As the Myanmar military under Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing rolled out the tanks and guns across the country earlier this week, the scribes and headline writers in the hallowed halls of China’s premier news agency, Xinhua, were at the ready.
“Major cabinet reshuffle announced in Myanmar,” Xinhua belched in its headline as the coup got underway. It was a headline based on its own interpretation of a press release from the Myanmar military which was picked up around the world.
“Under the cabinet reshuffle, new union ministers were appointed for 11 ministries while 24 deputy ministers were removed from their posts,” Xinhua quoted the military, or Tatmadaw, as saying, without questioning. The China Daily quickly followed its lead.
Xinhua’s take shows how out of step China is with the rest of the planet, particularly when U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he would do everything in his power to pressure Myanmar and “make sure that this coup fails.”
But given Xinhua’s history, its latest gaffe should come as no surprise.
The Xinhua News Agency has been the “eyes and tongue” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ever since the Long March. But as a master of the dark arts of propaganda, its take on world events and cultural leanings has been a regular source of oblique information and sometimes amusement.
Its diatribes are notorious, often couched with language that takes practice to decipher and its contribution to the English language range from “capitalist pig” to “running dog” — while blaming foreigners for Beijing’s own shortcomings.
Over the years Xinhua scribes have toned down the communist claptrap but there are rules, lots of them, for the more than 8,000 staff in 171 foreign and local bureaus and the newspapers and magazines that fall under Xinhua’s jurisdiction.
“Ethnicities” are out, “nationalities” only. Importantly, never mention Hong Kong or Macau with China respectively as that might put the territories on equal sovereign standing with the “mainland” — its preferred alternative for the “People’s Republic of China.”
Its style guide also says “… avoid anything that is against the ‘one country, two systems’ policy.” And “… avoid using self-praising phrases to describe anti-China parties in Hong Kong and Macau. For example, Umbrella Movement should be called ‘illegal Occupy Central’.”
It is also solid on Beijing’s pet peeves like young Chinese men who prefer make-up and eschew masculinity. Xinhua has dubbed them “little fresh meats” or “sissy pants.” Women who decide not to marry are derided as “leftovers.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a border dispute, was once likened to a thief who broke into a house and refused to leave. New Zealand politician Winston Peters is known as “old naughty” or “old bum.”
But dreadful headlines also have a habit of backfiring as the foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin discovered when he was forced to fend off questions suggesting China had backed the latest coup in Myanmar.
“Relevant theories are not true,” he said. “As Myanmar’s friendly neighboring country, we wish that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately resolve their differences and uphold political and social stability.”
It was a lame response for a spokesman of a one-party state, which will have no hesitation in maintaining and making trade and investment deals with the generals on its doorsteps, who have profited handsomely from the nationalization of state assets for more than a decade.
That includes those targeted by the U.N. for trial over the ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims – including coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brigadier General Than Oo, and Brigadier General Aung Aung.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from international grace over the Rohingya tragedy was nothing short of spectacular but at home she knows her audience well and that was reflected by the stunning results her National League of Democracy notched-up at elections in November.
It was a result that generals within Tatmadaw refused to accept amid fears a very popular civilian government will attempt to wrest back control of what were once government-owned assets, which helped prompt the military’s third coup d’etat since the end of British rule in 1948.
China has now signaled its readiness to work with a junta that has a brutal history of repression and rarely hesitates in dispatching those it finds offensive. And no doubt, Xinhua will be there to tout its successes.