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Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part Two)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16
August 9, 2013 08:42 PM Age: 251 days
Category: China Brief, Home Page, Foreign Policy, Military/Security, China and the Asia-Pacific

Professor Dai Xu

If outspoken Chinese military officers are, as Part One suggested, neither irrelevant loudmouths, nor factional warriors, nor yet the voice of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on foreign policy, and are instead experts in the PLA-party propaganda system, then what might explain the bad publicity they often generate for China? This article explores how the activities of China’s military hawks may contribute to the regime’s domestic and international goals. On a general level, the very appearance of a hawkish faction—the “opera” that Luo Yuan has described—serves the domestic purposes of promoting national unity (Global Times, May 4). By amplifying threat awareness and countering perceived Western plots to permeate the psyche of the Chinese populace and army, the “hawks” direct public dissatisfaction with the policy status quo away from the system as a whole. 

In specific crises, such as the standoff at Scarborough Shoal last year or in the wake of the Diaoyu Islands purchase, hard-line remarks from uniformed commentators serve to rally domestic public opinion behind the prospect of military action, instill confidence in the PLA’s willingness to fight over the issue and deter China’s adversary. By amplifying the possibility of otherwise irrational Chinese military action and inevitable escalation should Beijing’s actions be interfered with, they have contributed to a thus-far successful effort to convince the Philippines and Japan to accept the new status quo around Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands. 

External Propaganda 

The PLA’s external­­ (duiwai) propaganda work system, which Part One showed most of the “hawks” belong to, has been greatly strengthened in recent years in line with an often-cited “series of important instructions” from Hu Jintao from 2006 onward. This effort has emphasized self-affirming aspects of propaganda—perhaps better translated as publicity and promotion—with particular regard to foreign audiences, aiming to increase understanding of China’s policies, diminish “China threat theories” and shape a good international image for the PLA. The General Political Department (GPD) Propaganda Department’s External Propaganda Bureau was established in 2006 in response to a Xinhua report on the PLA’s image in overseas media. The Xinhua PLA Bureau’s year-long investigation reported in April 2006 that negative reports dominated Western public opinion on the PLA, with word associations of “security threat,” “closed,” “non-transparent” and “backward.” Aside from openness issues, a follow-up investigation led by then-GPD Director Li Jinai found that China’s media were used to using their own linguistic and thought conventions as well as domestic habits in external propaganda with less-than-ideal results (Xinhua, March 19, 2010). These themes, and the general emphasis on improving international perceptions of the PLA, have continued throughout the all-military external propaganda push. General Li also said  military external propaganda work must “adhere tightly to foreign audiences’ needs for information on our military, adhere tightly to foreign audiences’ habits of thought” (Xinhua, November 15, 2010).

Recent writings on the topic emphasize activities including Ministry of Defense news conferences (not known for producing sensational statements), meet-the-press sessions, military open days (such as the recent event at a Xi’an air defense base), white papers, Chinese-foreign military cultural exchange and doing media interviews (Xinhua, August 2; PLA Daily, November 1, 2012; China Military Online, May 18, 2012; Southern Weekend, January 10, 2012) [1]. Yet, if military external propaganda activities are aimed solely at creating a positive image of the Chinese military among foreigners, why do specially-appointed “external propaganda experts” like Dai Xu and Luo Yuan make statements that generate negative publicity and stoke foreign perceptions of China as a military threat?

Part of the answer may be that external propaganda experts conduct activities aimed at both domestic and foreign audiences, including other parts of the Chinese government. Although the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) central propaganda apparatus has separate systems for domestic and foreign-oriented propaganda, the lines between the two have become increasingly blurred in practice. By 2003, the Central Propaganda Department argued that, due to the number of foreigners reading Chinese media, domestic propaganda should be seen as the same as external work [2]. The all-army external propaganda push appears to reflect a similar dynamic [3]. External propaganda activities such as Ministry of Defense news conferences and military open days are conducted in Chinese and invariably produce stories in the Chinese media. In a state media report on the first “All-Army External Propaganda Backbone Training Class” held in 2009, PLA Nanjing Political Academy Military News Communications Department Director Gu Li referred to external propaganda tasks as “displaying our military's favorable image to our compatriots and the people of the world” (International Herald Leader, April 16, 2009). Likewise, Luo Yuan has spoken of opening a Weibo account as an aspect of external propaganda work (People’s Net, February 25). To the extent that external propaganda is aimed at both domestic and foreign audiences, it needs to balance convincing the world that China poses no military threat with convincing Chinese citizens that the PLA is capable of and committed to defending Chinese interests.

International Deterrence?

Through the early stages of the 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal, Major General Luo Yuan became the Chinese military’s most prominent face, appearing in the mainland media almost daily. In particular, he attracted great attention for an article that directly criticized the government for de-escalating the situation, arguing China was being “bullied” and urging for the military to be sent in to occupy the shoal (South Sea Conversations, April 27, 2012; China.org.cn, April 27, 2012; Reuters, April 21, 2012; Global Times, April 9, 2012). Luo’s frequent appearances appear to have been part of a state-led effort to focus public attention on the issue. China’s commercially-oriented media were understandably eager to amplify the likelihood of the country going to war, but the discourse of impending conflict was driven by inflammatory central media coverage and escalatory official comments. A case in point was a Global Times editorial titled “If Friction Continues, It Will be a Miracle If China and the Philippines Don’t Go To War” (Global Times, May 9). The paper’s in-house opinion polling center conducted a hasty survey in late April and, unusually, released the detailed findings for free via the Global Times’ website with the headline discovery that nearly 80 percent of Chinese people supported military retaliation to “provocation” in the South China Sea (Shenzhen TV, May 5, 2012; Global Poll Center, May 2, 2012). Dai Xu added his own call for war in early May, arguing that even if the United States was hoping to provoke China into attacking the Philippines, China should do it anyway. Moreover, foreign media reports that that PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet had entered a state war readiness were introduced into the Chinese media via Xinhua translation, fuelling belief within China that China might be about to go to war if the Philippines did not back down (Xinhua, May 11, 2012; Global Times, May 7, 2012). By May 10–11, the prolonged ascendancy of “Chinese Warships Approach Philippine Territory” at the top of the Sina Weibo topic tree highlighted that not only was war with the Philippines an approved topic, but also that it had captured the attention of the public (Sinocism, May 10, 2012).

Along with economic punishment and conventional diplomatic protest, the displays of public war chatter and military outspokenness formed a part of China’s strategy to convince the Philippines to desist from opposing its control of the disputed atoll. The foreign-directed aspects of the Scarborough Shoal media wave are suggested strongly by the choice of articles provided by Chinese state media in translation. For example, a PLA Daily piece warning the standoff had become a matter of “national dignity and even social stability” was posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website, reinforcing what Philippines diplomats were hearing from their Chinese counterparts about the pressure they were under from the public (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 10, 2012) [4]. The Global Times editorial mentioned above was published in English under the title, “Peace Will be a Miracle If Provocation Lasts.” After Luo’s call for the military to be sent in was posted in English on government-run portal China.com.cn, Philippines President Benigno Aquino publicly called his bluff, stating “We think that is more a statement that lacks substance [and is] not indicative or the real intentions” (Manila Bulletin, April 29, 2012). Eventually, however, the Philippines’ ships did leave the area, leaving China in control, and they have not challenged the Chinese official presence there since, even as some of its fishing communities being deprived of their livelihoods (Inquirer Global Nation [Manila], May 29; ABC News [U.S.], May 22). The exact reasoning behind the Philippines’ decision-making is beyond the scope of this article; certainly it involved much more than simply Luo and Dai’s hawkish comments and the manifestations of “public will” they helped bring forth. Both have stated their earnest belief in the power of minyi, Luo calling it “able to overturn ships” (Global Times Online, March 18). The point is that their ostensibly warmongering remarks seem to have been designed not to provoke military conflict, but rather to help ensure China achieved its objective while avoiding military conflict. The Philippines was deterred from opposing the new status quo, and China subdued its adversary without fighting (bu zhan er qu ren).

In the same way, the PLA “hawks” also may have helped China convince the Japanese government not to oppose the frequent entries of China’s maritime patrol vessels in the territorial waters surrounding the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. When the Japanese government made its purchase of three of the disputed islands on September 10 last year, China appeared to be ready with an integrated civilian-military response. Almost immediately, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an official statement of China’s position and announced territorial baselines for the islands, thus giving surrounding waters out to 12 nautical miles the specific legal status of territorial waters under Chinese law. This was followed by the institution of regular patrols by Chinese official boats within the territorial waters. Since September 2012, this has occurred on well over 50 separate days to date—averaging more than once a week—giving credence to official media claims that China has “regularized” patrols in the area, and “broken the situation of Japan’s actual control” of the islands (CCTV, November 5, 2012; People’s Daily, October 9, 2012). Beijing’s regular official presence in the territorial waters represents a major change to the status quo prior to September 10. Chinese government boats entered the 12 nautical mile zone only twice in the year leading up to September 10, and just once in the three years prior. The media blitz that followed Tokyo’s island purchase mirrored that during Scarborough Shoal, with the public expressions of anti-Japanese outrage and bloodlust working, paradoxically, to create what one Chinese scholar has described as “grassroots deterrence” (Tea Leaf Nation, January 25). Since that time, China has tested Japan’s resolve on several occasions, first with plane flights and then possibly with radar-locking incidents, PLA and CCP voices have warned Japan directly that opposing these new activities could lead to war (“Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn toward Japan,” China Brief, February 15). Major General Peng Guangqian declared any warning shots fired near Chinese planes around the Diaoyu Islands would be “firing the first shot” in a Sino-Japanese war, while the Global Times said public opinion would demand war.

Domestic “Indoctri-tainment”

Sensational statements add drama to international issues—such as disputes over distant, uninhabited maritime features—that may otherwise be relatively distant from ordinary Chinese people’s lives. Luo Yuan has spoken frequently of his ambition to increase “national defense education” and engender “imperilment consciousness” (youhuan yishi) among China’s population. He also has repeatedly stated that he believes the masses, especially the young, have “patriotic potential”, with appropriate measures required to stimulate and guide it (Global Times Online, May 4; Southern Window, April 9, 2012; People’s Daily Online, February 12, 2012; Wen Wei Po [Shanghai], September 30, 2011; China National Radio, March 17, 2009). Dai Xu also has called for youhuan yishi, stating that having a “population that is resolute, brave and full of imperilment consciousness” is more important for China than strategists such as himself (Global Times, July 5, 2012) [5]. Major General Luo has even taken his defense awareness mission to the gaudy stages of Hunan Satellite TV, where he has appeared in uniform on variety shows aimed at young viewers. “Using the medium’s universal appeal,” journalist Zhang Jianfeng wrote, “he embedded education within fun” (Southern Window, April 9, 2012). Luo Yuan said his dealings with Hunan TV showed him that the young have a patriotic fervor and reverence for military heroes. The problem, he said, was “how to release and mobilize their patriotic potential...simple preaching is no good, boring inculcation doesn’t work, we must move with the times...in short, national defense education should have new content, new formats and new methods” (Global Times Online, May 4). This mirrors an approach that emerged in the Chinese media in the late 1990s that media theorist Wanning Sun described as “indoctri-tainment” [6].

The hawks may have attracted attention internationally, but their impact on China’s domestic discourse is even more readily apparent. Aside from their prominence in centrally-controlled, commercially-driven media like CCTV and the Global Times—whose content is republished widely on China’s major privately-owned commercial online—they also have proven their ability to shape the discourse on largely user-driven social media. Dai Xu and Luo Yuan’s names in particular, are often raised in popular comments, even where they were not mentioned in the corresponding news article (South Sea Conversations, May 28, 2012; May 3, 2012). Luo’s suggestion that the Diaoyu Islands be turned into a target range has been widely repeated by other commentators on blogs, online forums and even a government petition site (Strong China Forum e-Politics, September 10, 2012; blog.ifeng.com, September 3, 2012). A microblog post raising the target range idea became the most-forwarded item on Sina Weibo on August 19—a day when anti-Japan protests took place in more than 10 Chinese cities (Sina Weibo, August 19, 2012). It was forwarded 147,000 times and attracted more than 48,000 comments, but did not mention Luo, who had started making the suggestion at least nine days earlier (Global Times Online, August 10, 2012). According to the Chinese wiki Baidu Baike, Dai Xu, meanwhile, was voted one of nine “Internet Persons of the Year” in 2010, alongside iconic figures such as Lang Xianping and Yu Jianrong, in an internet poll that attracted several million votes. Additionally, each of his books has an average five-star average rating on DangDang, China’s equivalent of Amazon. 

The hawks’ prominence in audience-driven media can be explained partially as a result of the universal news value of conflict, but they also may answer deeper psychological needs. The enormous numbers of responses that their statements generate on mainstream news portals, and their widespread reposting on blogs and in discussion forums, are one illustration of the strength of their market appeal. The existence of such a market does not imply approval or agreement from more a fraction of the China’s population—both Luo Yuan and Dai Xu have been mercilessly lampooned than on Weibo this year, showing that they are viewed as buffoons by many Chinese people (Sydney Morning Herald, February 25; Tea Leaf Nation, April 11). Nonetheless, to legions of leftists and military enthusiasts online, however, they are iconic figures: heroes and truth-speakers (“real military men” who “represent the people”) fighting to overcome traitorous enemies-within that are selling out the country’s interests. Public criticism or questioning of these PLA pundits sparks paranoid, conspiratorial reactions from fans online (South Sea Conversations, July 27; April 29). As Luo Yuan recently explained, public expressions of yearning for a military leadership that will show no mercy to any provocateurs on China’s borders is “the citizenry’s hope for the Chinese military, an appeal to a sense of heroism, and even more so, it is a nostalgia for our party and army’s period of suffering and glory.” It is also, according to Luo, an expression of “imperilment consciousness” that both Luo and Dai Xu aim to encourage (Global Times Online, May 4).

The hawks’ warlike public statements, contrasting with official government positions, frequent fierce disagreement with their co-panelists on television and even occasional direct criticisms of the policy status quo, all help perpetuate the narrative that a hawkish faction exists in the military. The rise of the term “hawkish faction” (ying pai) in Chinese discourse on international affairs suggests the idea is widespread. Discussion of opposing factions within the party or military might once have been dangerous in the People’s Republic, as it implies division, which the regime has generally sought to hide over the past two decades since the 1989 crisis. Today, however, such theories are flourish in both conventional Chinese media outlets and online. Not only have mainstream published numerous discussions on the “hawkish faction” as a phenomenon, state-run news outlets have even run translations of detailed international discussions on the PLA’s hawks (Global Times Online, July 30; Phoenix Online, July 3; Global Times, April 3; ChinaGate, February 26; World Journal, February 6; Xinhua, March 10, 2010). Moreover, both Luo Yuan and Dai Xu publicly embrace the label (Southern Weekend, January 10, 2012; Chunqiu Military, December 13, 2009). This indicates that public belief in the existence of a PLA hawkish faction fighting for aggressive countermeasures against external enemies is acceptable or desirable from the perspective of military and civilian propaganda and ideological authorities. From a regime legitimacy perspective, it may be useful to maintain the appearance of a powerful faction working to push the country’s foreign policy in aggressive directions, so that nationalist desires and hopes for revenge (to some degree a result of the regime’s own “patriotic education” agenda) can be focused within the present system. 

Conclusion

The hawks’ activities may have contributed to the Philippines and Japan’s acceptance of the new status quo in a number of ways, though further research is needed to obtain specific indications of which areas in particular the hawks’ influence is strongest. Their promotion of “imperilment consciousness” probably has contributed to public demands for hard-line foreign policies, and their combative rhetoric has legitimized and encouraged public criticism of China’s current foreign policy. In turn, the narrative of popular nationalist pressure on the government’s position, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has emphasized to foreign interlocutors for many years, is frequently interpreted outside China as a domestic constraint on the Chinese regime’s foreign policy choices—a perception that improves China’s position at the international negotiating table by credibly rendering various forms of compromise “impossible.” On maritime territorial disputes in particular, the narrative of policy pressure from a hawkish military—or elements within the military as well as an intensely nationalistic public (partially engendered by the military)—has created a widespread perception that an “accident or miscalculation” on the water probably would spiral out of control, which China has wielded to secure acceptance of the advances it has made via non-military means. The PLA’s “hawkish faction” appear integral to this combined civil-military approach to international conflict under informatized conditions.  

Notes: 

  1. These aspects of military external propaganda work are perhaps better understood as “external publicity”, rather than “propaganda” in the sense of negative demonization of the enemy and disinformation. In addition, the Chinese term also means “promotion”, in the sense of public service messages (health promotion). In Chinese, these are all “xuanchuan,” literally “announce [and] pass-on.”
  2. David Shambaugh, “China's Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy,” The China Journal, No. 57, January 2007, p. 31; Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008, p. 13.
  3. The organizational structure of the GPD traditionally reflected distinctions between propaganda and ideological education work aimed at officers and soldiers (GPD Propaganda Department), mass work aimed at the domestic audience (GPD Mass Work Department) and external propaganda work (GPD Liaison Department). See, David Shambaugh, “The Soldier and the State,” The China Quarterly, No. 127, September 1991, pp. 545–546.
  4. Author’s Interview with a Philippine Diplomat, Beijing, November, 2012.
  5. As a Strong China Forum writer observed in the wake of Dai Xu’s 2010 “dismemberment” lecture, “whether what he says is right or not is secondary.” The crucial point is that he is awakening people to the need for national defense construction (Military.china.com, February 24, 2010)
  6. Wanning Sun, “Semiotic Over-Determination or ‘Indoctritainment’: Television, Citizenship, and the Olympic Games,” in Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, Michael Keane and Yin Hong, eds., Media in China: Consumption, Content, and Crisis, New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002, p. 116.

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