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David Wertime

After Chinese Fishermen’s Ransom-less Release, Ties With North Korea Fraying

Waiting, waiting to go home

We’ll start with the (very) good news. Twenty nine innocent Chinese fisherman, by all accounts essentially kidnapped for ransom by North Koreans while working in Chinese territorial waters approximately two weeks ago, have been released, arriving safely in a port in the city of Dalian.

And China didn’t pay anything to get the fishermen back–at least not so far. As reported today on Phoenix Television, after starting at 1.2 million RMB (about US$180,000) and reportedly fluctuating upward in recent days, the ransom for the fishermen (technically, for the boats) was finally lowered to 900,000 RMB. But even that amount has not been paid, although the specific circumstances surrounding the fishermen’s release await further details.

While tragedy and potential diplomatic crisis have apparently been averted, the days-long uncertainty surrounding the fishermen’s fate and condition gave netizens ample time to broadcast their feelings. Chatter on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, makes a few trends apparent. It may not be what the North Korean regime wants to hear.

1. China and North Korea have completely grown apart

Distaste is hard to quantify. But China, or at least the vast majority of Chinese netizens, may actually dislike Kim Jong-Un’s regime even more than most others around the world. While North Korea’s toxic cocktail of incompetence, opportunism and outright evil is an abstraction for many countries, China has to deal with the North’s antics every day. Yet, as North Korea’s apparent disrespect for China grows, the country continues to give the North aid. No wonder @永远第一书记 wrote, “In fact China is a vassal state of North Korea’s, giving billions in tribute every year.”

It may thus be old news that North Korea has virtually no defenders in China’s blogosphere–not, anyway, while netizen commenters are tripping over themselves to see who can make the most memorable fun of North Korea. (You can calm down, netizens–Tea Leaf Nation chose a winner weeks ago.)

More significant, however, is netizen language which now views North Korea as a de facto enemy. @深圳老崔 did not see a distinction between North Korea, Japan and the Philippines (two long-time rivals of the Middle Kingdom). He wrote, “Japan occupies the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, the Philippines occupies the Scarborough Shoal (Huanyan Dao); North Korea sees this and says ‘damn, we don’t have an island, forget it, just kidnap a few fishermen.’” Later he asked, “Where did the spirit from the ‘Help Korea, Oppose America’ [war] go?” No wonder @杨佩昌 decided, “It’s time for us to say goodbye to North Korea.”

@章立凡 agreed, and felt it was time to mobilize the troops (or at least the redbacks): “This time it’s different from the past, it’s completely the awful result of policies of appeasement. If the government wanted to deploy troops, or money, it certainly would not be unable.” @姚波-风过无痕 put it simply, “This is a terrorist country.”

2. When dealing with the rogue state, China’s government must placate its own nationalists 

It’s no secret to longtime China analysts that the government fears domestic blowback from crises like these. As Kaiser Kuo wrote ten years ago in Time, “The Party has had to squelch spontaneous expressions of nationalism when they do not serve state interests.” Weibo provides a near-ideal platform for netizens to express whatever nationalism they may be feeling at the time to hundreds of millions of potential viewers.

Enjoying China’s largesse, while it lasts

It’s small wonder, then, that once netizens have identified a popular punching bag, they rush to see who can land the strongest blows. With the escape of Chen Guangcheng and conflicts in the Philippines and now the Bohai bay, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has made an especially juicy target. Among the popular anti-MFA tweets came from @作业本: “The MFA is really [tough], a week passes. And the MFA is. Still. Investigating. The. Situation.”

Netizen @飘过蓝天的浮云 scolded, “China is really weak, so weak we have to tiptoe around the North Korean Kim family. Given that the MFA is hesitating, this time, for our brothers and compatriots, for these suffering fishermen, we need to unite our voices in opposition! Please re-tweet!” It has been re-tweeted over 2,500 times.

3. Netizens see Sino-North Korean relations as further evidence their government is indifferent to non-elites 

In many netizens’ eyes, if North Korea’s government is incompetent and evil, it partly gets away with it because China’s government is incompetent and indifferent. @小康就好 went to the heart of many complaints, writing: “The celestial dynasty [slang for China's government] never puts the interests of the grassroots citizens at number one.” In one widely-discussed tweet, @深圳老崔 wrote, “Regardless of whether the Philippine and North Korean messes are real or fake, [stop] acting like you’re some big responsible power. You don’t care whether a group of we ‘fartizans’ [屁民, slang for "ignored citizens"] are lost.”

The caption above says that captives spent 13 days sleeping and eating in these 4 sq meter rooms

Engineer @百岛吕某人 did not help the government’s reputation for indifference when, in a tweet titled “Begging everyone to re-tweet,” he wrote: “The local government sent the mayor to comfort us for awhile, then he left. The North Korean side said it wanted 800,000 RMB to let us go, but we said we didn’t have money.”

Not only did the fishermen and their families not have the money, they likely had nothing close to the amount required to placate their captors. To a cash-desperate North Korean, the average Chinese person lives quite richly. But from the Chinese side, the ransom demand threw a spotlight on China’s sharp division between rich and poor. Changing accounts of just how much money the captors were requesting (is it 1.2 million RMB? 2.7 million RMB?) kept the cash question at front and center.

In response, netizens fed up with the government tried to turn Weibo into a sort of Kickstarter.com for kidnapping victims. While @章立凡 vowed “not to pay a cent,”  @Rick郭 argued that “monetary assistance would be in order to save the lives of these compatriots.” It was an impressive display, or at least bluff, of Chinese solidarity, but it stemmed from mistrust of government generally.

@马陌上Q called for commenters to “stand up and call for everyone to chip in for the 1.2 million RMB to pay the ransom and bring our compatriots home! As one of the few governments in the world without an army [sic], I trust that our government has no other way than to pay the ransom. Instead of letting the government surreptitiously stuff cash into North Korean hands (no doubt incurring many middleman fees in the process), it’s better for taxpayers to be open–and pay directly!”

It turns out that wasn’t necessary. Whatever as-yet unrevealed backchannel communications the Chinese government used, they appear to have worked this time, and at no major financial cost. But Phoenix Television has reported the fishermen have expressed fear at going near North Korean waters again. If such fear continues to spread, it may hurt China’s reputation and bottom line in a way that one day invites a less patient response from North Korea’s big brother next door.

[Thanks to Tea Leaf Nation writer Xiaoying Zhou for contributing research.]

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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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  • Guest

    Traditionally, vassal states paying tribute to China—Joseon in particular—would earn a tangible net profit in exchanged gifts. So the statement of China being North Korea’s vassal is unnecessarily reversed.

  • Guest

    Traditionally, vassal states paying tribute to China—Joseon in particular—would earn a tangible net profit in exchanged gifts. So the statement of China being North Korea’s vassal is unnecessarily reversed.