August 2017


Perspectives: The Month Through China’s Eyes

Chinese media coverage this past month was focused on international issues, with Chinese op-ed pages focusing most on the issue directly impacting the country itself, such as the border stand-off in Doklam with India.  However, there was also significant commentary on the protests in Charlottesville and the collision of a US guided missile destroyer with a shipping vessel near the straits of Malacca.

The collision of the guided-missile destroyer USS McCain with a slow-moving merchant vessel near Singapore in August left 10 US servicemen dead and drew considerable media attention, particularly in China.  An early op-ed in the nationalist Global Times reported that: “On China’s Internet sphere, there is applause from Chinese netizens about the latest accident. This reflects the sentiment of Chinese society toward the activities of the US Navy in the South China Sea,” (without providing any evidence of such applause or sentiment).  The article was the first to cast the event in a narrative of imperial overreach and arrogance on the US’ part, an argument that was subsequently made by virtually every following article in the Chinese press: “US warships are constantly involved in accidents around the South China Sea. On the one hand, the US Navy has behaved arrogantly in the Asia-Pacific region. It lacks respect for huge merchant ships and fails to take evasive action in time, thus resulting in serious accidents. On the other hand, US warships patrol too frequently in the Asia-Pacific. The frequent collisions of US warships with merchant vessels offer a warning to the Americans that they should restrain themselves.”

China Daily took a somewhat more humanitarian view towards US service personnel but reached a similar conclusion about US actions and intentions: “[With 17 personnel lost this year] what the US claims to be “freedom of navigation” operations for peaceful purposes have become far more dangerous for the US military than fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US should rethink its “freedom of navigation” policy for the safety of its military personnel, if not for anything else.”  The article picked up on the theme of US Navy overreach and the dangers it was presenting to the international community: “Instead of defending the so-called freedom of navigation, US naval vessels sailing in the South China Sea have become moving threats to other ships. And their frequent and unannounced presence in the waters should make the international community realize it is the US Navy that is militarizing the waters.”

The People’s Daily also concluded that the US Navy was a threat to regional security: “The US Navy only has itself to blame for the string of tragedies. From the “sex-for-secrets” scandal to a pair of deadly collisions involving two warships, the US Navy is facing a range of problems. In addition to being a force stretched too thin, the US Navy is suffering with fraud and corruption, lax discipline, and bad training. With four serious accidents in less than a year, it should be no surprise that the world is starting to see the US Navy more as a threat to than a protector of maritime security.” The article also picked up on reports that the US investigation into the crash would be probing whether navigation systems on the warship had been comprised by cyberattack – obviously assuming that any attack would be painted to have come from China: “Despite evidence of US military overreach and incompetence, some have tried to hijack the tragedy to paint China as a malicious actor and further their anti-China agenda…The problem is not China’s growing sea power and cyber sophistication, but the US desire to maintain its military dominance in all corners of the world. But the major incidents involving advanced warships have left many wondering how the US can project god-like military power when the US Navy steams around in the Pacific like a headless chicken, crashing into commercial ships?”


Indian Border Dispute

Chinese media in general focused on the actions and occurrences during the border stand-off. With little analysis of the historical context or background, the validity of China’s sovereignty and India aggression into its territory was simply assumed to be a given.  The Global Times was full of its usual ‘fire and fury’ in a black and white narrative of Chinese restraint: “We believe that the PLA has made sufficient preparation for military confrontation. It is a war with an obvious result…If a war spreads, the PLA is perfectly capable of annihilating all Indian troops in the border region. So why hasn’t the PLA started? China cherishes the decade-long peace on the border and wishes not to break it. We want to give peace a chance and allow India to recognize the grave consequences.”  China’s restraint in most Chinese media reports was juxtaposed to and made more remarkable by India’s own supposed perfidy: “The Modi government’s hardline stance is sustained by neither laws nor strength. This administration is recklessly breaking international norms and jeopardizing India’s national pride and peaceful development. Its move is irresponsible to regional security and is gambling against India’s destiny and its people’s well-being…China has exercised great restraint, demonstrating respect to peace and human life. The PLA did not strike in the past month when Indian troops savagely trespassed into Chinese territory. If the Modi government takes China’s goodwill for weakness, its recklessness will only lead to devastation.

The Global Times also took aim at the cover of an Indian news magazine, India Today, which featured an illustration of the map of China looking like a chicken, which excludes Tibet and Taiwan, and a map of Pakistan below, which looks like its chick.[1] The paper wrote that: “Such hysterical geopolitical imagination is nothing new. What is new, however, is the erroneous exclusion of Tibet and Taiwan from Chinese territory. India Today is believed to be one of the most serious media outlets in the country, but the magazine presents to the world an image of a loser,” with the last phrase appearing to be a bit of trans-Pacific cultural appropriation. The article goes on equate the media with India’s elites, implying that they are to blame for a crisis that is not in the interests of the common man (who by implication are more closely aligned to China views): A country’s mainstream media usually reflects the level of its elite, but India Today puts the Indian elite in disgrace. It is said that there are two Indias. One is folk India, which has one of highest rates of illiteracy in the world. The other is elite India, a group of supposedly high standards. But India Today makes us realize that the country’s elite behave like clods. They are shallow and arrogant as they have always placed themselves above ordinary Indians.”

China Daily carried one of many stories that portrayed India as a hegemonic neighbourhood bully given its close security partnership with Bhutan, whose own disputed territory with China abuts the scene of the recent India-China stand-off: “One of the excuses India has given for its troops crossing the long-delimited border is that Donglang is a territory contested by China and Bhutan, and it is standing up for its small ally against what it claims is China’s bullying of Bhutan.”  The article pointed to India’s hegemonic ambitions, combined with its own weakness as the primary motivations for its actions: “The adventurous trespassing by India can be attributed to its sense of insecurity given the friendly relations between China and Pakistan, but such concerns do not justify its rising chauvinism, which means it sees its small neighbor Bhutan as a vassal state rather than a sovereign and independent nation.”

People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CPC, carried the only article that sought to defuse the stand-off, emphasising points of overlap and partnership between the two parties as a roadmap for de-escalation: “The military border standoff between China and India in the Dong Lang area (Doklam) reveals India’s geopolitical ambitions and motivation to use “protecting Bhutan” as an excuse for its own superpower dream.  Fortunately, the two countries can and need to cooperate in many areas…China and India do not need to see each other as rivals for leadership in Asia. There is always the strategic dimension to relations, but emphasis should be placed on strengthening cooperation. For example, China and the Philippines are working out their differences on the South China Sea issue, and China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) endorsed a framework for a maritime code of conduct, an important step to ease tension in the strategic waterway. This shows that conflict is not inevitable. Steps can be taken to lower tensions and peacefully resolve differences, and India should follow suit.”  And while the article may have extended the Chinese media’s only carrot, it also raised the spectre of the potentially much larger stick: “But China has made it clear that its patience is wearing thin and is not endless…Given the high stakes and the importance of good relations with China, the best strategy for India is to stop playing geopolitical games and turn its attention to finding ways to prevent future conflict between two growing neighbors.”

Charlottesville Riots

Finally, Chinese media weighed in on the events in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist rally turned violent amid counter-protests, leading to the death of one person, with President Trump stirring significant controversy over his subsequent commentary on the events.  The Chinese media narrative in general criticised Trump’s actions but sought to draw out the deep and systemic nature of racism and social conflicts in America.  For example, China Daily neatly summed up the facts to conclude what it saw as Trump’s accountability: “US President Donald Trump has something to do with the rise of white supremacists. The white conservatism and anti-immigration stance he propounded during his campaign trail are but a form of white supremacy. As US president, too, his policies, such as banning Muslims from some countries from entering the US reflect white nationalistic beliefs. Worse, instead of condemning the white supremacists for the Charlottesville violence, Trump at first blamed “all sides”, before continuing to point to the larger societal issues that precluded his actions: “The Charlottesville riots indicate the US never enjoyed complete racial harmony. Systemic, comprehensive and persistent racial discrimination, which can be attributed to white supremacy, is at the root of the racial tensions in the US.”

In a follow up article titled Racism Rooted in US Culture, China Daily expounded on the latter theme: “Neo-Nazi groups, which are strictly banned in Europe, now openly roam the streets in the US. They also have allies in other fields that usually air their views on the internet to propagate white nationalism. What’s more disturbing is that many people sitting in front of TV sets at home also seemed to support the white supremacists. Such people felt depressed when Barack Obama became president and hope the US continues the tradition of white-dominated politics.”  The article actually appears to back-track on Trump’s role and responsibilities, stating that the issue would be beyond his ability to resolve (should he try): “But Trump alone is not to blame for the reemergence of white supremacists in the US…Trump, thanks to his political and social policies, may have helped the white supremacists become more aggressive, but it is beyond his capacity to resolve the racial conflicts once and for all. The cause of racism is rooted in the culture, not in any US president.”

Finally the Global Times took the largest step back and placed the events (and white nationalism in particular) in the context of America’s social and economic development:  “Fundamentally, America’s social and economic development hasn’t benefited the majority of Americans, in particular those whites that live in forgotten areas and are poorly educated. These whites have little say in political affairs and are having an identity crisis. When they find some policies unfair, they tend to resort to extreme means to protect their interests. The unrest in Charlottesville and Ferguson is the harvest of long-sowed hatred.” The article is pessimistic about America’s ability to solve its issues and points to Trump’s campaign promise to “Make America great again” as being a pipe dream: “America’s political and social issues are so severe that they have impeded the government’s operation and undermined its creditability. A solution must be found. However, given the grim reality, there are good reasons to believe the disorder shown in Charlottesville riots will last, and similar unrest and violence may come up again. It’s a daunting task to fix the social divide in the US. Trump’s presidency is neither a panacea nor a root cause for the problems. “Make America great again” is likely to be a remote dream.”

[1] The story’s headline was: “China’s New Chick,” with a subtitle to the headline declaring: “How China is buying out Pakistan with massive new investments and why India needs to worry.”






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