Over the last several weeks, as Western media has followed the unfolding of events of Chen Guangcheng’s dash to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, which came on the heels of the Bo Xilai scandal, Chinese media has shifted its gaze elsewhere. In the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea, depending on which party you ask, tensions are being stoked in the form of provocative editorials, reporting, and the actions of Chinese journalists. Such reporting – nothing more than old fashioned jingoism – sets a dangerous precedent in an area of the world that is already rife with tensions. And, while such coverage is useful for turning the page on China’s internal political soap operas, fueling the fires of Chinese nationalism can only inject a dangerous element that, if left unchecked, could make it harder for either side to compromise.
To be fair, sensationalist Chinese reporting is nothing new, nor exclusively Chinese. Yet, as events in the recent spat between China and the Philippines have unfolded, Chinese reporting has becoming increasingly aggressive.
Nothing demonstrates the recent tilt towards jingoism more than the example of a journalist from Dragon TV who decided to plant his nation’s flag on the Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island/Panatag Shoal. Such symbolism couldn’t be any stronger, short of taking up defiant residence. There was, however, a strange oddity to the footage, namely that the rock both sides are squabbling over was barely large enough for the journalist to stand on. In fact, part of the shoal submerges during high tide. Yet with large deposits of natural resources, fisheries, and important trade routes close by, it’s no wonder both parties are so interested. The issue is complicated by the fact that the South China Sea is claimed in some part by not just China and the Philippines, but Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and others as well.
To make matters worse is what can be described as one of the worst timed slips of the tongue in modern journalism. Chinese journalist He Jia of mainstream CCTV declared during a news broadcast that “We all know that the Philippines is China’s inherent territory and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty; this is an indisputable fact.” While the broadcast has disappeared from the CCTV website, to make the gaff not once but twice in the same sentence seems odd to say the least. While He did apologize on Weibo for the slip, the comments below her apology speak volumes to the nationalistic sentiment that has built up around the issue.
Social media is also ablaze with nationalistic and fire-spitting commentary. While Chinese censors are quick to repress any of the latest news or rumors concerning Bo or Chen, matters in the South China Sea seem like fair game. One microblogger named kongdehua declared, “the Philippines have basically been making irrational trouble, if they want to start a war then we will strike, no one fears them.” He went on to say in a widely quoted remark that, “If every Chinese spat once, we could drown (the Philippines).”
To be fair, Chinese media is also capable of creating discourse that prefers compromise and diplomacy when conflict between nations is possible. The Global Times, for example, has published content with a less harsh tone. Jeffrey Bader, U.S. President Barack Obama’s senior advisor on China and Asia at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, described in an article the U.S.-China relationship as being “in reasonably good shape. The Chinese are working well with us on North Korea and Iran. Taiwan has not been a source of tension, and does not promise to be for years. Since that is the one issue on which we theoretically could have a conflict, the positive state and trend of cross-Straits relations is very important, and gets undeservedly little attention.”
The Chinese Communist Party has a great deal of influence over what is said in its mainstream media in print, over the radio, on TV and in social media. If Chinese authorities were so inclined, they could rein in jingoism. Yet there seems little inclination so far to do so. Chinese editors and leaders should be wary.
Harry Kazianis is assistant editor of The Diplomat.