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David Wertime

With North Korean Repatriation Possibly Ended, Chinese Netizens Relieved But Angry

She may now get her wish

With one policy shift, China’s government could save thousands of lives. On April 18, Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun quoted a Chinese provincial official who said China was ceasing its policy of repatriating North Koreans who have escaped life in their home’s brutal regime

As reported in Tea Leaf Nation, China’s netizens had reacted to the earlier policy of repatriation by denouncing it as “intentional murder” and alternately pleading and demanding their government end the practice. Of greater evident influence, however, was North Korea’s recent action to test-launch a satellite (and potential missile) without first informing the Chinese government. This follows earlier complaints, visible on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, that Kim Jong-Un had shown insufficient deference to China by, among other things, failing to visit the North’s greatest ally and benefactor immediately after rising to power. 

At long last?

A number of netizens expressed outright relief at the apparent move. “We can finally have a bit less guilt,” @浪漫骑士行吟诗人 opined. “This is a really good thing,” @桐杉桐杉 added. @猫尾巴骑士 asked, “Could it be that China’s government is going to become a bit more human?” while @努力今天 praised China for “integrating into the world mainstream.”

But @成成子文‘s comment better captured the prevailing ambivalence that combined relief with lingering resentment toward the Chinese government: “[The government] has finally admitted that the previous situation was inhumane. Disgusting.”

He's crying, on the inside

Explaining the anger

How could netizens be so displeased at what they agreed was a positive step? A large number felt that, in the oft-retweeted words of angel investor and frequent microblogger Charles Xue (@薛蛮子), “This should have been done sooner.” Xue continued, “Kim the 3rd’s perverse actions [have already made him] a common enemy to the world; repatriating North Korean escapees was like sending lambs into the mouth of a tiger. [It's time to] say NO! to Kim the 3rd’s regime.” {{Chinese}} [[Chinese]]早该如此,金三倒行逆施己是世界公敌,脱北者遣返就是送羊入虎口,向金三政权说NO! [[Chinese]]

Many commenters seized on the Chinese government’s motives, worrying that North Korean refugees were being used as a “bargaining chip” because, as @笨妞暴暴 wrote, “In fact fat Kim the 3rd (金三胖) has been increasingly ignoring China’s instructions.” @头条军事新闻小佐 tweeted, “China’s throwing a tantrum!” @开封府官差 seemed to embody such petulance, telling Kim Jong-Un: “You’re father’s dead, your real papa now is the Chinese government.”

@你妹的小窝 sighed, “It’s an old saying: In this world, there is no eternal friendship, only internal profit…in the political world, North Korea is just a game between China, the U.S., and South Korea.” @暮鼓晨钟RY seemed to agree, comparing the North to a “disobedient child” and China to a “master of the household” giving the child a warning. “Strategically, China needs North Korea as a buffer between South Korea and the U.S.”

What wonderful laws you have

One reason the situation smacks of realpolitik is the lack of philosophical justification for a policy reversal. In a press conference discussing news of the move [Chinese], one reporter asked about news of the reversal, then obliquely queried if there was a link between the reversal and North Korea’s recent missile launch. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin (刘为民) did not confirm or deny the reports, instead responding tersely that “China has consistently dealt with related questions according to domestic law, international law, and the principles of humanitarianism.” 

The Foreign Ministry (tries to) explain the situation

Netizens pounced on Liu’s answer. “What’s strange,” @梁湖钓叟 wrote, “is how the same matter can be dealt with two opposite ways and it’s all according to…law.” @何处风雨 sneered, “Sending you back is according to domestic law, not sending you back is also according to domestic law; our laws are really good laws!” @李堂刚 argued that Chinese officials act as they feel proper; the rest is just “word games.”

We contain multitudes

Whatever China’s intent, it’s clear that a halt to repatriation is, or at least could be, a wake up call to a North Korean regime that is widely reviled among Chinese netizens. Many echoed Charles Xue’s “NO!” to Kim the 3rd. @活不明白wy thundered, “China needs to wake up and not move back and forth on the North Korean question. It needs to see the situation clearly…and draw a clear line with Kim with no illusions about the ‘fat 3rd.’ North Korea will inevitably, inevitably collapse, and little Hu and little Wen [referring to President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao] will be buried with it. So foolish!”

Of course, a less cynical reading of events is available. It is possible that many in China’s government wish to be responsive to the will of the people, which, if Weibo chatter is any indication, has tilted overwhelmingly against the repatriation policy. It is also conceivable that many in government feel the previous policy was morally wrong and needed to be reversed. In either case, those voices may have been agitating internally for such a move, with North Korea’s recent aloofness providing the argument they needed to win over hard-liners. Most Chinese netizens, however, did not seem to consider this possibility.

Intent being impossible to divine, the most important question now is whether China’s government will not only firmly and consistently halt repatriation, but continue doing so. @正品A-bike expressed a mixture of hope and wariness, writing, “I hope the halt to repatriation is turning over a new leaf and correcting what needs correction, and was not a last-minute coercive [move].”

These hopes are surely shared widely. If the policy is merely a temporary gambit, the government’s tattered reputation for consistency won’t be the only thing in deep peril.

[Correction: A previous version of this article said that China's Foreign Ministry had announced the policy reversal. In fact, the Foreign Ministry discussed the issue without making an official announcement, or officially confirming or denying the shift. We're sorry for the error.]

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
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  • Confucius

    China’s Foreign Ministry has made no such announcement. The Yomiuri story originated from provincial officials in Liaoning and Jilin.

    • David Wertime

      Hi Confucius, you’re absolutely right about that. We’ve just published a corrected version which hopefully makes this nuance clearer. Sorry for the error. Thanks for your feedback, and hope you keep reading!

  • Confucius

    China’s Foreign Ministry has made no such announcement. The Yomiuri story originated from provincial officials in Liaoning and Jilin.

    • David Wertime

      Hi Confucius, you’re absolutely right about that. We’ve just published a corrected version which hopefully makes this nuance clearer. Sorry for the error. Thanks for your feedback, and hope you keep reading!

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