently accelerated the process as the government promised to shut down the plant immediately. While public outcries from the lower rungs are commonplace, it is rare to see such a sizable demonstration from educated middle class citizens. The unusually prompt government response seen in Dalian seems to reinforce the notion that there is one rule for the urban rich and another for the rural poor in China. It may also indicate a sign of the Communist Party in retreat, though some discredit this belief, pointing out that civilians ultimately have no decision-making power; residents and netizens can protest, but they cannot propose.

Whether or not Chinese citizens are gaining significant ground in influencing government decision making, it is certain that public rallies have become easier to organize and harder to conceal. The CCP strives to keep the people of China in the dark, but this may soon become an unattainable goal as Chinese netizens continue to expand their horizons.

The Freedom of Press in the PRC

The government has an overarching influence on all media in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ranging from direct editorial control of newspapers, magazines and TV/radio shows to enforcing limits on the reach of the foreign press and direct control of internet searches and accessible websites within the country.

Unsurprisingly, the most prominent news organizations on mainland China are all directly controlled instruments of the Party-State. These state-run news outlets hold the lion’s share of the market inside China and include such large syndicates as Xinhua, People’s Daily and CCTV.  Although independent media has emerged in China over the last two decades, independent media outlets within the PRC are not truly autonomous and are also required to follow the strict regulations set by the government, including censorship of subjects deemed as forbidden. China receives consistently low rankings in annual releases of the Press Freedom Index which cites the Chinese government as having “the sorry distinction of leading the world in repression of the Internet”.

There is no doubt that internet’s advances as a comprehensive tool for unrestrained mass communications has invited the attention of the PRC censorship offices. On the mainland, it has received strong state censorship and castration. Citing its reach and ability to disrupt ‘social harmony’, the Communist Party of China (CPC) takes just as much care to control the internet as it does its national papers and television shows.

Government imposed constraints control online media mainly via the blocking of user access to ‘subversive’ websites (most of them Western). Some banned websites include Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Amnesty International, Wikileaks, Flickr, New York Times, Huffington Post, Blogspot, Tumblr, Linkedin, IMDB, Foursquare and HumanRightsWatch. This is not the full extent of Chinese censorship, however. The PRC, through its extensive internet censorship resources (including the vaunted “Great Firewall of China”), also endeavours to block word and image searches of politically sensitive content. Complementary to this, PRC censorship officers also expend vast amounts of time and resources trawling through and censoring the blog posts of hundreds of millions of Chinese netizens.

The PRC also has a complicated and conflict-ridden past with the foreign media presence inside the country, especially when relating to sensitive Chinese political issues. Reports of harassment of the foreign press including beatings, detainments and intimidation by uniformed as well as allegedly plain-clothed police officers have added to tensions. Notably, during the highly publicized “Jasmine Revolution” protests held in 2011 , foreign journalists were obstructed on busy Shanghai and Beijing thoroughfares with reports of police beatings and other heavy handed police actions (all of which were strongly denied by Beijing). This contention has prompted the foreign media contingent to call into question the veracity of the PRC’s expanded press freedom laws, first put into place for the 2008 Olympics.

The People’s Republic of China leads the world in governmental control and involvement in media, especially online, where its presence is far reaching but shrewd. So much so, that the Chinese media sphere has been contrasted against that of the dictatorial regimes of Egypt, Libya, Iran and Syria, whose authoritarian governments were placed under severe pressure by the sudden and unrestrained use of online media. There is currently no chance of these occurrences happening in mainland China.

Major News Outlets in the PRC

Xinhua

The Xinhua News Network Corporation is the largest network in China with sizable international reach via the internet and a recent English language TV station.  Xinhua’s online stories can be found in various languages including English, Japanese, Arabic, Russian and Chinese and can be easily accessed via Google News under the ‘World’ news category.

A state controlled enterprise and the official Communist Party of China (CCP) media organization; Xinhua is directly engaged in the collection and dissemination of foreign news reports destined for the Chinese market, though the organization’s main purpose is in providing a party-centric view of international and regional Chinese issues and events. Xinhua is suspected of holding and propagating anti-western biases and is accused of propagandizing by many in the foreign press. Xinhua however, positions itself to challenge and expose perceived Western biases toward the CPC.

Since the Tiananmen Square incident and related instances of Xinhua journalists protesting Xinhua’s party-centric coverage, the corporation has become more tightly controlled. This has resulted in the replacement of some foreign news chiefs and in more stringent censorship and denouncements of the foreign press, especially when pertaining to stories about China. Much of this has done little to silence foreign news media criticism of the paper, which often cite the paper as stigmatized and the propaganda arm of the party.

People’s Daily 

People’s Daily is the voice of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The paper is    published worldwide with editions in English, Japanese, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. It has a circulation of 3-4 million and also holds a sizable online presence. Ever since the papers founding in 1948,  People’s Daily has been directly controlled by the Party’s top leadership and was even managed by Mao’s personal secretary during his reign.

From the cultural revolution onward, the paper’s editorials have been seen as a litmus on official government policy. For example during the Tiananmen Square protests, People’s Daily condemned ‘unlawful parades and demonstrations’, which led to a significant increase in tension between the government and protestors.

Since the 1990s, People’s Daily has faced a decline in government spending. As a result, the outlet has pushed towards online advertising on its sites. It is also responsible for the publication of the highly nationalistic Global Times tabloid.

Global Times

Global Times is produced by the official CPC newspaper,  People’s Daily. First published in 1993, with an English version launched in 2009, Global Times focuses on international issues and seeks to compete with foreign overseas media. Global Times attracts a strong nationalistic readership but does include some foreign writers and international points of view. It is criticized for  having a heavy pro-party bias, though it is noticable that the English language version is less one-eyed than the Mandarin version. The paper has a circulation of 1.5 million Chinese copies printed weekly and  100,000 copies printed weekly in English.

CCTV News (China Central Television)

CCTV is the major state television broadcaster in mainland China, accessible to over 1 billion viewers including 85,000 overseas viewers in more than 100 different countries. The station is an official outlet of the Chinese government and reports directly to high-level officials in the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC). As the owner of the only English news channel based in China, CCTV also targets foreigners within China and outsiders with an interest in the country. While CCTV does employ some foreign news anchors, they have not been journalists of note or main anchors.

China Daily

China Daily, established in 1981 is the largest English language newpaper on the mainland with over 500,000 papers circulated per issue (two thirds of which are domestic sales), it was also the first of any Chinese publication to have an online presence ; it went online in 1995, it also offices in Washington London and Brussels as well as all the major cities on the mainland. China Daily is a paper targeted at foreign tourists and business people in China and much of it’s content are translations of Chinese peices. The papers stated goals are the  presentation of “China and China’s news to a unique group of readers and providing services and entertainment specially suited to those readers” and as such, China Daily is generally more liberal than the majority of Chinese papers and does provide balanced reporting of events and occasionally criticises the actions of some Party members. China Daily is still under much of the same censorship rules that apply to all Chinese publications however.