Chinese authorities have calmed protesters in Wukan, a fishing village of 13,000 in Guangdong Province, by offering rare concessions including the official recognition of the villagers' elected self-governing body, according to a Hong Kong media report.
After meeting with protesting villagers, the Southern Chinese authorities have given in to three key demands including the official recognition of the once-illegal Wukan Provisional Committee. According to the Hong Kong based Chinese-language newspaper, Mingpao, the Deputy Secretary of the Guangdong CPC Provincial Committee Zhu Mingguo recognized the legitimacy of Wukan’s committee and allowed the Council to maintain law and order in the village.
Zhu was reported as saying that the provisional committee will wield governmental power until the land confiscation dispute has been completely settled. Importantly, this implies that the committee is – albeit temporarily – the de-facto governing body of Wukan.
It is the first time an elected local governing body has received official recognition since the Chinese Communist Party took control of the Chinese mainland in 1949.
In 1998, the National People’s Congress of China adopted the Organic Law of Village Committees in order to ensure “self-government by the villagers in the countryside, who will administer their own affairs according to law, developing democracy at the grassroots level in the countryside" (Art. 1).
Paradoxically, this law makes democratic concessions while underlining the role of the Chinese Communist Party as the "leading nucleus" (Art. 3) of all governmental activities.
The village committee elections have long been marred by vote buying, corruption and heavy-handed intervention by the Communist regime.
Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, pointed out that it would be significant if the representative council elected by villagers themselves could be recognized by authorities, writes the Global Times. "Grass-roots elections have been hit by corruption, but this time the council is purely chosen by the villagers," Wang said.
The Wukan uprising started in late September 2011, when hundreds of villagers participated in a sit-in protest demanding investigation on fraud in village council elections, as well as on profiteering of the village government in land deals since the Open Door Policy. The protest turned violent on the 21st and 22nd of the same month, as people attacked the village committee and destroyed an industrial park. Villagers accused local officials of selling farmland to a Hong Kong developer who made a hefty profit from the deal, without their consent.
The frustrated Wukan villagers established the Wukan Provisional Committee through elections, but it was banned by the local government of Lufeng on December 3. The situation deteriorated after Xue Jinbo, deputy chief of Wukan’s Council, died during police custody under suspicious circumstances on December 11. Villagers subsequently stormed the local police station, forcing police and Communist Party officials out of the village, which led to a blockade by the police.
This incident demonstrates south China’s villagers’ resentment towards corruption, state inefficiency and other injustices. It is also a clear indication of an increasing consciousness of people’s rights in China, and may become a contagious trend in the years to come.
Chinese activist Zhao Lianhai has recently gone missing, and the whereabouts of another dissident, Ai Weiwei are still unknown. Xinhua News, the official Chinese news agency, reported on Thursday that Ai is under police investigation for “economic crimes”.
After his son became ill as a result of the 2008 Chinese toxic milk powder scandal, Zhao became an activist for the victims of the incident, and was accordingly sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail on November 10, 2010, for “disturbing social order”. He was officially released on medical parole on 28 December, but in incommunicado has been under close police supervision.
On Thursday, at midnight (Chinese local time), Zhao Lianhai wrote on the micro-blogging site, Twitter, that he had discussed matters relating to Ai Weiwei and other issues with four officials. Before the report by Xinhua News, Zhao said that Chinese authorities had not yet reported the details of Ai's case.
In his final message before briefly disappearing on Wednesday evening, Zhao Lianhai tweeted, “someone's at my door”. The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said that patrol cars had been spotted near Zhaoʼs residence. The hypothesis that he was detained is shored up by the fact that Zhao Xinling, his sister, did not find him at his residence Wednesday evening.
Earlier that day, the activist wrote on his Twitter page that he was ready to protest to the death by refusing to eat, drink, or receive any medical attention to fight for his cause.
On 5 April, Zhao broke his silence and made an emotional online appeal for the release of Ai. In the YouTube video clip posted Tuesday, Zhao appeared with his son, Pengrui, who suffered from melamine poisoning in 2008, and urged the authorities to release Ai and many other recently abducted “good people”.
Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing International Airport's customs soon before boarding a flight to Hong Kong on 3 April, according to his assistant who was interviewed by the New York Times. The man who answered the phone at the Beijing Public Security Bureau on Sunday declined to answer questions about Aiʼs whereabouts and hung up, according to the same report. Aiʼs studio came under custody of the Chinese authorities shortly after his disappearance.
The Global Times, a communist paper, published an editorial on 6 April entitled “Law will not concede before Maverick”. Though it stopped short of confirming Ai’s arrest, it said Ai has been “close to the red line of Chinese law [...] and will inevitably touch the red line one day”. It restated that “the law will not concede before ‘mavericks’ just because of the Western media's criticism”.
Ai Weiwei is an artist, renown for his conceptual artwork such as “Template” and “Sunflower Seeds.” Although he distanced himself from the project, Ai collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium during the 2008 Olympic Games. He has been critical of numerous social issues in China, including an alleged corruption scandal in the construction of Sichuan schools (“Tofu-dreg construction”) that collapsed amidst the earthquake in 2008. Ai Weiweiʼs father, Ai Qing, was a poet and one of the victims of the Cultural Revolution.
When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It's not a joke. Do whatever it takes to stay united... People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China is more important than those people in Tiananmen Square. - (Gaddafi on China)
North Korea and China are seeking to deepen cross-border economic cooperation, various reports evinced.
Chinese media reported that North Korea brought forth the proposal to lease two islands near its border with China to build the “Hong Kong of North Korea.” A separate report shows that the regional government of northeastern China is studying strategies to take in laborers from North Korea.
According to Yazhou Zhoukan, a Chinese language weekly magazine specialized in international news, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited China twice this year to make the leasing proposal to Chinese authorities in bid to gain Chinese government support of Kim Jong-un, the designated successor of the North Korean communist regime.
According to the plan, North Korea offered to lease out Wihwa Island (Weihua Island in Chinese) and Hwanggeumpyeong (Huangjinping in Chinese) as Free Trade Zones in order to reduce trade barriers and bureaucratic requirements between the two countries. Chinese nationals and foreigners would be able to enjoy visa-free status when traveling to the two islands. The duration of the lease would be 50 years and could be extended to as long as 100 years.
Both islands are located in the Yalu River near the border with China. They are inhabited and administered by the North Korean city of Sinuiju.
Beijing authorities have not yet spoken openly about this proposal, but they have assigned the China International Engineering Consulting Corporation (CIECE) to launch preliminary research on the proposition. Chinese reservation about Kim Jong-il’s plan is due to the unpredictability of North Korean diplomacy, said Yazhou Zhoukan.
Moreover, Beijing authorities are unsure about the impact of such an agreement on the overall economic development of northeastern China. Beijing authorities have already included the construction of the new Yalu River Highway Bridge and “Changchun-Jilin-Tumen Development and Opening Pilot Zone” in the “Twelfth Five Year Plan” last October.
In a separate report, the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun quoted an unnamed source from the provincial government of Jilin, stating that the northeastern province had decided to accept around 100 laborers from North Korea to work in Tumen, while similar moves are observed in Dandong and other cities in Liaoning Province.
Asahi Shimbun quoted an unnamed Tumen municipal official and reported that the first group of North Korean laborers is commissioned to work in the plastic processing plant in the North Korean Industrial Park. In order to prevent their escape, a plan has been devised to deploy buses that will transport the workers from the plant in China to their dormitory on North Korean soil.
However, there is concern among provincial officials that such a move might infringe on the “Rules for the Administration of Employment of Foreigners in China.” Article 6 states, “the post to be filled by the foreigner recruited by the employer shall be the post of special need, a post that cannot be filled by any domestic candidates for the time being but violates no government regulations.” It is thought that the provincial government is studying measures similar to Japan’s “Technical Intern Training Program” as a workaround for this issue, Asahi Shimbun reported.
It is not yet clear whether the plan to utilize North Korean labor is part of the aforementioned Chinese development project of the Tumen River in the “Twelfth Five Year Plan”.
Yazhou Zhoukan reported that the idea of leasing the two islands arose as early as 2009. On January 23rd 2009, when Kim Jong-il received Wang Jiarui, Director of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, in Pyongyang, Kim spoke of the development of Sinuiju special economic zone and of his idea to lease Wihwa and Hwanggeumpyeong to develop these areas as free trade zones. At the time, Wang did not respond to the proposal.
When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited North Korea in October 2009, Kim Jong-il signaled his intention of leasing the two islands once again. Although China has reached agreement with North Korea over the construction of the new Yalu River Highway Bridge, Chinese authorities have not yet given a clear response to the offer concerning those two islands.
In August, when Kim Jong-il visited China for the second time this year, he agreed to the Chinese proposal of establishing the two ports of Rajin and Chongjin as Special Economic Zones – outlets that will stimulate the development of the area along the Tumen River. During this encounter, he also signaled his willingness to lease Wihwa and Hwanggeumpyeong.
Cantonese, one of the five major Chinese languages, is facing an existential crisis following the Guangdong Provincial government's ratification of a law that will virtually eradicate it from education and mass media.
In the southern province of Guangdong, media reported that the "Guangdong Provincial Regulation on National Common Language and Characters", which will be implemented on March 1, 2012, is based on the "National Common Language and Characters Law", but adds clauses regarding the responsibility of governmental organs such as academia, broadcasting, and so forth in "the Work of (Promoting) Language."
Chinese media quoted an official of Shenzhen as saying that, in the Sixth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the country will be vying to improve the nation's cultural soft power and advocate Chinese culture. The regulation will implement a strategy that seeks to "promote and regulate the use of the national common language, and scientifically protect ethnic languages."
The third article of the Guangdong Provincial Regulation states that the "National Common Language" is
Putonghua and standardized (read: simplified) Chinese characters [...] Putonghua sets Beijing's pronunciation as the standard pronunciation, the northern dialect as base dialect, the canon of modern vernacular writings as the standard of grammar.
The fourth article evinces that the "People's Government at all levels shall strengthen the leadership in promoting a national common language in the respective administrative areas." These include "civil, cultural, information industry, commerce, radio, film, television, press and publications, and education" bureaux.
The fifth article states that the
governments above the county level should include the national common language work into national economic and social development planning, and combine financial resources to arrange special funds for the promotion of Putonghua and the standardized Chinese characters.
Through these regulations, Cantonese is effectively banned from public broadcasting in Guangdong in favor of Putonghua (i.e. Mandarin).
In a broadcast by Nanfang Television Station, one of the primary Cantonese television channels, effective today, radio and television (including online audio and video streaming) must use Mandarin Chinese as the "basic language" for broadcasts, presentations and interviews. The use of "dialects" - such as Cantonese - in broadcasting requires permission by the State Council.
As one of the five major Chinese languages, Cantonese has a long history that dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). Compared to Mandarin, China's official language, the pronunciation and grammar of Cantonese is closer to that of classical Chinese. It is spoken by about 100 million people in Guangdong (or Canton, whereafter the language was named), Hong Kong, Macau, as well as among the Chinese diaspora overseas in places such as Singapore, Taiwan, Canada, the United States, Australia, Japan and many other places. It was also the mother-tongue of the late Qing reformers Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen as well as many famous Chinese scholars and intellectuals.
Netizens in Guangdong and Hong Kong voiced their concerns on the internet. Some feared the annihilation of their culture as well as that of their individuality. One netizen commented,
Promoting Mandarin by suppressing Cantonese is not beneficial to the plurality of thoughts and cultures. As language is a medium for culture, belief, customs and a shared sense of identity, abolishing Cantonese is equivalent to abolishing Southern Yue Culture, which proves China's hegemony and imperialist tendencies (because the need to abolish Cantonese derives from the urge to build one great unified empire). It is hopelessly foolish to abolish cultural plurality in a knowledge-based economy.
Cantonese is not the sole victim of such regulations. Shanghainese, which once served as the regional lingua franca of the entire Yangtze River Delta, is facing the same situation. In an article from February 2011 in the Global Times, Qian Nairong, a professor of Chinese language at Shanghai University was quoted as saying,
the Shanghai dialect carries the city's cultural identity and heritage. It is therefore immensely important we teach our children the dialect. If we fail, our dialect will disappear within 20 years time.
Both Shanghainese and Cantonese are set to face a gargantuan challenge: the top-down obliteration thereof by the central Chinese authorities. The biggest difference is that, while Shanghai scholars, comedians, and even airlines cooperate in the strenuous battle to preserve their language and cultural heritage, similar movement is unnoticeable amongst Cantonese speakers in Guangdong Province.
In Hong Kong, the vibrant port city in the Southern Yue Cultural Sphere, opinions regarding the use of Cantonese and Mandarin are divided. Although Hong Kong is not under direct Chinese jurisdiction thanks to the "one country, two systems" framework, some netizens share common concerns with people in Guangdong who are beginning to compare the language regulations in different parts of China such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tibet, and fear their implications.
On the other hand, many parents in Hong Kong who are bound by the colonial mindset (of both the British Empire and the Chinese quasi-imperialist regime), are under the impression that Mandarin is superior to Cantonese. These people tend to believe that by learning Mandarin before Cantonese, their children will enjoy a strong tailwind when competing with their peers. Hong Kong's school systems is one of the fiercest and most competitive in the world, so they believe that even a small advantage such as this could result in a lucrative butterfly-effect in the future. Hong Kong's local government and schools are now striving to show their loyalty to the central government in Beijing by introducing Mandarin as the undisputed preeminent Chinese language.
Guangdong province has had a long tradition of cultural encounters with the West, and it provided fertile ground for countless innovative ideas in East Asia. The central Chinese policy makers have already done a fantastic job in demolishing their own culture in movements that paralyzed the country, such as the Cultural Revolution. Many people spread across the world would like to see Cantonese culture and language preserved. Now, facing the monolith of central authorities, their fight seems to be an uphill struggle.
Mr. Bo Xilai was removed from his position in the Chinese Politburo on April 10 as he is "suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations," the same day his wife, Gu Kailai, came under investigation for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011.
The initial reports attributed his death to alcohol poisoning. A reinvestigation by Chinese authorities showed evidence that Heywood had been murdered, with Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun both "highly suspected" according to Xinhua News. The New York Times reports, Mr. Heywood's body was found in a hotel in Nan'an district and was cremated before an autopsy was performed. Xinhua claims the reason for the murder can be attributed to a "conflict over economic interests, which had been intensified."
Upon being ousted from his position, the media, which Bo Xilai had so cleverly manipulated to his advantage during his career, has turned against him, vilifying him so to safeguard the stability of China's impending political transition. The New York Times claims, this "has arguably been the greatest mobilization to support a decision by the party since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989," which was an effaced page of Chinese history that many Chinese are still earnestly unaware of.
Mr. Bo's crisis started on 6 February, when Wang Lijun, police chief of Chongqing and Bo's top-enforcer in a massive crackdown on crime, entered the U.S. consulate in Chengu. After spending some 24 hours there, he reportedly "left of his own volition." Although the U.S. Department of State made no comment regarding the content of this meeting, many think Wang might have been seeking political asylum from the powerful grip of Bo Xilai. Wang was surrounded by some seventy cars of armed police, but as Beijing's authorities heard of the event, they demanded the withdrawal of the security forces and Wang was escorted to Beijing on a first-class flight.
On the same day Bo Xilai was removed from his Party posts, some 10,000 people reportedly gathered on the streets of one of Chongqing's districts throwing rocks at security officers, smashing and setting fire to police cars. However, they were not protesting the latest political scandal, but the reductions in medical insurance and social security. These riots, which took place on April 10 and 11, are a reminder to the central authorities in Beijing of the dangers the Communist Party may face as political scandals emerge.
The CPC is wary of this peril. It is also aware that adversity can spark incredible opportunity.
The Chinese government has taken Bo's ousting as a chance to make its own image shine: China's state-run Xinhua News articulates, the decision to investigate on this incident proves the "Party's unequivocal and consistent opposition to corruption." They underline the country's priorities by stating, "China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be tramped. Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved." This supposedly sends a signal that the central Chinese authorities are willing to be tough in disciplining its leaders and resolute in fighting corruption. Xinhua News clarifies: "it is not surprising that the CPC, with more than 80 million members, have some black sheep."
The New York Times specifies that editorials on this incident have "refrained from explicit character attacks on Mr. Bo or Ms. Gu and have not taken aim at Mr. Bo's policies in Chongqing."
The reason for this is most likely due to Bo's popularity. Bo Xilai held a rock-star status among the people in Chongqing, since he was a charismatic figure who some called a "celebrity politician." Bo is renown for having made the streets of Chongqing safer and essentially mafia-free. Ironically, in an open letter allegedly written by Wang, Mr. Bo is accused of being "the greatest gangster in China," and of treating his subordinates like "chewing gum" (that is, they are easily disposable when no longer useful).
What's becoming increasingly evident is that the CPC's motives are not to debunk a murder case or eliminate corruption from its viscera. Its intentions are politically charged: China must save face and the Communist leadership needs to shine in a staged act of unity and strength.
Boxun.com, a website based in North Carolina that campaigns for human rights and democracy in China, published reports regarding the fate of Bo Xilai since early February. The website is often referred to on Chinese micro-blogging sites. It subsequently received a DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack, which involves overloading the target server with requests making the website unable to respond to legitimate requests, thus paralyzing it. The Washington Post writes that Boxun's domain registrar, Name.com, "received an anonymous e-mail threatening to continue the disruption unless it dropped Boxun."
Name.com helped the website move to another registrar - namely the popular German domain registrar 1&1 - so to safeguard its 1.5 million domains and websites which are put at risk with such massive cyber-attacks.
On April 20, the British national daily The Guardian reported that the cyber-attack conducted on Boxun.com is believed to have been "ordered by China's security services."
The Chinese government heavily censors the internet, blocking websites like Boxun, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and many others. Google also tried stepping into the Chinese websearch market but, due to heavy censorship, soon stepped out. Savvy netizens often find ways of circumventing these blocks through proxy servers that get them around China’s internet firewall, which censors material it considers sensitive. Upon circumventing this block, the information can then spread to other Chinese netizens.
Ever since the Bo crisis, the internet has been saturated with gossip, which the CPC has rushed to cover up.
Interestingly, an article in the Epoch Times (which quotes Wikileaks as one of its sources) explains how Google's withdrawal from China was effectively plotted by Bo Xilai among others. Mr. Bo was regularly meeting members of the popular Chinese search engine, Baidu, such as its chairman Li Yanhong, in order to help the search giant stave off its competitor Google. This would bestow Baidu with a monopoly in the search engine market.
There is an undeniable tantalizing wind of change sweeping through China in recent years.
During a massive unanimous online appeal for organized protests against China’s stifling one-party system in February 2011, which was inspired by the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution, citizens from a dozen Chinese cities gathered each weekend chanting pro-democracy and pro-freedom slogans. The protests resulted in a good number of imprisonments, including those of almost 40 leading Chinese activists. The participation of young and old, including Tiananmen Square dissidents such as Ding Mao, sent a bold message to Chinese authorities: the Communist Party must allow more freedom to its people or step down.
Then, from September to December 2011, Chinese authorities offered a rare concession to the villagers of Wukan upon their protests against local officials who were selling farmland to a Hong Kong developer who made a hefty profit from the deal, without their consent. To appease the villagers, Beijing granted official recognition of Wukan’s local committee to maintain law and order in the village. This was the first time an elected governing body received an official mandate from the Communist Party since 1949, the Party's inception.
Most recently, in the southern city of Guangzhou, people have gathered to protest the Chinese one-party system’s restrictiveness once again.
This occurred after a local newspaper, the Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), was preparing to publish its 2013 New Year’s edition. According to The Economist, the editorial was a pungent reminder to the Communist Party that its citizens yearn for those freedoms that the Chinese constitution allegedly guarantees. However, it was meticulously redrafted by censors and essentially turned into a homage to the party. A translated excerpt from the original article read: “This is an age in which dreams can be grasped…. Only if loudly and confidently… power is effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power.” The censored version was paraphrased as such: “Dreams are our promise of what ought to be done…. We hope that this year we can all come a step closer to our dreams.”
Although the protests that took place outside the Southern Weekend’s office were rather contained, totaling only about two-hundred participants on two separate days, the relatively relaxed attitude of the authorities towards the protesters was unusual. Banners with the text “Free China” were not confiscated, and dissenting voices do not appear to have been extinguished as heavy-handedly as in the past.
One of the possible reasons for this, as The Economist suggests, is that authorities may be divided on how to deal with this situation. In fact, recently appointed leader of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, made Guangdong province his first visit outside the capital upon rising to his position, given the region’s economic importance to China since the ‘80s. In other words, Xi may see value in gradually reforming southern China – and perhaps being more permissive to those who wish to speak their minds is part of his plan.
But this view might be too optimistic: as an article by the Asia Society elucidates, recent moves to further tighten control of the web, as well as efforts by state media to label the work of Southern Weekend’s articles as the work of "traitors," suggest that Xi is an unlikely reformer.
China’s censorship machine is incredibly swift. As the China Digital Times reported on January 7th, censorship instructions have already been spelled out by the Central Propaganda Department:
“Responsible Party committees and media at all levels must be clear on three points related to this matter: (1) Party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle; (2) This mishap at Southern Weekly has nothing to do with Guangdong Propaganda Department Head Tuo Zhen; (3) External hostile forces are involved in the development of the situation. Every responsible work unit must demand that its department’s editors, reporters, and staff discontinue voicing their support for Southern Weekly online. Starting tomorrow, media and websites in all locales must prominently republish the Global Times editorial ‘Southern Weekly’s ‘Message to Readers’ Is Food for Thought Indeed.’”
And just so, the words “Southern” and “Weekend” have vanished from the Chinese internet.
Despite the ongoing quest for censorship, what we can infer from the outbursts of pro-democratic movements in recent years is that a large part of China wants to change.
Many Chinese, including the country's leaders and their offspring, have lived and studied at some of the finest Western academic instutions in the world. And it is becoming progressively harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes regarding the benefits of a one-party system versus a democracy. More broadly, it is simply becoming too hard to hide the apparent. For instance, the dangerous levels of pollution that have blanketed entire Chinese cities in recent days are being written about with unprecedented self-critique and honesty. Officially sanctioned headlines are being published such as “A Beautiful China Starts With Healthy Breathing.” As the New York Times commented today, the China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper, also published a vitriolic article that prompted its readers to rethink China’s growth strategy and future, masking a critique of China’s underlying system behind the more visible reality of the toxic pollution. The article’s headline read: “Lack of Responsive Actions More Choking Than the Haze and Fog.”
Pressured by an abundance of Chinese netizens, the central authorities have certainly become more transparent than Beijing’s air in their releases of data regarding the levels of toxic fine particles. And it is these very netizens who are now changing the conversation that was once imposed by the Communist Party’s authoritarianism.
Indeed, the conversation is taking an entirely different slant, because it is starting from the newspapers and spreading into the blogosphere. Protests in recent years differ from the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in that social media has waltzed into the spotlight, and is playing an ever-expanding role in the delivery of news and the proliferation of ideas. The internet has shown people they can be better organized, more focused and more effective in their calls for a freer China. It has shown that nobody’s ideas are too small to spread. It is at times like these that more people should be reminded of the validity of the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s words: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
This article was also featured on Tea Leaf Nation.
The recent dispute over “illegal fishing” off the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines calls to mind the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute between Korea and Japan in the East Sea.
Just as the Japanese flaunt historical documents proving the Dokdo islets are Japanese, so too do the Chinese vociferously underline the existence of records proving that the Scarborough Shoal, or “Huangyan Island,” belongs to China. The Chinese claim that the earliest maps charting the territory were drawn up during the Yuan Dynasty, circa 1280 C.E. However, anyone with a humble knowledge of Chinese history is aware of the fact that the Yuan Dynasty corresponds to an epoch when China was ruled by the Mongols – the first non-Han (and thus by definition, non-Chinese) dynasty to rule over the Middle Kingdom.
The Koreans claim the first record of Dokdo was made in an important Korean document dating back to 1454: the Annals of King Sejong. This is approximately 200 years before it was officially acknowledged in Japanese texts. The Japanese document that mentions Dokdo for the first time is the 1667 text, Records on Observations in Oki Province, by Saito Toyonobu, a samurai of Izumo.
But Dokdo remained thoroughly insignificant to Japan up until the year preceding the Russo-Japanese War. As the situation between the Japanese and Russians escalated, Japan decided to build watchtowers and undersea telegraph cables in preparation for the inevitable clash with the Vladivostok fleet. It was at this time that Dokdo became highly valued for military and strategic reasons.
In the same vein, the Scarborough Shoal was insignificant to China, even during its exploration by the Yuan. Its importance is an extremely new phenomenon.
Alas, Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who coined the term politika, or politics, would undoubtedly have reacted with a decisive face-palm upon hearing of such infantile political brawls. The “I saw it first” mentality is not only foolish and untenable, but also potentially catastrophic if adopted by superpowers such as China.
One may ask, why is China’s argument of past glories untenable?
It would be all too nice for Italians to reclaim Northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, the Balkans, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and, while we’re at it, the lower half of Great Britain based on Roman conquests of yore. Not only is this presently unfeasible; it also makes little logical sense.
As for China, it just so happens that the Mongol Empire was the world’s second largest empire, after Great Britain’s. In other words, if China lays claim on territories charted during the Yuan Dynasty and acknowledges them to still be under its jurisdiction, it would end up fighting for countries it neither wants nor could even remotely handle: Putin’s Russia, Mongolia, the Caucasus and half of the Middle East. By extension, it would inherit all their problems.
In recent months, China has already had to face Tibetan protests and self-immolations, the Jasmine revolutionaries, an uprising in Wukan fishing village, a political scandal concerning Bo Xilai and the escape to the U.S. embassy of a blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng. At a time when China must maintain its stability for the impending 18th National Congress, where China’s new leaders will be elected, this is something the country cannot afford.
As an article on Al Jazeera notes, for Filipinos, “it’s a no-brainer: Scarborough Shoal, the triangle-shaped 150 square kilometer grouping of reefs and rocky islets less than 200 nautical miles from their eastern coastline, belongs to the Philippines.”
Who of the two, then, is right? Must we rely on historical records and maps to settle such matters? To answer this, let us observe the three biggest differences between the Scarborough Shoal maritime dispute and the Dokdo dispute.
First, the Dokdo/Takeshima conundrum has not yet been resolved on international terms. After World War II, the Allies forced Japan to leave Korean territory. However, during the Tokyo trials, many Asian countries had no representatives of their own. Korea was one of them. As John W. Dower explains in his book, Embracing Defeat, “Korea was not a bona fide sovereign nation at the time, nor was it clear when it would be. For the duration of the Tokyo trial, Japan’s former colonial subjects remained under alien occupation in a land divided between United States and the Soviet Union. They were not allowed to judge their former overlords and oppressors or to participate in preparing the case against them.”
During these trials, the Dokdo/Takeshima incident was not settled because its importance was deemed to be minor. This held true until Japan became a more lucrative ally than Korea during the Cold War, when the UN (i.e. U.S.) agreed to Japan’s claims over Dokdo in return for support against the Soviet Union and the Communist Block.
The “illegal fishing” conundrum near the Scarborough Shoal, has also not been resolved on international terms, but for very different reasons: China is unwilling to take the matter to international arbitration. Both China and the Philippines have signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that Exclusive Economic Zones extend from the edge of a territory out to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the baseline. The only exception to this rule is when an overlap occurs, in which case territoriality defaults to the closest nation. Scarborough Shoal is 472 nautical miles from China and 200 from the Philippines. China knows that it has lost the argument a priori.
Second, the waters surrounding Dokdo are rich in marine life, and the seabed may contain large gas deposits, oil resources, and coal. Similarly, the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal are also rich in marine life; in fact, fishing rights are the pretext for China’s tussle. However, the biggest difference between the two groups of islets–Scarborough and Dokdo–lies in the amount of gas and oil resources in their proximity.
According to a May 11 article in the Italian daily, La Repubblica, the estimated amount of oil near the Philippines is equivalent to 80% of the reserves in Saudi Arabia – the world’s top petrol exporter. Chinese access to such a resource could be vital to a speedy ascent towards becoming the world’s first economy. What’s more, during a joint exploratory mission in these waters by the American multinational corporation Exxon and PetroVietnam, a gargantuan gas reserve was found. These mirages appear as miracles to Vietnam and the Philippines, but as potential nightmares to China: A facile takeover of the disputed seas will not be possible if the U.S. backs Vietnam or the Philippines.
Simply put, the “illegal fishing” dispute is everything but an “illegal fishing” dispute, as the ChinaDaily and other government mouthpieces profess. Historical claims of sovereignty are a mere strategy for blind patriotism, an illusion cast upon the Chinese people to encourage chauvinism.
Rather, as Henry Kissinger explains in his book entitled, On China, China is currently adopting PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s ideology, which he published in 2010. He argued that to become the greatest nation, their country must displace the United States while nurturing a “martial spirit.” He writes,
“Due to the competitive and amoral nature of great power politics, China’s rise–and a peaceful world–can be safeguarded only if China nurtures a ‘martial spirit’ and amasses military force sufficient to deter or, if necessary, defeat its adversaries. … It must be prepared, both militarily and psychologically, to struggle and prevail in a contest for strategic preeminence.”
As Kissinger writes, the publication of this text in 2010 coincided with tensions in the South China Sea–which is precisely where the Scarborough Shoal is located, and which reflects the situation today.
To conclude, let us reflect on the third biggest difference – in my opinion the most perverse – between Scarborough and Dokdo: Hypocrisy. The hypocrisy framing the Dokdo/Takehima issue cannot remotely compare to that currently taking place in China.
China has been eager to cite its history as the reason for its sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. What the central authorities in Beijing neglect, is that the stories they allude to include the tales of emperors, heroes, concubines, temples and religions; they allude to that “feudal” history which they so thoroughly tried to obliterate during the Cultural Revolution.
The preamble to the Chinese Constitution reads, “China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world.” Are they referring to the history they so meticulously destroyed? It continues, “After waging hard, protracted and tortuous struggles, armed and otherwise, the Chinese people of all nationalities led by the Communist Party of China with Chairman Mao Zedong as its leader ultimately, in 1949, overthrew the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism, won the great victory of the new-democratic revolution and founded the People’s Republic of China.”
An entire generation of Chinese grew up unaware of its emperors, heroes, legends and gods, unaware of the Tiananmen massacre, of the names of its country’s temples, of its classical texts or of its ancient dynasties. And now, an entire generation of Chinese is being duped into believing that disputes in the South China Sea do not spring from its greed for “imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.”