The Recklessness of Nationalist Brinksmanship

So after a wave of rather violent anti-Japan protests I argued were state-supported, the madness has wound down — or rather, been wound down — by the same folks who drummed it up: the government. This is not an uncommon tactic at all, but it is an exceedingly dangerous one.

Let us take, for example, the attack on US Ambassador Gary Locke’s car that occurred near the end of this wave of protests. Chinese security stepped in fairly quickly and there was little damage to the car and no injuries to anyone involved. That’s fortunate, but just consider the ramifications if something had gone differently.

Say Chinese security reacted too slowly, being unprepared for a threat to the US Ambassador’s life at a time when everyone was busy destroying Japanese things. Say some overzealous protester in the crowd brought a molotov cocktail, or that Locke had been dragged out of the car and beaten or killed. It is certainly possible; while the vast majority of protesters would certainly never go this far, there were reported beatings in several areas during the protests and the ethnically Chinese US Ambassador could feasibly become a target of some rage if the US is perceived as opposing China’s claim to the islands. Anyway, let’s say things go badly and Locke is dragged out of the car and beaten, perhaps killed.

The damage to China’s international reputation would be immediate and severe. China’s government will claim that the protests were not government-supported and point out that Chinese security forces were attempting to protect and rescue the Ambassador, but these claims will be downed out as the international media reports on the many inflammatory articles and reports that appeared in state-owned media prior to the protests, and compares China’s approach to controlling anti-Japan protests to its approach to controlling pro-democracy ones ((I don’t have room to go into this here, but if you haven’t been following it, this is one of the interesting sub-stories from this round of anti-Japan protests. Many of the protesters who were arrested by security forces were people who were chanting slogans opposing corruption or advocating political reform, not people who were violently vandalizing Chinese-owned, vaguely “Japanese” businesses.)). It will point out articles like this one by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, which says that police loudspeakers were blaring messages of sympathy and support even as they urged rationality and calm. The foreign media will come to the basically same conclusion I did: at best, China’s government could have done far more to control these protests; at worst, China’s government was actively encouraging them and supporting them until they got out of hand. Opinions of China will plummet internationally, and the incident will reinforce the stereotype that Chinese people are brainless nationalist drones. (To a certain extent, this has happened anyway).

China will condemn the attack, and find and punish the rioters responsible, but this will not sake the anger of the United States Congress, which will (because it is mostly full of idiots) be screaming for blood. Some will consider it an act of war. Chinese flags will be burned in the streets, and Chinese-Americans will start saying their parents are Taiwanese, at least for a little while. It will get ugly, and even imagining the best case scenario, it will impede any kind of development in the Sino-US relationship for years to come. Meanwhile, Chinese nationalists will be protesting the backlash, creating an echo-chamber of nationalist yelling and mutual flag-burning.

Of course, it’s possible that this will never happen. I’m not sure what the chances are. But the government is rolling the dice every time it encourages outpourings of nationalism like this with a media frenzy like the one we saw leading up to these protests. The media should be free to report whatever it deems newsworthy, and protesters should be free to protest whatever they want. But in China, where neither of those things are the case, the government must understand that it is going to be seen as ultimately responsible for what the press says and what protesters do. If it keeps allowing things to reach the brink of boiling point before pulling back, one of these times, it is going to be too late, and even though it wasn’t the government committing the crimes, the government will ultimately be left holding the ball.

China’s Anti-Japan Riots Are State-Sponsored. Period.

Apparent employees outside an Audi dealership with a banner that reads in rhyming verse: 'Even if China becomes nothing but tombstones, we must exterminate the Japanese; even if we have to destroy our own country, we must take back the Diaoyu Islands."

Like many people around the world, I’ve spent some of the past few days looking at photos and reports about the escalating anti-Japan protests in China. There is an excellent collection of them here for those that are interested. Browsing it, your first inclination may be to marvel at the particularly insane bits, like the hotel advertising that Japanese guests are no longer welcome or the Audi dealership with banners outside that literally advocate mass genocide (is this a new Audi sales campaign?). But for anyone who has been to a protest in China before, your second inclination is going to be to say this: where are all the fucking cops?

If you didn’t think that, try scrolling through the album again — or just doing an image search for “protest Japan” on weibo — and looking for police officers. You’ll see a few, sure. But you won’t see many.

Now, let’s compare that to photos from the Beijing “Jasmine revolution” protest, an incident so small that it not only didn’t have any car-flipping, burning, or rioting, it didn’t even have any protesters. There was an army of police there; it’s somewhat evident in the few pictures I have on my site, but you’ll find better photos of the incident here, among other places.

But perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, so let’s turn to a very fair one: the anti-Japan protests outside Japan’s embassy on September 18, 2010. Conveniently, I took video of that one, but here’s a short excerpt from the post I wrote at the time:

What was impressive was the show of control put on by the police, especially given that the protesters were there in support of the official government line. By the time we got there in the afternoon, police had cordoned off at least a one-block radius in every direction around the Japanese embassy. The streets to the north and east of the embassy, outside of the police tape, were lined with PSB officers, one standing every five feet or so for several blocks. There were easily a hundred of them, and obviously many more inside the police tape.


By the time we got to the Western approach to the embassy, where a small crowd had gathered on the intersection of Xiushui St. and Xiushui North St., there were reportedly no protesters left inside the cordoned off area, just some Western reporters and a whole lot of police. It was a show of force, a demonstration of control.

Now, obviously, these protests are much bigger than the 2010 protests, or the Jasmine revolution non-protests. And just as obviously there are police monitoring the protests in China right now; I am not suggesting that these people are rampaging through the streets completely unimpeded or anything.

But anyone who has followed domestic protests in China for even a short period of time should be clear on the fact that if it wants to, the government has the means to totally shut these protests down. They may have sent in the tanks back in ’89, but these days there are legions of trained riot police, People’s Armed Police, and other anti-protest forces. Every major city has them. If you think that China doesn’t have the law enforcement capability to totally shut down these riots, you’re delusional. If these were anti-government protests, not only would they not have carried on this long, but half the people in those photos would be in jail by now. Before the Jasmine protests (for example) police nationwide were literally arresting people just for considering going to the protests, not to mention people police thought might go.

The Global Times writes this morning in an op-ed condemning the violence:

There is no reason to suspect that the government is turning a blind eye to the violence seen over the weekend. This is simply the view of those who make a habit of criticizing the government.

Really? Then where is China’s police force? Even if all the riot police are busy doing traffic stops or something, I’d think if nothing else the chengguan could handle something like this pretty easily (and we all know how much they hate it when people dirty up city sidewalks).

The evidence that China is turning a blind eye to these protests is overwhelming. The absence of China’s police forces is glaringly obvious, especially in contrast to the vast numbers that turn up and start jumping in front of lenses and smashing cameras whenever a protest China’s government doesn’t like is scheduled to take place. China has clearly shown it is more than capable of keeping anti-Japan protests under control if it wants to. The obvious conclusion now — the only conclusion now — is that it doesn’t want to.

(Obviously, if we were to look at the sabre-rattling that has been going on in China’s media, we’d find more evidence that the government is not-so-subtly fanning the flames here. Case in point: a sympathetic editorial about the protests in the People’s Daily. That link is now broken, but the it is cited in the New York Times.)

Some will probably still feel that the title of this blog post is a bit sensationalist, but I disagree. The state many not be financially supporting — or even publicly encouraging — these protests, but I would argue the low police presence and apparent lack of attempted control sends a very strong message of support, especially in a country where you can get arrested and sentenced to a year of labor for a retweeting a joke.

Chinese citizens should have the right to protest publicly, of course, but that right should not extend to the destruction of property or to violence. The government should absolutely be doing much more than it is to control these protests, and I hope that it will step up soon, or tomorrow (9/18) could be very, very ugly. I think a lot of these protesters need to look themselves in a mirror and ask why they’re willing to beat their own countrymen and advocate exterminating the Japanese over some rocks they have never visited (and will never visit). But China’s government needs to be held accountable for the role it is playing in this violence as, by and large, it stands on the sidelines, content to let Chinese citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time driving the wrong car take the heat just because it’s a good distraction from the series of blunderous scandals that has been this year in Chinese domestic politics.

UPDATE: I have heard from several people who attended the Beijing protests that those were well-staffed with police and security. It does seem from photos and other evidence that the situation wasn’t the same in many other cities though, which would explain why there wasn’t much destruction in Beijing but there seems to have been elsewhere. I’m not sure why this is, but a Chinese friend emailed me a theory that I find very interesting. Make of it what you will:

The whole anti-Japanese thing is definitely state-owned, no doubt.
But I think you can go deeper…one party, different fractions
/clique…as far i as I am concerned,there are three major fractions
in ccp.

As for this is Hu’s and Jiang’s at play….

Look at the most violent cities, Xi’an, Chang’ sha, etc…they all are
under Hu’s folks
Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou…lol….Shanghai clique…

UPDATE 2: Found this image just now, via this site. This would certainly seem to be evidence the protests are state-supported, no?

I suppose the police could be confiscating this vehicle, but somehow I doubt it. And I’m not sure why they’d confiscate it rather than ripping off the banners (since the result of getting in it without ripping off the banners is precisely this bad-PR photo, though it’ll be good PR to some folks in China). For those that can’t read them, the top one says “When Chinese people get angry the results are serious!” and the big one along the side is the same message as the Audi dealership; ‘Even if we turn China into a field of tombstones we must eliminate all Japanese.’ The other bits are (unsurprisingly) anti Japanese slogans about eliminating the Japanese, not worshipping Aoi Sola, etc.

In other anecdotal-but-interesting news, a friend of my wife’s family, who works for a city government in China, was taken along with his coworkers to a (mandatory) anti-Japan protest on Tuesday. Sounds pretty state-sponsored to me.

Hey, Speaking of Soft Power Fails…

A couple days ago we looked at one way to fail at soft power, but while we were doing that, China’s highest levels of leadership were working on a way to fail way, way harder. In case any of you have been living under a rock, Xi Jinping — China’s presumptive next president — is M.I.A.

Now, before things get all Jiang Zemin-y up in here, plenty of sources seem to be suggesting that Xi has been out with minor injury and will likely be back in the public eye soon. But no one knows for sure because no one has actually seen Xi since September 1, and China’s government has refused to explain where Xi is.

Let’s just pause for a minute and think about the message this sends to the world. China is saying, “Trust us. Make the RMB your reserve currency. We are a stable, peaceful economic powerhouse and you have nothing to fear from investing in us. Oh, by the way, the guy who’s running our country may periodically just disappear for extended periods of time and no one will explain why. Don’t worry about it!”

I’m no economist, but I believe the sudden, unexplained disappearance of someone in charge of the world’s second largest economy is going to have an impact on the markets. It certainly doesn’t instill confidence. And things don’t improve when that disappearance drags on for weeks. Whether or not Xi was seriously ill or injured is almost beside the point now. What the hell did Chinese officials have to gain from all this? Because they sure lost a lot of points internationally, and having your impending next president disappear doesn’t play too well domestically either, no matter how hard you scrub the weibos.

I suppose whenever Xi reemerges from his cucoon underground bunker sex palace marble boat whatever, it may become clear what happened to him. If he had some sort of horrific visually-evident disease — flesh-eating bacteria or something? — then I could see why the government might want to hide him from the world. But short of that, I’m seriously at a loss for what the upside of “the president-to-be has disappeared” approach to governance is. I welcome your explanations in the comments.

Anyway, this is probably a good enough reason for plenty of countries to stick with the US dollar for now. Sure, our jackass bankers may have ruined the world economy, and sure, it turns out our strategy of invading random middle eastern countries, destroying them, and then leaving hasn’t been hugely popular with the locals. But say what you will about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — it’s hard to imagine either one of them vanishing without a trace just a few months before the all-important power transition (or the all-important lack thereof).

The economic numbers aren’t everything, and even if China’s economy was looking as rosy as it was a few years ago, trust matters. It is time for China to start trusting its own people and the world to be able to handle news like “Xi Jinping has hurt his back and is going to skip some meetings on doctor’s orders.” Perhaps I’m off here, but I think most people’s response to that would be something like: “Oh. Hmm, I’ve got to remember to pick up some milk on the way home from work” and not “OMG, anarchy in the PRC!”

Leave it to China to take what seems like a pretty innocuous incident — an old guy hurting his back a bit — and turning it into one of this year’s more epic propaganda/soft power own goals.

Watch Petition in Full on Youtube

This is less of a post and more of a PSA: Zhao Liang’s excellent documentary Petition (上访) is available on Youtube. I should note that this is probably an illegal upload of the film, but it is so difficult to find a legitimate copy of the film ((I did find this DVD box set with three of Zhao’s films, all of which are worth seeing, but it’s a PAL-only French import so it won’t work in many American DVD players)) that I thought I would call your attention to it anyway. But I highly encourage you to also buy a copy of it if you ever get a chance.

I had the pleasure of meeting someone involved with this film last year in Beijing and speaking with him for a little while about the experience of making it. The film is the result of work that spanned over a decade, and it was extremely difficult to put together, especially the scenes that included footage from within the petition offices, where cameras are most definitely not allowed. It is a work that was immensely difficult to produce, and the results are incredible if also highly depressing.

It’s not available on Youtube in good quality — again, buy the DVD if you can find it! — but it does have Chinese and English subtitles and the quality is plenty good enough to watch. If you have the time, it’s highly recommended.

(I should also note that I came across this thanks to a link on Twitter the other day, but now I can’t remember who it was that posted it! My apologies, but if that person sees this and lets me know, I’d be happy to update this post with a link.)

Another Lesson in How to Fail at Soft Power

I came across this story a couple days ago, and found it mildly amusing, but eventually decided it was worth sharing here because it’s indicative of the larger trend. First of all, here are the basics for those that haven’t already read the article:

Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.

But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song painted the 10-foot-by-100-foot mural last month on the side of the old Corvallis MicroTechnology building at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue. The work was commissioned by property owner David Lin, who is renovating the space for a restaurant and has rechristened the building Tibet House.

In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.

“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”

Now, I can’t be too sure about the quality of the reporting here, because the article refers to Tibet as a “country” and as a “breakaway province” (it most certainly is neither, though some might like it to be). But I’m guessing the basic facts of the case here are true.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of the local Chinese consulate general. A business owner in your area of the US has put up a mural that you find offensive. If this were China, of course, you could have it taken down, and maybe have the guy beaten or tossed in jail for a little while to teach him a lesson. But you don’t have those powers in the US, so your only real options are to ignore it or make a big stink about it. Why in hell would you ever choose the latter?

If you ignore it, the only people who ever hear about it are the people who happen to visit or drive by that building, most of whom probably aren’t even going to understand its meaning. If you make a big stink about it, on the other hand, you turn it into a news story. What’s more, you turn it into a news story that the local government has an active interest in promoting because it makes them look awesome. ‘We stood up to pressure from the Chinese government and defended the first Amendment rights of an American business owner’ — what US government official wouldn’t want that story on the front page of every newspaper? That is exactly why what could have been a tiny non-story is now being discussed on this blog and elsewhere despite the fact that I don’t even know where Corvallis is.

The other question is what the hell did Chinese consular officials think they were going to gain from sending that letter? Surely Chinese diplomats are given at least some basic training in US laws, so they ought to know the local government wasn’t even going to consider taking the mural down. And while I understand this is probably the sort of thing that has to be done from time to time to please the overseers back in China, I can’t imagine anyone in China would have heard of this mural either of the Chinese consulate general hadn’t broadcast it to the world by formally making a complaint about it.

The complaint makes the Chinese government look petty and weak even as it draws attention to two issues the Chinese government doesn’t want anyone talking about. The publicity helps ensure that more Americans are going to come down on what the Chinese government would consider to be the “wrong” side. Sure, consular officials may have scored some points with their buddies at home, but they did so by putting yet another scratch in China’s already-battered international reputation and by setting the country back even further on its increasingly unrealistic-looking quest to wield some kind of measurable cultural power outside its borders.

“If You’re Not Dead By Tonight, I Joined the Party For Nothing!”

Here’s another one for the annals of Party members being assholes in their cars. This story is being passed around on Weibo and other social media like Tianya right now, though it appears to have happened a couple weeks ago. Here’s the text of the post:

“Fuck your mom! You dare to inspect my car? If you’re not dead by tonight, I joined the Party for nothing!” Kangping, Liaoning [Party] disciplinary secretary Dai Guobin was driving his personal car at an intersection when he violated traffic laws and was blocked by traffic police officer Chen Dong for an inspection. Secretary Dai got out of the car and, without a word, punched Chen in the face, and then hit him in the leg…his mouth was full of curses like ‘I’ll kill you! I’ll kill whoever comes close! I just need to make a couple phone calls and a few thousand people will be here, even if the Central [government] leaders come here it won’t help you.’

Based on the photos being circulated with this post, it appears passers-by were not particularly happy about Dai’s attitude.

There’s no way to confirm exactly what happened with this incident, so take all this with a grain of salt. But the weibo post about it has already been forwarded nearly 100,000 times and has nearly 15,000 comments. If it continues to go viral I imagine we’ll learn the full truth of this sooner or later, but “I joined the Party for nothing!” already sounds like the Chinese internet’s next snarky slang term, following past hits like “Whether or not you do, I believe it” and “My dad is Li Gang.” And of course, with regard to the incident itself, I can’t imagine anyone is surprised to learn this happened. This is the kind of behavior most of China expects from its local Party officials.

But this case may be especially damaging to the Party’s reputation because Mr. Dai mentioned it explicitly and implied that the purpose joining the Party is just to obtain special treatment and a platform from which to oppress one’s enemies. This, of course, is something that everyone already knows. But there’s a difference between that cynical knowledge and hearing a government official actually say it out loud. My guess is that by the time this is over, Dai will be wishing he kept his mouth shut.

That is, assuming that this is an accurate report and not just a rumor gone wild. The fact that after several weeks the story is still spreading would indicate it’s probably true, though.