“Wanted: Evildoer, drug lord, arms trafficker, may be wearing ladies’ makeup to avoid detection. If you spot him, you should immediately report it to the American FBI.”
Criminal lawyer Gan Yuanchun’s February 12 announcement on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, accompanied by photoshopped images showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un with eyeshadow, lipstick, and various colored wigs, was obviously tongue-in-cheek. But in the aftermath of North Korea’s widely panned decision to conduct a third nuclear test last Tuesday, the post was representative of the type of online reaction that would follow throughout the week: bawdy, creative, and utterly disdainful of a northern neighbor that Chinese Web users now appear to view more as a criminal enterprise than as a country.
We’ve seen this movie before
Animosity toward North Korea has long simmered among Chinese grassroots Internet users. In May, 2012, North Korea authorities captured a Chinese fishing boat and held the fishermen on it for ransom. As Tea Leaf Nation reported then, it was evident even then that China and North Korea had completely grown apart, with online language painting North Korea as a rogue vassal state and “de facto enemy.”
Over the past several days, that online anger has intensified in both severity and volume. A recent search for the term “North Korea” found over 39 million recent mentions on Weibo. Meanwhile, images mocking Kim Jong-Un briefly saturated the Chinese blogosphere. One (shown above) satirized Kim as the pudgy lead character of the movie “Up.” Another showed a nuclear mushroom cloud in the shape of a middle finger.
Online rhetoric was perhaps even more damning. A reporter named Liu Xiangnan asked, “Let’s say Korea and the U.S. had another war, which side would you choose? Would you still exhort everyone to cross the Yalu River [separating China and North Korea] to ‘resist the Americans, assist the Koreans, defend the nation?’” Some users continued to view the United States as a bigger threat. @胖子冯中杰 took implicit aim at the U.S. by posting a picture of Kim Jong-Un next to one of U.S. President Obama, writing, “How evil is North Korean really? North Korea has invaded…Vietnam…Afghanistan…Iraq…Libya. North Korea bombed the Chinese embassy, struck a Chinese plane, sold arms to Taiwan, helped the Japanese seize the Diaoyu islands, supported every destruction of Chinese power, supported Tibetan independence, supported Xinjiang independence.”
A clear and present danger?
But most commenters seemed to regard North Korea as a clear and present danger to Chinese interests. Many called for an end to North Korean drug trafficking. In a widely-shared post, a lawyer named Chi Susheng wrote, “There are actually some people who still don’t admit to the iron-clad fact that the Kim dynasty is making and selling drugs, not to mention those who don’t understand the depth of harm that North Korean drugs have had, particularly on China’s three northern provinces [of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning]! So many families have been scattered and broken because of this, with many sentenced to death in just the past few years. [Meanwhile] we continue to needlessly send rice to North Korea [while] they send us drugs. Can those who understand the truth please retweet.” Another lawyer named Wan Wenzhi wrote, “Kim III has willfully sent ‘ice’ [a type of amphetamine] into China, harming the northern three provinces. North Korea has already become the third big foreign exporter of drugs into China along with the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent.”
Others expressed concerns about the environmental fallout of the latest test. In the number one trending tweet the day after the test, sociologist Ma Yong asked, “Why can’t China’s environmental bureau show a bit of concern, and go to the China-North Korean border to test the pollution situation?” When the Ministry of Environmental Protection stated that the fallout would blow to North Korea’s southeast and “does not threaten the health of the Chinese people,” users like writer Yu Shenghai skeptically responded that they hoped the Ministry was right, and “should not hide the truth from us just to look good.”
(Mis)managing the message
Indeed, so often happens, Chinese citizens’ perception of foreign aggression began to turn back against the Chinese government itself for failing to take sufficient protective or retaliatory action. Many worried China had fallen into a pattern of inaction or even appeasement. One user wrote, “TV told us that North Korea would not have a nuclear test; the result was a detonation. Experts immediately said, North Korea would not have a second test; the result was a detonation. Experts then said right away, North Korea would absolutely not have a third test; the result was that North Korea broadcast its intention to have a third test. Experts opened their mouths to say that even with a test there would be no pollution…I just heard that China was safe, and I quickly began to cry, are these people experts or ravens?”
Official efforts to calm citizen ire appear to have misfired. When the vice president of a prominent government-affiliated think tank went on China Central Television to argue that “China has spent a lot of effort to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula: for example, holding the six-party talks, providing the space for free, providing free coffee and other beverages,” the mocked refrain quickly became a viral meme. User @热门头条 posted an image comparing Chinese government responses from 2006, 2009, and 2013, writing, “North Korea conducts its third nuclear test, China issues its third statement; the similarities between the words are 99.99%.” @杨锦麟 wrote, “This is the true foreign enemy force, this is the greatest threat to China’s national security… A government that really took responsibility for its country and people would absolutely not tolerate this kind of thing happening, it would act preemptively and worry about the [cleanup] later. On this kind of issue, any hesitation is a crime!” Another started a hashtag, “#China needs to wake up.”
North Korea against the world
Some commenters felt that government inaction on North Korea was harmful not only to Chinese people, but to people everywhere. User @直言文化-陋习屌丝团 put it this way: “How does North Korea threaten the world? Answer: 1) It’s provided a standard template the world over for how to found a dictatorship, carry out highly repressive internal governance, and limit people’s thoughts and freedoms; 2) A spirit of disrespect for agreements, doing as you please, and making a business of drugs, nuclear weapons, and other inhuman things has progressively spread; 3) It’s established an illusion of warriors struggling against the U.S., misleading young people into mistakenly [wanting to] participate in international conflict, ultimately leading to a narrow theory that victory is all that matters, regardless of the means.”
Exasperation with Chinese authorities was not limited to the social web. Liberal columnist Zhao Chu (@赵楚) penned a widely-shared column for the Wall Street Journal’s Chinese language site in which he wrote, “It is unbelievable that nations the world over have sat idly by while small neighboring countries walk the road of nuclear armament. North Korea already declared the six-party talks dead back in 2009 when it tested a nuclear weapon, yet China has continued willingly to sit by as it loses control of the peninsula.”
Others felt that China had already lost control. User @李冰冰 posted a variation of a joke well known among Chinese watchers of their troublesome neighbor, one that suggests that Chinese influence over North Korea is far less than Chinese–or Americans–might hope:
North Korea: Big brother, I want to do a nuclear test!
North Korea: Five.
China: Five days?
North Korea: Four.
China: Four days?
North Korea: Three.
China: Can you just tell us when?
North Korea: Two.
China: Are you an idiot?
North Korea: One. Fire!
China: We tried to prevent a North Korean nuclear test up to the very last second!