A Sort-of-Crimean-Problem that China Doesn’t Want


Image Courtesy of Reuters

When it comes to Chinese foreign policy, there is always a debate about whether the regime manipulates or is actually influenced by public opinion. I would argue that reality is much more complex than this simple dichotomy suggests. Recent Chinese response to the conflict between the Burmese military and the Kokang rebels near the China/Myanmar border illustrates that complexity.

On Mar 13, bombs reportedly coming from the Burmese Air Force jets descended upon innocent Chinese farmers working in sugarcane fields near the border, killing five and leaving the other eight severely injured. The incident rattles the Chinese cyberspace. It not only directs national attention to a war that had been hitherto unknown to many, but also unleashes a mixture of feelings made of anger, confusion and frustration.

In Feb this year, fighting resumed between ethnic Chinese insurgents and the Burmese military in the semi-autonomous region of Kokang bordering China’s Yunnan province, escalating a conflict that had been more or less dormant since the 2009 fight that drove out Peng Jiasheng, the leader of the insurgents. This legendary eighty-year-old self-professed “King of Kokang,” who used to be a member of the Burmese communist party, had been in exile thenceforth until he reappeared with his army in Feb to “reclaim Kokang”, reigniting the fire of war in the region. As a result, China, particularly the border province of Yunnan, has to cope with the consequence, with the influx of refugees and now casualties of its own people.

The fallout of this ongoing clash in China’s cyberspace proves to be interesting in a few aspects:

First of all, the incident was reported by the Chinese media quickly after it happened, setting it in contrast to a similar case in the Northeastern province of Jilin bordering North Korea, where a defected North Korean soldier killed Chinese villagers on Dec 27, 2014. Only after the South Korean media exposed the killing in Jan 2015 did the Chinese public become aware of the incident. The silence of Chinese authorities triggered discontent even from pro-government media outlets such as the Global Times, which published an editorial lamenting the erosion of the government’s credibility by such unnecessary cover-ups. The Chinese authority’s handling of the Jilin case implies some reluctance of making it a subject of public scrutiny, which might further undermine its (increasingly unpopular) effort in maintaining a friendly relationship with the North Korean regime. The relative transparency with the Yunnan incident can be read as an improvement in response to criticisms of the Jilin case. Or we can see it as evidence for the authority’s “willingness” to entertain some public venting of sentiments to gain certain foreign policy leverage. But what could be the closest to reality is this: the genuine difficulty of keeping it under the lid, which is related to the point below.

If you look at all the foreign policy challenges that China is facing today, the Sino-US relationship, the Sino-Japanese relationship, the South China Sea disputes, The Myanmar border conflict is unique in a very important aspect: one party of the conflict has direct access to influence public opinion in China.

The majority of people living in the Kokang region is ethnic Chinese. They speak and write Chinese; they do business with the Chinese; many of them have relatives and friends on the other side of the border; schools in the region even use official Chinese textbooks. It is therefore not surprising that they also use Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site. It is through Weibo that the on-goings of the conflicts is broadcasted to a Chinese audience in a real-time, seemingly unfiltered way. Weibo accounts such as the “Kokang Reversion” openly takes the position of Peng’s army, advocating for full autonomy of the region. Other accounts appear to belong to actual Kokang militants. An open letter attributed to Peng also circulates widely on Chinese social media. In the letter, Peng appeals strongly to Chinese nationalism by depicting the Kokang people as being suppressed and persecuted by the Burmese. The tactic seems to work to some extent, as some Chinese netizens show sympathy to Peng’s cause. Many of them invokes Indonesia’s brutal 1998 riot against its ethnic Chinese community.

This creates another interesting spectacle of the incident’s repercussions on line: the split between a purely nationalist response and a national-interest-centered response. The former is directly fueled by the appeal of Chinese ethnic solidarity, the latter fashions itself as a more realist, cool-headed approach to safeguard bigger strategic interests for China. Global Times’s Feb 16 editorial perfectly represents the latter view point. Even though it was published before the bombing, apparently it was already concerned with sympathetic domestic public opinion toward the Kokang insurgents squeezing China’s foreign policy maneuvering space. The editorial claims that “Kokang is not Crimea”, and implicitly warns “those who would like to drag China into Myanmar’s internal affairs”, maintaining that the peace and stability of the region is in line with China’s national interest. A popular commentary on guancha.cn further advances this argument by spelling out what an official editorial can’t say. It brands Peng Jiasheng as a trouble-maker or even “traitor of the Han Chinese” for his provocative behaviors destabilizing a whole region that is of strategic importance to China. It even goes on to suggest that Peng is supported by U.S-backed elements in the neighboring Kachin State to sabotage China’s geo-political interests in Myanmar. The commentator prescribes full support from China to the Burmese central government to battle the insurgents in order to return peace to the region as soon as possible, so that China could more safety access the Indian Ocean.

There are indications that the Chinese central government is ill-prepared for the bombing (and the intensified anti-Myanmar sentiments on-line). Criticism about the government’s slow response abounds. If as the Gloabl Times’s editorial has suggested, China’s official stance on the conflict is that of non-intervention and pro-territorial-integrity (i.e. pro-Burmese central government), then the bombing and the ensuing public outcry is definitely not something that the Chinese government wants to see. When the potent nationalist sentiment is ignited, it becomes harder to sell a non-intervention policy based on abstract national interest calculations.

As expected, China’s foreign ministry, its Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Committee and its Premier all had to respond publicly to the bombing. The Deputy Chairman’s warning to his Burmese counterpart was particularly strong-worded. His words were quickly followed by the Chinese air force’s move to step up border patrol along the conflict-inflicted borderline.

It is hard to say at this moment how China’s response to the bombing will affect the on-going war. But the de facto effect of China’s strengthened defense of its border, barring any direct intervention, could be more breathing space for the insurgents. Ironically, this might further perpetuate the situation in Kokang, something that China tries to avoid.

It looks like the Chinese government has a genuine problem of balancing its foreign policy with public opinion this time. Amid this challenging situation, some commentators try to ride on the tide and advocate for a more proactive involvement of China in Myanmar’s national reconciliation process, even citing Thailand’s mediation of a peace accord between the Malaysia government and the Malayan Communist Party as a precedent:

“China could be bolder and more assertive in its mediation of the Burmese peace process. There is no need at all to act illicitly. This is in accordance with the ‘new normal’ of Chinese foreign policy.”

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