“In Danger”


On the morning of Nov 14, I woke up to the bloody massacre in Paris feeling blunted in my head. It’s terrible, it’s huge, it’s immense. But beyond that, there was very little I could say about what had happened there. A state of speechlessness descended upon me more or less like a cold: a part of your sensory capabilities is trapped in your own body by an external condition. It’s uncomfortable.

I spent hours swiping my telephone screen pointlessly, browsing Weibo posts one after another, most of which were about the terrorist act. It’s interesting how fast Chinese online discussion about the incident turned into a collective lamenting about the entire agenda of the European Left, ranging from its foreign policy (supporting Syrian Rebels against Assad), to its moral tendency (the limitation of “tolerance”), to its cultural norms (excessive political correctness). While these could be legitimate shortcomings of the Western liberal camp, it’s still amazing how a part of the Chinese society, which is in no way bound by the moral codes, the cultural taboos and the political constraints of the Western liberal-democracies, can be so worried about a “Europe turning Muslim.” Equally fascinating is how much of that discourse is imported through the Western ultra-right (even Zionist). Two articles that went viral on the Chinese cyberspace last week were translations/summaries of writings from pundits who openly lambast Muslims, one about the “demise of Europe” through population decline and welfare state, the other approvingly describing Japan as “a land without Muslim” by setting up all kinds of restrictions in its society, which is highly dubious. There seems to be an underlying craving for homogeneity manifested by the popularity of the second article, whose subject Japan is probably one of the most homogeneous societies in the world.

The propensity of Chinese online opinion to be carried away by misguided judgment prompts some influential figures on the Internet to openly declare a “shut-up”, claiming that they are not informed enough to comment on such a perplexing issue as the rise and spread of ISIS. There is also a part of me that resists the daunting task of doing a rundown of the clearly misinformed commentaries or the shoddy analyses provided by mainstream media outlets. So I turned to someone who I knew was intellectually more equipped than me to take on the Paris attack and terrorism in general.

Below is a solicited commentary written by my college friend Xymbolic, whose critical mind and erudition I have admired ever since we shared the traumatically cramped dorm room in Beijing fifteen years ago. The views expressed here are all his, but his call for a “planetary response” and a “cosmopolitan order” does invoke in me Philip Allot’s famous critique of the international order as “a glove turned inside out”. While the French Revolution got rid of kings for France, on the international level our world is still essentially ruled by the “princes” (sovereign) who do not respond to an “international society” the same way as they do to the societies within their own arbitrary boundaries. The very chaos of Syria today could be rooted in the fundamental inability of our “princes”, who get so accustomed to dealing only with other sovereigns, to relate to, negotiate with and be held accountable for a part of the human society that has been suffering too profoundly too long.


“In Danger”

by Xymbolic

Perhaps one of the most disturbing, albeit truthful, descriptions of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris is “not unexpected.” Actually, not only the recent attacks, but the Charlie Hebdo attacks, at the time it happened, was described in the same way by many. Though its cruelty is still shocking, and the loss deeply grieved; though the same feeling of powerlessness resulting from the inability to grasp the meaning, or total lack of meaning, of the event, still haunts the public, the strange undertone that the attacks had been somehow vaguely foreseen; and that by now such events even carry an eerie familiarity,  is definitely disconcerting.

November 1, 1975, almost exactly forty years ago, Pier Paolo Pasolini gave what turned out to be the last interview of his life.  During the interview, commenting on the murkiness of the situation of the struggle, Pasolini said: “We’re particularly pleased with conspiracies because they relieve us of the weight of having to deal with the truth head on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, while we’re here talking, someone in the basement were making plans to kill us? It’s easy, it’s simple, and it’s the resistance. We might lose a few friends, but then we’ll gather our forces and wipe them out.” However, when asked by the interviewer, Furio Colombo, to give a title for the interview, Pasolini said: “Here is the seed, the sense of everything. You don’t even know who, right at this moment, might be thinking of killing you. Use this as a title, if you like: ‘Because, we are all in danger.’” A couple of hours later, Pasolini was brutally murdered. The details of the murder, even the identity of the perpetrators of the crime, remain a mystery to this day.

Though it is not terrorism in today’s sense that he had in mind, we can still detect the similarity between Posolini’s “prediction of his own death” and the current situation. (Pasolini’s view that consumerism contaminates the working class with middle-class hedonism and thus stifles class struggle in the social life is clearly related to the discussion of the emergence of terrorism in its present form in the context of global capitalism, but we will leave this aside for the moment.) We are aware that we are indeed “in danger,” an impending, gigantic danger, which is at the same time extremely elusive and protean. Efforts at pinning down the source of the danger often deteriorate into various forms of conspiracy theories, e.g. the 9/11 truth movement, the ungrounded belief that Saddam Hussein was harboring al-Qaeda, or even the most banal version of racism and islamophobia from the average person in the street. Though ISIS is perceived to represent the biggest threat at the moment, it only rose to prominence less than two years ago, and it is impossible to tell when the next deadly reincarnation of terror will emerge. And even about this present archenemy, much less than adequate is known. The fact that Obama made the remarks that ISIS had been “contained” just hours before the Paris attacks took place, even if these remarks correctly describe the situation in general, indicates the imprecision and inadequacy of information. There seems to be no measure that can be taken to stop the lurking danger from leaping at the people. As Patrick Cockburn has commented: “Because the potential target is civilian populations as a whole, no amount of increased security checks or surveillance is going to be effective. The bomber will always get through.”

Subtly different from the widespread #jesuircharlie hashtag and the Republican marches in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, social media hashtags like #prayforparis and #porteouverte, and also the most prominent spectacle: the world’s landmark buildings lit with the French tricolor, all emanate an air less of outrage than of composure and courage. The impression is almost as if Paris had been struck by a catastrophic natural disaster. But maybe this is indeed how the terrorist attacks could be treated, i.e., as if they were natural disasters.

By no means am I saying that no one should be held responsible for this inhuman cruelty. What I am suggesting is that the inhuman feels inhuman and should be treated as inhuman. First of all, both terrorist attacks and natural disasters are absolutely meaningless in human terms. Oftentimes, when a terrorist attack happens, the perpetrators would release a message saying that the attack is meant to “teach a lesson” to the victims or their country. There is, however, no lesson to be learned from a terrorist attack, which is pure meaningless violence, just as Slavoj Žižek says when commenting on the Charlie Hebdo attacks: “We have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” To comprehend is a human intellectual activity. There is nothing human in inhuman violence. It is therefore incomprehensible, and there is in fact nothing to be comprehended in it. In fact, to assume the role of a spectator and attempt to extract or produce certain meaning from grisly scenes of both terrorist carnages and natural catastrophes is in itself obscenely presumptuous.

Perhaps the disconcerting sense of familiarity upon learning that a terrorist attack has happened is not so different from the way we feel when a natural disaster strikes. We experience terrorism much like the residents of an earthquake-prone area experience earthquakes: they are aware that earthquakes may strike any time, try they best to do precise predictions, take all cautionary measures, but are still unable to stop them from happening. Furthermore, terrorism seems to have evolved into a stage where it no longer has a face. (I would argue that this is the reason why the term “terrorism” has remained in use despite constant criticisms.) Even though our daily life is much more saturated with images than a decade ago, the image of Baghdadi is not as instantly recognizable to the average person as those of bin Laden or even Zarqawi, who were “the faces of terror.” However vague the term “terrorism” is, it conveys the feeling that it is an inhuman, nameless, shape-shifting force that constantly displays its horrendous forms in terrible manifestations. Derrida was right when he predicted that the way in which the 9/11 attack took place would one day appear outdated. When we now read news reports about how today’s terrorist groups recruit new members by lurking on the social media and corrupting those susceptible to their propaganda, we cannot help but somehow take the metaphor of terrorism as a contagious disease more seriously than we usually do with a common figure of speech. Thus, we are, as Pasolini has it, “in danger,” a danger that is very much like natural disasters, which we as humans confront equally, and in the face of which we are equally vulnerable.

Recognizing the inhuman, natural-disaster-like aspect of terrorism may provide insights into the necessity of international cooperation in response to terrorism. In a letter written the day after the attacks,  Judith Butler says: “…[P]ublic services are curtailed, and no demonstrations are allowed. Even the “rassemblements” (gatherings) to grieve the dead were technically illegal. I went to one at the Place de la Republique and the police would announce that everyone must disperse, and few people obeyed. That was for me a brief moment of hopefulness.” Such gatherings in defiance of the ban from the police, I believe, exemplify what Walter Benjamin refers to in Thesis 8 of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as the “real state of emergency.” Hollande’s declaration of the State of Emergency has been greeted largely with mistrust and scorns from the Left. “The State of Emergency has become a synonym for the government doing as it pleases,” writes Paul Alliès. Echoing Giorgio Agamben, he also points out “a violent paradox: the institutionalization of exceptional powers reduces the scope of public liberties even as it is justified by the need to defend those liberties. ” According to Agamben, Benjamin’s idea of “a real state of emergency” aims at breaking out of the Carl Schmitt’s rigorous constructed “state of emergency” which is an anomic space where law has been suspended, while the force of law remains effective, and which, according to Benjamin, has become the norm. The prolonged “War on Terror” since 9/11 has witnessed such a process where it is no longer possible to differentiate between laws and exceptions to laws enforced by the force of the law. As Alliès oberseves, the State of Emergency “is therefore less a democratic mobilisation of society as it is its demobilisation.” If, however, the violence of terrorism is perceived as akin to that of natural disasters, which poses an equal threat to the life of every individual as a living organism, then this is a violence coming from out of the state of emergency rigorously controlled by the sovereignty. It may not be what Benjamin calls a divine violence, but it is clearly a pure violence that human beings, provided that we want to guarantee our survival as a species, must give a planetary response. When responding to the crisis of 9/11, both Habermas and Derrida proposed that it was necessary to begin a transition from the framework of international laws still based on 19th-century nation-states to  “a cosmopolitan order.” Yet what we have seen since that time was exactly the opposite to this vision. International cooperation has become an oft-mentioned yet empty promise, and the space for such cooperation is torn up by sovereignties operating in their respective states of emergency. So maybe it was too optimistic to expect the international alliances of sovereignties to transition automatically into a cosmopolitan order. Maybe what we need is, like the gatherings Judith Butler has mentioned but probably on a grander scale, self-organized responses to inhuman terrorism by people whose very lives are in danger, which may render the state of emergency declared by sovereignties superfluous.

Though since the attacks took place, given the background of the Syrian refugee crisis, the discussion has been carried out largely within a framework of the relationship between the West and the Middle East. As the ensuing events have demonstrated, however, China will by no means be able to assume the role of the spectator in the current situation. The ideal scenario, however pale its imitation in the real world would turn out to be, is that China will be able to take part without superficially taking sides, i.e., without submitting to the dichotomy of Eurocentrism versus Anti-Eurocentrism, which, according to Derrida, has its possibilities already exhausted; and according to Žižek, is but a trap set by global capitalism to counter that which, in the legacy of the Enlightenment, is still powerful as a resistance, viz. egalitarianism, fundamental rights, freedom of the press, the welfare-state, etc., the values that may ultimately fulfill the promise of a cosmopolitan global order that protects us from inhuman danger.

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


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


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.”