Flood Buffer

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For 60-year-old Li Ailian, life along that stretch of the Yangtze River is a gamble. Before this year’s monsoon hit, she decided to defy the odds and went along with her usual planting regiment of corn, soy bean and cotton in her tiny patch of land. If nothing had gone wrong, she would have earned about 20,000 RMB for the year, not too bad for a farmer like her. But a climate event that started in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean called El Nino messed with her dice this time. Her field got inundated before she could harvest her crops.

The village where Li lives is located in a “flood buffer zone” that is specifically designated to protect downstream urban centers like Wuhan. When water levels further down the Yangtze become too high, the authority would order the evacuation of entire villages in the zone before it blows up dikes to let in the flood, relieving the pressure on downstream lines of defense. The buffer has been there for as long as 4 decades. The constant threat of floods severely constrains economic developments in the region. No major developments requiring substantial capital investment would go into a place where being submerged is an annual possibility. It is one of the poorest corners of Hubei province, right in the middle of the Yangtze.

Amidst an outburst of national concern about one of the severest floods in decades, a story about vulnerable communities and their sacrifice is apt for a press that values social justice and pursues progressive improvement of governance. If it were 10 years ago, such reports would have filled the pages of those newly liberalized, progressive newspapers. But this time, the story is more of an exception than norm. By the time it emerged on Tencent’s in-depth news platform Prism, national attention on the flood had largely waned.

So what were people reading while massive downpour in early July was paralyzing towns and cities along the Yangtze? Pigs.

On Jul 4, a piece of news report about 6000 stranded pigs in an Anhui province farm suddenly became the focus of Internet sympathy. The picture of the pig farm owner crying in waist-deep water got more than viral on the Internet, it went live. The Anhui website that broke the news outdid its national competitors by bringing a full crew to the farm and live-streamed the scene through the web. It was a sensational success: at one point more than 20 million people linked in to watch how rescuers moved the pigs to a safer place. The phenomenon raised eyebrows all across the observers community. People lamented the pathetic fact that pigs got more attention than humans: at almost the same time, a People’s Daily Weibo post about 16 thousand people being dislocated by the flood received just over 700 retweets.

While conventional wisdom may place the blame on the shallow curiosity of the public, we can also advance a more daring thesis that the pigs have simply occupied a vacuum left by the absence of more dominating narratives that are supposed to guide and channel public sentiment.  

One such narrative, the authority-challenging, justice-pursuing, right-defending line of inquiry was subdued this time, but not by its usual counter-force, the nation-glorifying, unity-championing, Party-praising narrative that often trumps everything else at moments of crisis, through the state-controlled propaganda machinery. Ironically, the latter also found itself in an inhospitable environment in this episode of natural disaster. And curiously, the forces that tore it apart were not the usual suspects of liberal intellectuals.  

As soon as the flood situation in Hubei province got critical, the military was mobilized, as usual, to save the day. Pictures of the heroic PLA quickly began to spread through state media. These are usually good raw materials to erect the monument of national strength and determination. Yet pictures of soaking wet soldiers eating cold, mud-stained buns on the front line of flood fighting triggered a slightly different emotional response than its disseminators had intended: not a sense of awe and gratitude, but indignation. The online community most agitated by this picture turned out to be the most unlikely: military fans.

In terms of fan base, the online military/weaponry sub-culture is probably only outnumbered by the sports fan community, especially among young males. Their jaw-dropping erudition about all aspects of the armed forces can be read as an alarming sign of the militarization of the country’s young minds. But this time, the obsession with anything military turned around and became a source of frustration with the nation state. Opinion leaders in the online community openly questioned why in the 21st century, Chinese soldiers were still fed with cold buns in the field. One of them wrote a comprehensive analysis about how the national propaganda apparatus repeatedly brought embarrassment to the military due to a misguided urge to highlight the “suffering” of disaster relief efforts. “Our people need to see a well-equipped, highly-trained modern armed force.” 

To drive home their point, military fans even researched Russian military food service and showcased the impressive collection of ready-to-eat self-heating full meals available to Russian soldiers in battlefield. Feeling the heat, the Communist Youth League’s Weibo account tried to defend the practice, claiming that eating cold buns was the soldiers’ spontaneous response to an emergency situation, and that “buns were more delicious than pre-prepared meals full of preservatives”. The explanation was heavily ridiculed by the army’s online supporters, who saw the lame response as doing more damage than good.

If narratives run like rivers, their currents wind and swerve following the shape of the terrain. When their main arteries are clogged, the water linger and find other outlets. Pigs and military foods are the buffer zones of the flood of public opinion, as its massive torrents need a space to spread and stay after more consequential destinations are blocked from being pursued.

The debates over the Three Gorges Dam or the myth about magical century-old German sewer systems left in Tsingtao are other futile, distracting buffers that consume public attention and energy. Even though the intensive downpour happened in the lower stream areas unregulated by the dam, it does not stop people from tossing old insults at it, provoking the same old response from the dam’s defenders. And media had to spend serious time busting the groundless myth of the German sewers. 

Occasionally, the pool of trapped water cut off from its journey to the ocean carries an interesting tinge, a tinge from 1998. During the days when Wuhan was besieged by water, people circulated posts about the legendary flood that hit the same region 18 years ago, and how the leaders of that generation, President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, presided over a flood-fighting campaign that decided the life and death of tens of millions of people. Nothing in the posts was brand new information. Yet their appearance at the particular moment had subtle effects on the undercurrents that ran deep in the national psyche. 

There is this episode about Wen Jiabao’s decision not to blow up the dikes and harness the flood buffer areas upstream of Wuhan to reduce downstream risks of breach. As Vice Premier delegated with full authority to make such a decision on the spot (and urged to do so by subordinates), he had all the indicators in front of him (including a pre-designated water level by a State Council decree) pointing to opening the dike. However, his order was continued fortification of the dike at all cost, until water level finally started to drop. In the end, no breach happened downstream, and the 330 thousand people in the flood buffer zone were saved from death, losses and displacement.

In the WeChat post that described this episode in great detail, Wen was depicted as risking his political career for that consequential decision. No one would have blamed him if he opened up the dike and sacrificed the people in the buffer zone, as he had all the justification needed. Even if downstream defense still got compromised, he would have the cover of having exhausted options. But not doing it would put him in politically disastrous circumstances if flood did overcome the dikes of the lower Yangtze. For a Chinese Vice Premier, taking care of the marginal and vulnerable is an act of compassion elevated to historic altitudes. 

The complex, ambiguous undertones of such posts provide opening for multiple interpretations. By somehow linking the current situation with the 1998 campaign, which was preserved in the national memory largely as a monument of national unity and struggle untainted by the whines and ridicules nowadays, they introduce the positive elements of state strength and legitimacy into today’s discourse that is facing increasing difficulty of erecting that kind of narratives. On the other hand, highlighting the historical feat of a previous administration always invites comparison and contrast. And when public narratives about party leaders are infested by the frame of power struggle among cliques, boosting the legacy of one former leader often has the effect (intended or unintended) of jeopardizing, if not outright undermining, the stature of their successors.

Like the yearly monsoon of the mighty Yangtze, the din of argument, bicker and question about the flood will ultimately pass. Life in the flood buffer zones, literal and metaphorical, will have to continue. The Li Ailians will need to cope with a new landscape changed, once again, by something that is at once the source of life and its destruction. While spectators like us will need to tell if the winding waterways of a national story about flood is changed permanently or only temporarily by the clogs and breaches that redirects its currents.

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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.”