The recent Hague ruling on the South China Sea dispute has provoked a very strong reactionby Yuan Ren / July 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
A map of the South China Sea with dash lines under claimed Chinese territory, on display at a maritime defence educational facility in Nanjing, China, ©AP/Press Association Images Patriotic fever comes and goes in China like a sudden tidal wave that sweeps up over the nation and quickly goes away too. This week, after a case brought by the Philippines, the Hague ruled that China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea does not have a legal basis. Different countries have wrangled over territory in the region for centuries—but tensions have escalated recently. While foreign criticism of China regularly hits its patriotic nerve, a legal ruling rejecting China’s sovereignty sends that nerve into sensory overdrive. People have not forgotten China’s “Centuary of Humiliation,” a period of the 19th and 20th century that saw China persistently bullied by foreign forces, including the Anglo-French Allied forces, as well as during the Japanese occupation. Now that China’s presence on the world stage is growing, it isn’t afraid to be heard. “China Rises,” or zhongguo jueqi, is the slogan that State media uses to describe the country’s global ascent. It’s also what Chinese people use to emphasise that, despite faults with our system, we hope we will never again be belittled again by foreign powers. In late 2012, protests against the Japanese occupation on its anniversary saw mobs of young men set Japanese cars on fire. Tensions ran high, with the State doing little to quell the anger, even helping to stir it up in many cases. The roaring patriotism in response to The Hague ruling on social media is therefore to be expected. Chinese media, all state-controlled to some extent, made bold rejections of the ruling on its front pages. The headline “Don’t accept, don’t agree” has become the official slogan, and a top ranking hashtag on Weibo, China’s Twitter. Other popular hashtags include: “China won’t take anything less,” referring to its rightful share in territory. While some are genuinely outraged and are rallying for military action, others are simply helping fan the patriotic flame. Many of the latter probably couldn’t tell you where the South China Sea is; few would know the extent of the area delineated by China as rightfully its. Even fewer know what The Hague is. Indulging in the funny comics and pictures that have come out of the situation is one way to stay patriotic without getting angry. One friend of mine, a nurse, posted a picture of Filipinos carrying banners that read, “The South China Sea Does not belong to China,” pointing to the irony in the use of the word “China”. Her comment: “With just this kind of IQ and [they] want to start a war?” Another Weibo joke that had me laughing out loud read: “We don’t even let others go first when the traffic light is green, so hoping that we’d let go of the South China Sea? What kind of joke is this?” During the anti-Japanese Occupation protests four years ago, the public was asked to boycott Japanese cars. With the Philippines, the request is less sophisticated. The country is known to produce mangos of very high quality: “Boycott dried mango snacks from Filipinos, let the Filipino die of hunger” one post that I saw on social media reads. At the other extreme, a showreel on my WeChat friends’ feed displayed Chinese military warships, submarines and aircraft carriers with a triumphant Hollywood soundtrack. The phrase “Guard national sovereignty, we won’t let them have an inch of land” is shown in red. However, many Chinese don’t want to see any kind of warfare and don’t think it’s in the interest of the public or State. “China needs to sort out its internal affairs before engaging in something this huge and costly,” Mr Liu, my aunt’s friend who runs a wholesale delivery service, says. He is of the view that the current administration wants its legacy to be sorting out corruption, not creating a potential mess through military action. “So many parties are involved in the South China Sea dispute,” Liu says. “Unless the US really pushes our tolerance, which they look like they could, I don’t think the government wants military conflict.” Indeed, the state’s white paper published yesterday expressed a willingness to seek middle ground, one that’s based on negotiations with the Philippines. The public sentiment remains that China is strong enough to fight back now, so don’t mess with us. It’s loud and clear; but words are just words.