China’s Foreign Policy Bulldozer

For Asia Sentinel www.asiasentinel.com
The Global Times, a Beijing-based newspaper published both in English and Chinese, is making unprecedented waves in China’s capital with starkly worded op-eds calling for military action against China’s neighbors.Although it is published under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party, its articles go far beyond the harshest party rhetoric. For instance, demands made within the last two months alone include strikes against US weapon systems if Taiwan purchases them as well as against the Vietnamese and Filipinos for defending their littoral interests in the South China Sea and even the South Koreans for having detained Chinese fishing boats.

Although these calls for war have been followed by calming statements by Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, observers say the ultra-hawkish articles are part of a well-orchestrated campaign aimed at helping Beijing gain concessions in international negotiations.

Despite the fact that Jiang Yu said the publication is allowed to pursue an independent line dictated by Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of both Chinese and English versions, an American who worked there from 2009 to earlier this year, said that’s nonsense.

“The Foreign Ministry lies, of course. The editorial board is no more independent than any other state-owned media outlet,” the former employee said. “It was and is subject to frequent last-minute changes dictated by the baffling whims of the Foreign Ministry and the Propaganda Ministry as well as the more conservative voices at People’s Daily.”

He countered the widely-held notion that editor-in-chief Hu himself masterminds the saber-rattling: “Mr. Hu does not write the majority of the editorials as is often stated in other articles about the Global Times. He writes some, but many are translated screeds from the People’s Daily or the Foreign or Propaganda Ministry.”

Although in-house censors – referred to by the staff as “senior editorial advisors” – disappeared during the former employee’s stint, their work has been replaced by self-censorship starting at the reporter level, he said.

“No one knows where the red line is because it is not marked. Every senior Chinese editor including Mr. Hu and many respected reporters have had to write self- criticisms for crossing the line without knowing it,”

Huanqiu Shibao, the Global Times’ Chinese-language version, was established in 1993. It now prints 1.500 million copies daily, all of it strongly pro-CCP, as is the 100,000-copy English version, which was launched in 2009.

Hu Xijin’s hawkishness was reportedly shaped by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 by US and NATO forces. Hu, who had covered the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1993 to 1996 as a correspondent with the People’s Daily, is said to have had his perception of China as the world’s most besieged underdog cemented through the embassy bombing, and it’s this very worldview of his that up to this day dictates the Global Times’ tone. It is a harsh tone indeed.

On Sept. 17, the paper ran an editorial titled “Taiwan takes risk by seeking US protection,” raising eyebrows not only on the island. A few days before the Obama Administration’s announcement on a weapon sale possibly including new F-16s was due, the article called onto the Chinese leadership to punish Taipei if the deal went ahead.

That was a clear break from the party line in regard to the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang, which came into power in Taiwan in 2008. Beijing had refrained from openly criticizing Taipei, even after the latter requested US weapons.

“Beijing used to seek revenge from Washington after arms sales to Taiwan. This time, it should also include Taipei as Beijing has more leverage on the island,” the editorial said. It also didn’t forget to tell the Chinese leadership what to do.

“In 1994, Turkey threatened Greek Cypriots that it would destroy any missiles imported from Greece and installed in areas controlled by Greek Cypriots. This worked well,” the article said.

On Sept 29, an op-ed piece was adorned with an illustration depicting three cats about to mangle a lone fish in his bowl. Titled “Time to teach those around South China Sea a lesson”, the author started with reminding Vietnam of having been “hammered by China in the 1974 Xisha Island [Paracel Islands] Battle and later the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979.”

He then called on Beijing to launch “tiny-scale battles” against countries that steal China’s oil in the South China Sea, singling out the Philippines and Vietnam. Ending the piece on a cold-blooded note, the author applauded Russia’s 2008 South Ossetia War:

“Russia’s decisive move on Caspian Sea issues in 2008 proved that actions from bigger countries might cause a shockwave for a little while but will provide its region with long-term peace.”

Then it was Seoul’s turn to get a wake-up call. On October 25, the Koreans and again the Filipinos were taken on for having detained fishing boats from China. They should better “prepare for the sounds of cannons,” the editorial read.

Needless to say, such remarks haven’t gone unnoticed. Shortly after the last op-ed was published, Jiang Yu stepped in front of the cameras and reaffirmed that her government was committed to a peaceful policy toward the sea.

“China’s media have the right to freely say what they like, but we hope that they play a constructive role and deliver a truthful message,” she said.

Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, agrees that the likelihood is low that the Global Times would publish views that run counter to those of the CCP.

“The Global Times is under the direction of the People’s Daily and is thus under the control of the CCP,” Tsang said in an interview. “It is not an independent voice of private citizens or a business conglomerate or a part of civil society, and it will not normally publish anything that goes against the interests of or directions from the Party.”.

He then explained that as the Global Times is not the official and authoritative voice of Party Central, it enjoys a degree of plausible deniability unlike the People’s Daily.

“Hence, the Global Times can, and often does, go beyond the People’s Daily in articulating strong nationalist statements. Such statements are meant to indicate what ‘the people of China’ think and demand without making them formal statements of the powers that be.”

The Chinese government, he continued, uses the Global Times as a tool for the international negotiation tables, along the lines of good cop/ bad cop.

“Allowing the Global Times to articulate hard-line nationalistic views enables the government to remind its foreign policy interlocutors the pressure it – as the moderate voice of China in comparison – is under domestically and thus permits it to ask for more concessions from foreign governments without appearing too aggressive.”

There’s yet another important role the paper plays, Tsang said. It also serves as a safety valve for the hard-line nationalists to bark rather than push the government to bite.

“For an authoritarian system which relies on nationalism for its legitimacy and has a formal policy to promote ‘a harmonious world’, the Global Times serves a valuable domestic political function.”

Theresa Fallon, a senior associate at the European Institute of Asian Studies, pointed at a concrete and indeed intriguing example of how the Global Times’ saber-rattling directly fits into China’s foreign policy.

“The op-ed may have the […] immediate goal to scare Western oil companies away from Vietnam and from the Philippines and to deter them from concluding deals with them,” she was quoted as saying by the Taipei Times. Citing US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Fallon claimed that Chinese efforts to pressure oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron and Petronas after they made deals with Hanoi went back to at least 2006.

Fallon told Asia Sentinel that a few weeks after the Global Times’ op-ed calling for war in the South China Sea was published, the Chinese government came out and warned foreign oil companies to stay away.

However, whatever benefits the CCP’s “Global Times strategy” might reap, there clearly is a good deal of collateral damage. Although cross-Strait relations arguably are at their best in decades, informing the world of Chinese admiration for bloodthirsty action doubtless leads to China’s neighbors moving further toward the US and also to form regional anti-Chinese coalitions.

“These nationalistic outbursts undermine the credibility of this policy of steering China to rise peacefully,” Tsang said, “They make the world think harder about the Chinese government’s true intentions and about what Beijing will do once it considers it has finally risen and thus in a position to lay its cards on the table.”

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