There’s no love lost between China and its American-allied neighbor, the Philippines. The two have been at odds for a month since tensions arose in the reputedly oil-rich Scarborough Shoal (in Chinese, the Huangyan Islands, or 黄岩岛) on April 8, when Chinese vessels blocked a Philippine warship from arresting Chinese fishing boats near the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Even before this latest incident, Chinese netizens were incensed in 2010 after Philippine police completely botched a raid intended to free hostages on a Hong Kong tour bus in Manila, leading to eight Chinese casualties.
The Philippines belongs to who, again?
In recent days, matters have gotten worse. Just yesterday, CCTV host He Jia (@cctv和佳) was compelled to apologize on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, for her “slip of the tongue” after saying on air that the Philippines itself (as opposed to the Scarborough Shoal) was “an intrinsic part of China’s territory.” “A mistake happened that absolutely should not have happened,” a very contrite Ms. He wrote. “Every minute and every second the responsibility of a broadcast host is extremely heavy, and from now on I will redouble my efforts and be more conscientious.”
The near-groveling tone of Ms. He’s apology suggested it was ordered by authorities wary of further stirring up angry sentiment toward China’s neighbor, sentiment which could turn against China’s government should it fail to act. If that is the case, they were right to worry. Commenting by the thousands, netizens made clear they felt no apology was necessary, instead expressing wide support for Ms. He’s “mistake.” @帅翼柏 wrote, “Everyone supports you, whichever non-patriotic leaders punish you should prepare to suffer a netizen crusade.” @消极等待 added, “your slip of the tongue stated many people’s heartfelt wishes.” “Don’t apologize,” @杂牌史军 exhorted, “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) needs you!”
No love for the Foreign Ministry
Indeed, China’s MFA has not exactly won the hearts of netizens. MFA spokesperson Hong Lei said at a recent press conference (Chinese) that “China has undisputed sovereign claim to the Yuangyan Islands [i.e. the Scarborough Shoal]. No matter what the Philippines says or does, it still cannot change this fact. It would be strange indeed to submit the sovereign territory of a country to arbitration [as some have suggested]!”
But this talk was not nearly tough enough for most commenters, many of whom responded angrily (if also hilariously). @商报阿甘 echoed a common trope: “This must be the most patient ministry in history…[Let's say] someone runs into your house and sleeps with your wife. You can say: ‘No matter what she says, or does, it still does not change the fact that so-and-so is my wife.” @我是有文化有素质不耍流氓的流氓 wrote, “‘No matter what…still…’ is a structure everyone learns in elementary school.”
Vice Foreign Minister Wu Ying’s recent warning that China was prepared to respond to “any escalation” seems to have garnered a more positive online response, but it alone may not be enough to placate the blogosphere. @小城bye邓丽君 complained that peaceful responses have “led to more and more disputed islands.”
Netizens to government: Harden up
Other commenters wrapped themselves in the flag. Their nationalist statements might normally compel one to doubt whether they were in fact government-sponsored “fifty-cent” posters. But they directed such vitriol at their leaders that one can only assume they were sincere (and unpaid), calling them “incapable,” impotent,” and “cowardly.” Most felt that the MFA was simply paying lip service to the problem, hoping it somehow went away. “Go ahead, delay,” @我爱在黄昏 wrote, “and pass the hot potato to [presumptive next leader] Xi [Jinping].”
Indeed, many netizens accused government officials of being too busy jockeying for internal position to attend to China’s national security. This is a stinging charge. Many Chinese believe that internal instability during World War II–when the Communists and Nationalists were still vying for control of China–rendered their country vulnerable to Japanese invasion and occupation. “The history of humiliation continues,” wrote @背影2003. @厉小帅 added, “If the transfer of power delays and prevents a government from defending its own sovereign territory, [everyone] should just ‘leave the stage [下台],’” slang for being booted from office. “The elders are all busy jockeying for position,” @杜雷思 observed, “so who is going to manage this little matter.”
It also doesn’t help that China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie is currently out of town, visiting the Pentagon. Although he may be busy complaining (half-heartedly) about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, that means he is not in situ and ready to manage a conflict should one arise, or should public opinion require it. Netizens were keen to this fact too. “No rush,” @特里_LY wrote sarcastically, “wait until Secretary Liang returns from visiting the U.S. and we can discuss later.”
The Philippines may indeed sense an opening. One Philippine expert seems to have made matters in the blogosphere worse by observing in a recent article what is likely true: China “does not dare to send troops to the South China Sea,” not only because China’s nearest base is over 1,000 nautical miles away from the would-be conflict zone, but because China is currently undergoing “a very delicate period with the change of government.” China, he predicted, would fold if the Philippines maintained a resolute stance (Chinese).
So how far will tensions truly escalate? Does war truly lie on the horizon? Netizens hazarded widely differing guesses. @胡老丫儿 wrote confidently, “It’s 99% likely [China] won’t strike.” Two minutes later, @十年一斗米 wrote just as confidently, “[They've] gone for the face, it’s not possible not to strike.” @老啄阿东 argued that 80% of Chinese citizens supported military action against the Philippines, and “as the party in power, the Communist Party…will definitely strike [given] this…public support.”
Predicting the future, of course, is a loser’s game, even if we at TLN are reasonably skilled at it. It’s clear what would transpire if netizens had their way. But China’s government likely views itself as needing to manage internal public opinion, showing enough resolve to forfend charges of being soft or inattentive, but enough flexibility to stave off an armed conflict at a fragile time. One can only hope they act for the long-term peace of the region, and not simply to jump out of friendly fire’s way.