People’s Republic of Spiritual Rednecks

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“Trump wins!” At 1pm, November 9, Beijing time, hours before mainstream US media could confidently call the 2016 US presidential election for Trump, eager Chinese spectators handed Trump the presidency using what seems like a photoshopped screenshot of Wolf Blitzer on CNN. The picture might be fake, but the sentiment is all too real: the insuppressible excitement for a Trump upset, or, more accurately, for the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

By now, many who watch China have come to the realization that Donald Trump has a “base” in a country one Pacific Ocean away from where ballots are actually cast. Articles have been written about the phenomenon, with a mixture of amusement and alarm. Understanding Trump’s appeal in China will have limited bearing on how the president-elect conducts his business, but will shed light on the cultural and political propensities of a vocal segment of the Chinese society today.  The Trump fanfare in China embodies an interesting contradiction: outward-looking, intellectually curious Chinese individuals embracing an American strongman who builds his political brand on xenophobia and ignorance.

Why would well-educated, internet savvy Chinese, whom economists consider one of the biggest beneficiaries of the past quarter century of globalization, identify with the vengeful, explosive hero of those who have been left behind by that same historical process?

The Chinese Internet has taken a particular interest in Trump’s unexpected ascension as soon as it became clear that he would be the Republican nominee. At that time, popular Chinese posts about Trump depict him as a symptom of the ailments of American society. He is the manifestation of people’s hidden frustration with political correctness, of the cleavage between intellectual elites and those struggling with their livelihoods, and of “our mediocre and shallow time where entertainment trumps everything.” While there is this you-reap-what-you-sow sentiment in such articles, there is also no doubt that Trump is an ignorant, inexperienced and intolerant hot-head who is clearly unfit for the job.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when a much more favorable view about Trump starts to bloom in the Chinese cyberspace. Through that lens, he is viewed as a truth-talker, a pragmatist, a fixer, and most importantly, a strong counter-voice against what is believed decadent Western liberal values.

Before we can properly explore the “Chinese support for Trump”, it is important to separate it from Chinese Americans’ rooting for the Republican candidate, which is based on more substantive issues for people who actually live in the US. A considerable amount of what’s written on Chinese-language sites about the election is actually by Chinese Americans, especially first generation Chinese immigrants. Their opposition to Hillary, and Democrats in general, often centers around issues such as the Affirmative Action which is believed to hurt hard-working Chinese American kids. This topic deserves a separate treatment, for which the Sinica Podcast’s Kaiser Kuo did a great job.

There are, of course, substantive reasons for a mainland Chinese to prefer a Trump presidency. A typical response can be found in comments made by military observers and geopolitical types on the Chinese Internet, who see a US under Trump’s leadership set to make “strategic contractions” overseas given his openly isolationist positions and a focus on domestic economic issues. “The US will almost certainly move away from its strategy of Pivot to Asia. It will give up on the South China Sea, or even its influence in Taiwan. Trump is a pragmatic businessman. Confronting China in the South China Sea is a business with a low cost-benefit ratio that he won’t do.” This is probably wishful thinking bordering on fantasy, given Trump’s multiple policy backtracks days after his election. But it does account for why some in China are gleeful about a Trump win.

On the substantive side, there are also veteran Chinese political and economic commentators who express doubts about the potential benefits of the “Trump doctrine”, albeit much more muted than the geopolitical optimists. They argue that China, as one of the largest beneficiaries of globalization, will suffer if the US sways momentously back towards protectionism.

But as we shall see, self-interest seems not to be the primary component of the Chinese affection for Trump. Their fondness of this man is as much value-based as those American voters believed to have voted “against their own interest”. After the election, Routangseng, one of the consistently pro-Trump figure on Weibo, wrote about Trump, as “the true heir of Edmund Burke and John Locke”, relentlessly defending the last bastion of freedom. The comparison is absurd, if not outright hilarious. But the rest of his argument, that high-tax welfare states are fostering a sense of entitlement and are nothing more than “open robbery”, sounds all too familiar to ears weathered by American political rhetoric. And he is not alone in his hostility toward what he labels the evil social programs of “white liberals”(白左). In fact, “white liberals” has become a keyword that tags in much of the Chinese online discussion about the election.

The unveiled, intense disdain for American (and European) liberals demonstrated by a substantial segment of the Chinese social media is the key to understanding Trump’s popularity here, and something that ties the “intellectual” side of Trump’s Chinese support with his apparent lack of any intellectual appeal.

On zhihu.com, the Chinese equivalence of Quora, where enthusiasm about Trump is particularly strong, multiple top posts under the “Donald J. Trump” tag center around the theme of liberal hypocrisy and weakness. For a site that pride itself with informed discussions and a respect for expertise, the overall hostility towards Western liberal ideas deserves a moment of reflection. One of the posts that garners more than 18,000 likes is a broad stroke thesis about the decline of Western civilization under the pressure of Muslim immigration. “There are towns in Britain that are completely under the control of Muslim extremists, who are openly using white girls as sex slaves under the eyes of gutless British policemen. Trump was right when he said there were no-go zones for French policemen in their own country. Western countries are in such a degree of self-deception that politicians like Obama and Merkel can be praised for their appeasement with Islamists while political correctness deters people from talking about the existential threat to Western civilization.”

It is one thing to be critical of the liberal ideas of multiculturalism and freedom of religion, it is quite another when a Chinese shows that level of concern for the demise of the West. Granted, ethnic strife is on the rise between Han Chinese and their Muslim compatriots. This could be part of the reason why some are anxious about a perceived Muslim advancement in other parts of the world. Another factor that might have played into this is the admire-despise complex that many in China harbor about the West. Deep down they still see the West as something to aspire to, and they feel frustrated when “weak” liberal leaders squander their full hand of good cards. “Angry about them not putting up a fight” (怒其不争), as one Chinese saying goes.

What’s more likely to have happened, though, is that somehow right-wing materials from the English-speaking world find their way into China through the Internet. After all, who is more troubled by the fall of (white) Western civilization than the American and European alt-right? This has happened before when, during last year’s European refugee crisis, a viral post on a Chinese website about how Japan “wisely” excludes Muslims from its society turned out to be translated from an openly anti-Muslim Zionist. In this year’s election cycle, conservative websites such as RedState, are used by Chinese media as authoritative sources of news. All kinds of conspiracy theories about Clinton, from pedophile allegations to murder charges, spread widely on people’s WeChat walls, reinforcing the image of her as a conniving, evil politician who embodies the hypocrisy of liberal politics.

In a way, the Chinese Internet is just an extension of what goes on in America this election season. The spectacular failure of mainstream US media to sway public opinion and to foresee a Trump win is a sign of the social media’s unprecedented efficacy in channeling information and aligning the electorates, bypassing established gatekeeping and blindsiding political operations based on rules of the past era. The new landscape enables players such as Wikileaks to reach millions of voters unfiltered, and makes spinning through “surrogates” less effective. Chinese netizens have long harbored a suspicion about the “Western media”, seen as being biased against China. The disorderly situation in the US provides an even larger incentive to look beyond what the NYT or Washington Post is saying. On Zhihu, users pile on Podesta’s leaked emails and develop their own theory of top Democratic officials involving in unspeakably diabolic child abuse. Their ability to consume such materials “uncensored” by mainstream Western media leads some Chinese netizens to consider themselves more informed about the candidates than the Americans.

When those smart Chinese internet users climb over the imagined informational barriers erected by Western media, they are thrilled to find a Trump that speaks to their beliefs. A great many commentators point to the so-called pragmatism in Trump as what resonates with Chinese watchers. Some of them even half-jokingly compare him to Deng Xiaoping, the great Communist leader who opened China to the outside world after Mao’s death. Deng famously declared that “a cat is a good cat if it catches rats, no matter whether its black or white.” The metaphor was advanced to settle heated ideological debates that threatened to thwart his reform to liberalize the market. To many Chinese, “political correctness” is equivalent to socialist dogmas that should be swept aside when addressing the West’s “real” problems. If illegal immigrants or refugees cause social upheavals, say it. That’s the logic for those who believe that Germany’s welcome of refugees, or America’s embrace of immigrants are due to political constraints that prevent them from doing otherwise, much as China’s own communist dogma prohibited the embrace of private enterprises 40 years ago. Breaking the shackles created by naive, holier-than-thou liberals is an act of dogma-shattering pragmatism, seen from the historical experience of modern China.

One Zhihu user offers a more personal explanation why many Chinese seem able to relate to the kind of anxiety that Trump claims to represent. The Chinese white collar class, as the author puts it, is not very far removed from their working-class roots. “Most Chinese born after the 1980s are from a working-class background, who can still sympathize with the uneducated ignorance demonstrated by the less refined and appreciate its political power when mobilized. It is what their parents, uncles and primary school classmates look like.”  Their modest roots make them less repelled by Trump than their “elitist” liberal counterparts in the US. Of course, the stereotype of liberal elites in a Chinese mind, invariably based on some version of an east coast intellectual or a Silicon Valley executive, is more imagination than reality, willfully ignoring the millions of Americans who vote Democrat and who are no less modest in their background than the author’s “Chinese parents”.

There is, nevertheless, a much blunter assessment of why well-educated Chinese love Trump. Zhao Lingmin, a columnist for the Chinese website of the Financial Times, also links it with their upbringing. However, in contrast to the rosy idea that their generational experience with hardship makes it easier for them to relate to their poorer countrymen, Zhao believes that 30 years of unbridled economic growth “without much moral or legal constraints” has enshrined social Darwinism as the guiding doctrine for much of the Chinese society. The widespread worship of winners and contempt of losers prevent the society from developing any “political correctness” that shields disadvantaged communities such as women and the disabled from abuses by those with wealth and power. “Over time, those who master the rules of this winner-takes-all environment have developed a hardened heart and a high self-regard.” They are convinced that those left behind must have something deplorable and are alarmed by any welfare program aiming to lift them up. Trump’s message is a loud confirmation of this value system.

Disgusted by what he has witnessed in Chinese debates about the election, “Pretend to live in NYC”(假装在纽约), a personality on Weibo well known for his effort to introduce progressive message abroad to the Chinese cyberspace, brands Chinese Trump supporters as “spiritual rednecks“, ethnic Chinese who identify with a Texan bigot. They look down upon other people of color, but insist, ironically, that whites should not discriminate against Chinese, a political correctness they’d rather preserve.

Trump’s true Chinese supporter might sit somewhere between the two ends marked by the views above. He is probably not the “son of a working man” whose innate compassion connects him with the suffering of his poor compatriots. He is also not entirely the cold-blooded, prototype social Darwinist who cares only about self-achievement at the expense of others. After the election, a widely-read Weibo post (again originated from Zhihu) summarizes what Trump’s win has “taught China”, generating tens of thousands of retweets.

“1. We should retain our college entrance exam system that ensures a pathway for poor kids to move up the social ladder. The American election shows how a lack of upward mobility tears apart the society;

2. China should protect its manufacturing sector and prevent it from being outsourced. America’s deindustrialization only benefits capitalists, not workers;

3. China should forcefully resist immigrants and reject political correctness. Illegal immigrants usually compete with lower working class people for jobs, not professional middle class. When the daily safety of working class residents is threatened, they should be able to protect themselves without fear of being politically incorrect. 

4. China should be adamantly against excessive care for the LGBT community. Their values and choice should be tolerated, not advocated, especially not at the expense of suppressed mainstream values.

Who would have imagined that a US election can inspire China to come up with what seems like its own conservative manifesto, a strange combination of care for social equality and dismiss of cultural inclusiveness. Through the dizzying image of a triumphant Trump, the Chinese society discovers its funny and distorted reflection, as if inside a funhouse.

Sand, Reef, Elevation, Island

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碰瓷儿【Peng-Ci-er】: v. deliberately throw oneself to a running vehicle to extort the driver for compensations.

Against a backdrop of an indigo blue sky and the hypnotically golden sunlight of late Beijing autumn, a sixty year old man protested with a squeaking loudspeaker outside the sturdily walled compound of the US Embassy this Wednesday, demanding the “shelling” of USS Lassen, the US warship that a day before had conducted a “Freedom of Navigation” operation near the South China Sea reefs that China controls. Photos of the scene convey a sense of quixotic loneliness. He was later taken away by the police.

The man represents one end of the wide spectrum that features the Chinese society’s response to the well anticipated US patrol in the South China Sea. In that spectrum, you can find the hysterical, the ridiculous, the cocky, the official, the reasonable, the cynical and the sarcastic. It is another example of how China’s social media adds layers of nuance to an issue that can easily be oversimplified, acting as a prism that breaks down a beam of blinding sunlight into a rainbow of colors.

Wang Zhanyang, a scholar from the party affiliated Central Socialist Institute, is one of the more vocal personalities on Weibo who try to deconstruct a simplistic reading of the US move. He disputes the claim that China has “sovereignty” over the South China Sea features in question, arguing that unlike islands, they do not qualify as subjects of national sovereignty. He further challenges the conventional wisdom among the Chinese that the vast ocean encompassed by the nine-dashed line is China’s territory, declaring that it was an outdated idea advocated by Chiang Kai-shek but was later discarded by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who chose to honor the 12-nautical-mile rule for territorial sea. Nevertheless, he maintains that the remaining modern-day value of the nine-dashed line is to support sovereignty claims over the islands within the area, which have their respective 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.

Wang’s view is already a marked departure from the more radical idea that the US patrol is a direct violation of Chinese sovereignty. It also serves as a benchmark of how far a relatively milder Chinese view could go: maintaining sovereignty claims on the ISLANDS (not necessarily reclaimed features) within the nine-dashed line, while honoring international maritime norms. It seems to be closer to the largely implicit official position on the matter, as expressed by the decisively ambiguous protests made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other governmental organs, which repeatedly referred to the waters entered by the USS Lassen as “nearby waters” or “offshore waters”, instead of territorial waters.

More hawkish views to the left find themselves in an inhospitable environment this time. Recently, a Vice Admiral of the Chinese Navy somewhat frivolously commented that the name of “South China Sea” in itself implies China’s ownership of the ocean. It was immediately greeted by sarcasm on the internet, with netizens listing the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and a string of other names to highlight the obvious absurdity of such claims.

On the other hand, Wang’s “liberal” view is also challenged for its lack of “necessary subtlety”, which might undermine China’s long-term interest in the region. For instance, his insistence to refer to the features as “man-made reefs” met with criticism from people whose views have otherwise very little substantive difference from his. Fudan University professor Feng Wei, an authority on Japanese affairs and one who disputes the blanket claim that China has sovereignty over ALL islands in the South China Sea, sneers at Wang’s insistence as “nerdy” and “trouble-making.” He claims that the official Chinese reference to the features as “land reclamation” (rather than entirely man-made structures) has political implications and is a “necessary wordplay” that should not be undermined by careless choice of words. But it is unclear how calling them “land reclamation” brings any real gains for China in this case, as the aforementioned Ministry of Foreign Affairs response did not advance any real territorial sea claims. It might be a case where China simply wants to leave the doors open for future developments. The naming dispute did trigger a call for the abandonment of any Chinese reference to the features as “man-made islands”, seeing the term as a misnomer and a US trick to distort their legal status.

Not surprisingly, the ultra-left online “hawks” are not happy with the milder commentators (despite their nuanced differences) and waged vituperative attacks against both Wang and Feng as “shameless” and “un-Chinese.” Only this time such jingoistic views faced resistance from within the same nationalist camp. The ferociously patriotic Weibo account, Zhanhao (same pronunciation as “war trench” in Chinese) labelled the angry, militant responses online as a sign of naïveté. Even though it sees the US move as a dirty trick of “peng-ci-er” and a way to “divert US domestic attention from the failure in Syria”, it still insists that maritime engagement with the US Navy should follow proper rules of engagement and only escalate when clear boundaries are violated. It believes that the current level of “staged” confrontation actually rewards both sides in their respective contexts: for the US, the move pacifies those who want to see the administration take stronger actions against China’s South China Sea ambitions. While for China, the stand-off provides an excuse for future militarization of the installations.

In an article written for the Financial Times’s Chinese website, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences expert Xue Li provides by far the most nuanced reading of the China-US South China Sea confrontation. First he makes a distinction among the seven Nansha reefs that China claims. He states that three of them, including the two where the USS Lassen approached this time, are mere “low-tide elevations” (meaning that they are submerged under water at high tide), therefore they are not eligible for 12-nautical-mile territorial waters under international law. He further argues that “innocent passage” by the US warship does not constitute substantial violation, even though it may not have paid China “due regard” in this case. The other four reefs sit above water during high tides, hence entitled to the legal status of islands bestowed by international law. But even for those reefs which do possess territorial waters, innocent passage of warships should still be considered acceptable, though more sensitive. He maintains that only when US warships anchor or conduct other clearly non-innocent activities within the territorial waters of the four islands, or within the 500-meter safety zone of the three “low-tide elevations,” should China consider substantive retaliation. Despite such possibilities, Xue argues that the United States, as “an experienced hegemony,” would hardly venture in such directions.

The relative mellowness in the Chinese response to the US patrol in the South China Sea seems to be doing the government some good. In particular, a subdued and neutralized hawkish wing on the Chinese internet, confronted by a vocal group of issue experts, gives the authority some space in building certain subtlety into its official response. As expressed through its mouthpieces such as the Global Times, there seems to be an intention to distance foreign policy maneuvers from the influence of over-enthusiastic domestic public opinion and hand them to the “professionals” to take care. For a country that has in the past forcefully used nationalistic public opinion as a weapon, this could be sheer wishful thinking or a serious change of mind that is worth watching.

The Grand Spin: How China Makes Sense of the Syrian Refugee Crisis to Itself

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When radio broadcaster and columnist Lu Jin posted her friend’s first-hand account of how Germany coped with the Syrian refugee crisis, she did not expect the vitriolic comments that flooded her Weibo wall. She was dubbed a “Holy Mother Bitch” (shengmubiao), a coinage of Chinese netizens to describe those who occupy moral high grounds through cheap and naive posturing.

Lu’s friend is a Chinese German citizen who lives in Munich. What her post tries to convey is the calmness and dignity with which the German society welcomes the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees trudging their way into Europe’s strongest economy. One particular thing she takes note of is the almost complete absence of national pride in the whole affair: “there is no attack on the refugees, no media singing praise of Germany the country, and no politicians venting emotions.” It seems to her that the whole society is discussing rationally about solutions to the problem, and is ready to give the refugees an equal opportunity to have a life in the country. She claims this experience to be the “most thorough education about humanitarianism” that she has ever received, and marvels about “not seeing a single article in the German media that implies any self-elevation of Germany as a country.”

Germany’s post-war aversion to the collective expression of nationalism should not be too surprising for anyone with a basic understanding of its historical trauma. Its suppression of even the spontaneous surfacing of national pride is a perfect example of how deep-seated that aversion has become. The fact that a Chinese observer highlights this particular aspect of Germany’s response to the refugee situation speaks more about the Chinese mindset than that of Germany. There is a subtle intention of contrast in the blog. For a moderately well-informed Chinese reader, the nationalism innuendo would ring a bell of China’s recent efforts to evacuate its own civilians from conflict stricken countries such as Yemen and Lybia using its navy, an act that came with a considerable amount of national pride.

The intended contrast and the discernible air of admiration in the blog explain why some Chinese readers get stung and agitated. For them, the exaltation of German selflessness is nothing more than a symptom of political naïveté and wishful misrepresentation. They were quick to pull out media reports in Germany that sound alarm of the deteriorating security situation in the streets of German cities, particularly a (dubious) story about a 7 year old girl got raped, as evidence that the German response to the crisis was far less “dignified” than what the author of the blog led people into believing. They went further by questioning the wisdom of the Merkel government’s decision, seeing it as misguided by liberal sentimentality rather than based on rational political calculation. Ironically this line of questioning was itself fueled by not-so-subtle Islamophobia and bigotry, which is no more reasonable than the “liberal sentimentalities” that they derided. In many such comments, the refugees were referred to as future terrorists, lazy idlers and sneaky free riders that would quickly take over the entire Europe.

To be clear, a large part of that anxiety-filled commentary on the Chinese internet comes from the Chinese community living INSIDE Europe, who has as much a stake in the problem as the Europeans themselves. But it is still interesting to note how narratives dominant in a Chinese domestic context are projected onto a crisis that is happening thousands of miles away from home, which in some cases results in bizarre interpretations on the verge of sheer fantasy.

If the nationalism lens adopted by the author of the above mentioned blog is still a legitimate and valuable perspective, other analytical frameworks used by Chinese authors would seem a bit too idiosyncratic. For example, a popular article that popped up in many people’s social network accounts these few days tries to (partially) attribute the refugee crisis to the political insensitivity of the “Syrian middle class” itself. It first states in a matter-of-fact way that the majority of the Syrian refugees are former lawyers, doctors and engineers, who used to be the pillar of the Syrian middle class. Then it launches into an eloquent line of reasoning that those white-collars are partly to be blamed for their own plights because of their cynical acquiesce to Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule: “They considered themselves the elites and the future of the Syrian society… Indifferent to the suffering of the lower classes, they believed that as long as they closely followed the ruling Assad regime, their life will get better… Even though they had witnessed the cruelty of the regime and its rampant corruption, they saw them as problems that can be solved through development.” At one point, you can’t tell if the author is writing about the troubles of the Syrian society or an allegory of contemporary China aiming at the Chinese middle class.

On the other end of the spectrum, commentators are spinning the Syrian crisis to a completely opposite direction. Zhanhao (占豪), a prominent left-leaning account on both Weibo and WeChat, prescribes its own medicine to the Syrian refugee crisis: Return the control of Syria to the Assad regime. To achieve that, Western countries should abandon their support to the rebels. The logic can’t be any simpler: it is the West’s continued support of the rebels to overthrow the “legitimate” government of Syria that is the origin of all the mess. To solve the exacerbating problem of the massive exodus of refugees, Syria needs to be returned to a state of “tranquility” maintained by its original government. The simplification in this line of argument is glaring. It refers to all the Syrian rebel groups as “terrorists”, ignoring their highly complicated composition and the fact that some of those groups were formed out of secular protestors. The notion that the Assad regime (“the legitimate government”) can somehow regain control over the country and rule Syria happily ever after as long as the West withdraws its support to the rebels is also close to wishful thinking completely overlooking the sectarian strife that has almost irreversibly torn apart the country politically, ideologically and geographically.

Its anti-West sentiments aside, the article epitomizes the kind of mental framework through which China’s conservative elites view the Syrian situation. In that framework, the state/society dichotomy is the dominant relationship trumping any other relationships. And within that relationship, the non-state forces are viewed with undisguised hostility (rebels equal terrorists), while the state, no matter how flawed it may be, is seen as the proctor of stability, and should be granted legitimacy for the sake of that. The complexity of the entangled Syrian situation, the Sunnis, the Alawites, the Kurds, the secular rebels, together with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Turkey, are all reduced to that simple equation with only two variables: the state and the rest of the country which is messy and dangerous.

So when a Foreign Policy commentary rebuts a People’s Daily op-ed for its double standard of accusing U.S. meddling while turning a blind eye to Iran’s deep intervention into that same country, it misses the key point: from a Chinese perspective, shoring up the “legitimate government” of Syria is in itself a politically justifiable thing, while supporting rebels is not.

Following the same logic, a Global Times editorial brings the argument to a new height of absurdity by openly musing about a hypothetical Chinese refugee crisis: “In the past century, most Chinese emigrants to the outside world were of economic nature. Large scale Chinese refugee outflow has almost never happened despite China’s internal turmoil in early 20th century. In the future if any unexpected developments were to occur, the external world would not allow large scale influx of Chinese refugees. This is not surprising, as an exodus of refugees from China would be in the millions or tens of millions. Western countries of course would not stomach that.” The editorial goes on to remind people what a big contribution China has made to “world humanitarianism” by reducing poverty and keeping peace domestically. “Only in a society enjoying a sustained period of peace can TV entertainment shows such as Voice become prosperous. The fact that they are the most talked about shows in today’s China is just awesome.”

It would be interesting to hear how a Syrian refugee at a European train station would respond to her personal tragedy being juxtaposed with a singing competition show as a way to justify a “stable” status quo that probably only exists in certain Chinese elites’ imagination.

More informed Chinese opinions do exist. Prominent Phoenix TV journalist Lvqiu Luwei points her readers to an article written by a researcher from one of China’s leading international relations think tank that provides a decently accurate summary of the current Syrian situation.  One commentator compares the refugee crisis with the annual influx of rural migrant workers into big Chinese cities and considers the current refugee situation in Europe to be much more manageable than many would perceive. He also cautions against the Islamophobic view that sees the refugees as potential extremists, arguing that those who fled from ISIS persecutions are less likely to be jihadist fellow-travelers, and could inject new labor forces into an aging Europe. But lacking the potency of domestic anxiety and imagination, such views are quickly buried by the moving dunes of online opinions that are eager to score points using someone else’s misfortune.

“Pakis-tie”: How Could Domestic Perception Undermine China’s Silk Road Initiative

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Discussions about China’s foreign aid program used to be dominated by a “foreign aid vs. domestic poverty” frame. The criticism that China prioritizes the “face” of its sovereign over the welfare of its poverty stricken people often dogs media reports about China’s largesse overseas. This line of questioning was so strong that top officials in charge of China’s foreign aid used to complain about the public’s bitter intransigence on this issue. The Chinese Political Compass, an online survey of Chinese netizens’ ideological leaning, also includes it as one of the 50 typical issues that polarize internet debates in China.

It is therefore noteworthy that such debates are largely absent around China’s high profile “One Belt, One Road” strategy formally unveiled this year, a grand plan to revive the ancient Silk Road connecting China’s prosperous east coast with Europe, with overland routes that go through Central Asia/South Asia (“the Silk Road Economic Belt”), and maritime routes that go through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean (“the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”). More specifically, President Xi Jinping’s recent delivery of a 46 billion USD aid package to Pakistan, a key country for the materialization of the strategy, almost completely dodged such questioning domestically. What happened?

It’s not that the criticism disappeared entirely. But even the occasional grumble is quickly shushed away by netizens who consider themselves more literate in economics. To be fair, the original criticism was indeed based on the public’s misconception about China’s large foreign exchange reserves. Many (mistakenly) believe that such an “asset” can be readily dispensed domestically to support much needed developments in the country’s poor landlocked regions.

But the ebb of this once intense debate cannot be easily explained away by a somewhat magic elevation of economic literacy levels in the population. Other factors are probably in play here, and one of them might just be how this administration chooses to frame the “One Belt, One Road” strategy in a fundamentally different manner.

Ever since President Xi first proposed the initiative during his tour of Central Asia and Southeast Asia in late 2013, it has been framed in terms of a grand visionary strategy. The intentional invocation of the Silk Road brings about an image of a world that is radically different from its current state, where large areas of Eurasia are haunted by poverty, religious fundamentalism and war. In that ancient world, the need for trade between Europe and China created prosperous trade hubs along a challenging route going across mountains and deserts. The trade of goods facilitated the exchange among cultures and civilizations, ushering in an era of great progress and creativity.

The framing of the initiative in such grand, visionary terms effectively transcends the somewhat petty debate about “who should the government give money to” and elevates the whole discussion to rumination about “China’s position in the world.” It has the effect of bypassing online demographics who are unable (or simply do not care) to engage in such a conversation. (Particularly noteworthy is that the liberal voices on the internet have been almost entirely silent on this issue so far.) And those who choose to engage, mostly elite media outlets and “geopolitical junkies”, have been very much focused on interpreting the grand strategic intentions behind the initiative, further reinforcing the narrative of a “brilliant geopolitical maneuver”.

Even though it manages to avoid an annoying line of domestic criticism, the rolling out of the strategy still faces other “public opinion traps” that are manifested by how Xi’s latest Pakistan visit has been received domestically. One of the traps is the sino-centric perspective that views the world as organized concentrically around China. As soon as China and Pakistan announced their relationship to be an “All Weather Strategic Partnership”, domestic commentators gleefully began to rank countries based on their relationship with China, with Pakistan at the unquestionable top (center) and Japan at the pitiful bottom (periphery). The word “Pakis-tie” (巴铁, “tie” as the Chinese pinyin for “iron”) starts to replace “Pakistan” even in the reporting by official media, an apparent reference to the President’s description of the relationship between the two countries as “iron brothers”. Reports from the People’s Daily website about Pakistani friendship towards China (e.g. primary school children calling the Chinese President by his nickname, Pakistani twitter flooded by China-loving contents) went to such a length that some claims became utterly dubious (e.g. the existence of a crime called “sabotaging Pak-China friendship” in Pakistan). Prominent online outlets explain to its audience why an “All Weather Strategic Partnership” is superior to partnerships that China forms with other countries: e.g. a mere “constructive strategic partnership” with the U.S., and a “strategic mutual benefit” relationship with Japan (not even a partner). Such a hierarchical ranking of nations based on their “friendliness” with China may easily be associated with the ancient tributary system where “barbarian” states were ranked based on their level of subjugation to the central kingdom. Actually, certain China observers proactively bring up the tributary system as a reference point.

The temptation to read China’s strategic intention in purely zero-sum terms may also prove problematic. The establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a key component of the Silk Road Economic Belt. It connects Kashgar in western China with the Pakistani port city of Gwadar on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Many Chinese commentators and media tend to emphasize its geopolitical benefit of allowing China to bypass the Strait of Malacca, which is currently China’s main maritime pathway to resources in the Middle East. But this so-called strategic benefit is largely based on a scenario wherein the the Strait is blockaded by a hostile military force (aka. the United States). This reading has provoked a rebuttal arguing that if such a scenario does occur (which amounts to a declaration of war against China), then maintaining a Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea will not give China much strategic advantage given the port’s own vulnerability. Another zero-sum reading of the initiative focuses on the rivalry between India and China, seeing India as an important chess piece of the United States’ strategic pivoting towards Asia. By investing in its “iron brotherhood” with Pakistan, China is basically vying with India (and United States) for political influence in South Asia. But this line of argument also readily overlooks the the potential for a China-Bangladesh-India corridor under the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.

The delicacy in China’s vision for a “community of shared destiny” in Asia is that while setting decisively against the U.S approach, it also painstakingly tries to transcend it. As laid out in Xi’s speech at the Boao Asian Forum this March, almost all the key elements of this vision are pitched against their perceived U.S. “counterpoints”. For instance, it emphasizes “an Asian way of respecting each other’s comfort level” (code for “I won’t throw Human Rights issues right at your face”), the respect for each country’s “social systems of its own choice” (code for ” I won’t impose ‘universal values’ on you.”), the upholding of multilateral consultation (as opposed to unilateral interventions) and a basis for security that ensures “security for all” (instead of “a security based on other’s insecurity”). Most importantly, all the initiatives under this vision, be it the “One Belt, One Road” or the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, are supposed to be non-exclusive. The risk is: such a delicacy can easily get lost in a familiar “turf war” narrative wherein China is simply grabbing its sphere of influence from what originally belongs to the U.S.

Many political elites in China firmly rejects the comparison of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative with the Marshall Plan, with all its Cold War connotations. Some of them have already started to worry about domestic “misinterpretations” that may only intensify outside suspicion of Chinese intentions, a precursor to hostility and rejection. Based on what has been triggered by Xi’s Pakistan visit, such a concern is not completely baseless.

The Lee Kuan Yew Complex

I’ve never been to Singapore. The closest “Singaporean experience” I can get is to visit Suzhou, a city two hours of car drive away from Shanghai. In 1994 China and Singapore signed an agreement to co-develop the Suzhou Industrial Park, a tiny area of 278 square kilometers (by Chinese standard) to be modeled on Singapore’s success with Singaporean support in both capital and expertise. It is probably pure coincidence that they picked Suzhou as the location of this experiment, wherein a young, small “Garden City” would teach an ancient Chinese city most famous for its stunningly exquisite gardens how to develop. Nowadays, if you visit the SIP and the old Suzhou city, you can vividly see the difference: the former is built out of fresh blueprints, with glittering skyscrapers, newly paved six-lane roads and well-trimmed roadside greenery; the latter is weathered, more chaotic, with congested old-town blocks still filled with traditional buildings of black roof tiles and white walls, and, of course, gardens listed as World Heritage sites. (Below, Left: old town Suzhou, Right: Suzhou Industrial Park)

Suzhou SIP

The (unintended) symbolism in the cooperation between Suzhou and Singapore: the old learning from the new, the master from the student, the cultured from the unsophisticated, is not without a bit of irony and has an intrinsic “un-Asianness” in it. Yet in some very mystic way it has become a motif in the China-Singapore relationship. Maybe the best example is Lee Kuan Yew’s now well-known exchange with Deng Xiaoping, who was twenty years older than Lee and much more experienced in political struggles. During their 1978 meeting, Lee assured Deng that he had absolute confidence in China’s ability to do a better job than Singapore. “After all”, he said, “we are only the descendants of those poor, illiterate drifters from southern China’s Canton and Fujian provinces, while you get to keep the successors of the most gifted and well-educated.” Those comments reportedly struck Deng silent. Upon his return to China, which was on the verge of ruin after a decade of Cultural Revolution, Deng called on the country to “learn from Singapore.”

This episode, together with Lee’s other encounters with “generations of the Chinese leadership”, is repeatedly referred to by Chinese commentators over the past week, when news of his death finally landed. All of a sudden, a nation is obsessed by the late former Prime Minister of Singapore, a phenomenon that has perplexed some. The Chinese public’s reaction to the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew which is disproportionate to the size of his country again illustrates that perpetual motif which I can only describe as “the Lee Kuan Yew complex”.

One component of that complex is probably just a misplaced sense of ethnic goodwill. Many people in China liberally associate the ethnic Han Chinese with China the country, no matter whether the upbringing of the former has anything to do with the latter. This sometimes leads to an uncalled-for embrace that may confuse its subjects. For example, the Chinese public greeted Gary Locke (a Chinese American) with such a high tide of enthusiasm when he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China in 2011 that both the Chinese media and he himself need to reaffirm publicly of his allegiance to the United States. If such show of emotions is just simple derivatives of the traditional filial piety that the Chinese expect from any of their extended “families”, then a sense of betrayal can emerge if that expectation is not met.

Vocal Chinese nationalists on the internet apparently cannot let go of Lee’s record of what they consider as “de-Chinesization”. One of them even names it as Lee’s “biggest sin against the Chinese ethnicity”, for he “used the force of the state to crush the people’s identification with the Chinese culture, and turned them towards Western cultures for their identity.” Other nationalists do not hold such an ethnocentric point of view, but they do not regard highly of Lee either. For them, his opportunistic approach towards communist China speaks to his foxy nature: “On the one hand, he took advantage of the Chinese market to advance the Singaporean economy, on the other hand, he urged Western powers to contain China.” These commentators believe that at least in terms of foreign policy China has nothing to learn from Singapore, as a “tiny city state can make a profit out of the chaos, how can a major power attach itself to others?”

But Lee Kuan Yew proves to be a conundrum for the Chinese nationalists, as his authoritarian rule of Singapore provides inspirations that are otherwise hard to resist. The People’s Daily’s WeChat account, for example, describes Lee’s crusade against media freedom, especially his handling of Western media reports, with a tone of envy. In the post titled “Why does the Western press not dare to criticize Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore,” the author maintains that China has a lot to learn from Lee’s intimidating way of handling media organizations.

Liberal-leaning Chinese netizens are more consistent with their comments about Lee. They tend to view Lee’s political legacy, especially its admiration by some Chinese leaders, with alarm and wariness. For them, Lee’s political legacy is far from set in stone as “the effectiveness of the current Singaporean system so far has been built on Lee’s authoritarian charisma, and the lack of corruption is more because of his self-restraint.” To discredit the assertion that Singapore’s success is a slap on the face of “Western values”, they circulate one of Lee’s famous quotes that “Singapore’s success is less about Confucius values but rather the result of the rule of law left by the British.” One prominent Chinese lawyer got so alarmed that he spoke allegorically of “our own Lee Kuan Yew at home.” His Weibo account was quickly rescinded after that. This looks like something that Lee Kuan Yew would have done.

So far the most balanced and nuanced account of Lee Kuan Yew’s political legacy in mainstream Chinese media is provided by Caijing Magazine. In his in-depth rundown of Lee’s career, commentator Ma Guochuan depicts Lee predominantly as a pragmatic politician not bound by any doctrines. In that, Lee found a “soul-mate” in Deng Xiaoping. And that is probably his biggest contribution to the opening up and reform of China after 1978: his pragmatism inspired and encouraged Deng to take on his ideologist rivals and ultimately take a utilitarian approach to China’s development. Ma did not turn a blind eye towards the downside of Lee’s authoritarian rule. He notes that PAP’s domination of Singapore politics is increasingly being challenged and that the new generation is getting more impatient with the slow pace of political reform. But most importantly, Ma’s account goes beyond the simplistic caricatures of the nationalists and liberals alike, and depicts Lee as having true insights about the challenges that China faces. His warning for a visiting Chinese leader that too much emphasis on patriotic values might actually undermine China’s strategic interest in maintaining a peaceful external environment and a stable internal environment sounds particularly relevant now.

The difficulty for the Chinese society to come to terms with a complicated figure like Lee Kuan Yew mirrors the same difficulty it has to make sense of China itself. For a long time, Lee’s Singapore serves as a reference point for a China that just opened its gate to the world. Deng’s pragmatic Singaporean vision is a core component of the “reform consensus” that has concentrated the country’s energy for three decades. Now that consensus is full of cracks, the energy is dissipating and the schizophrenia about Lee Kuan Yew is a sign of that. In this new round of soul-searching for renewed affirmation of its own course, China comes to the dying Lee Kuan Yew again, only with pickier eyes. Ditto to authoritarian ruthlessness. A more global cultural identity? No thanks.

The substances of Lee’s political wisdom no longer matters that much. What matters now is his stance as a staunch challenger of Western universalism and an advocate for the ill-defined “Asian values.” In his keynote speech at the annual Boao Asia Forum yesterday, President Xi paid tribute to Lee Kuan Yew for his contribution to “Asia’s peace and development.” But in a speech titled “Towards a Community of Common Destiny,” the President seems to have chosen to omit the fact that Lee’s recipe for peace in Asia has never been a so-called community of shared interests (let alone common destiny). It has always been the cool-headed check-and-balance of major powers.

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

Kokang

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.”