Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Censors Are Giving North Korea a P.R. Makeover

It used to be all the rage to call ruler Kim Jong-Un nasty names. Now they’re getting deleted.

Participants wave flowers during a mass military parade in Pyongyang on October 10, 2015. North Korea was marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones        (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Participants wave flowers during a mass military parade in Pyongyang on October 10, 2015. North Korea was marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 10, Liu Yunshan, a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee and one of the seven most powerful men in China, paid a visit to North Korea to observe a massive parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party, which rules that country with an iron fist. On a balcony overlooking tens of thousands of goose-stepping soldiers and other displays of state might, Liu clasped hands with Kim Jong-Un, who ascended to power less than four years ago following the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, who inherited power from his own father, Kim Il-Sung. Liu thus became the highest-level Chinese official to visit the hermitic Communist dictatorship since Kim’s dynastic ascension. But that’s not the only sign of respect China’s government is paying to the younger Kim; it’s now censoring criticism of North Korea online, and openly calling on netizens to stop mocking the country’s leader.

The years since Kim the third came to power have been particularly rocky for North Korea’s relations with China. In May 2012, North Koreans kidnapped and held for ransom 29 Chinese fishermen, stoking popular anger; in February 2013, Pyongyang reportedly ignored Beijing’s entreaties not to carry out its third nuclear test. Meanwhile, to many Chinese online commenters, North Korea appears to evoke China under late communist strongman Mao Zedong; a totalitarian state, economic backwater, and international pariah that shares a Communist provenance with China but has shamed itself with its inability or unwillingness to follow their country’s reformist blueprint. Unable to speak with such force about Mao, or China’s current leadership, netizens have for years taken delight in tweaking Kim, touching up images of his visage with lipstick and rouge and creating a video showing Kim him in a muddy fistfight with the Japanese prime minister.

Liu, who directed China’s propaganda apparatus for years, is surely mindful of this dynamic, and China’s state media apparatus kicked into audible gear following his visit. A widely circulated Oct. 11 article on popular social media platform Wechat depicted Liu as having brought the “gift” of party support for Kim and his government with him to North Korea. The article, highly sympathetic to the “extremely hard-working” Kim, complained that Chinese liberals “frequently shoot off opinions about a cooling in China-North Korea relations, or Chinese abandonment of the North.” But nothing could be further from the truth, it argued; Kim has simply been “busy with internal governance” since ascending. Chinese government mouthpiece People’s Daily then featured the visit on page one of its Oct. 12 edition. It stated that Liu also attended that evening’s march by torch-bearing youth, lay flowers at the base of a memorial for late Worker’s Party founder Kim Il-Sung, and toured the Korean Fatherland Liberation War Memorial.

Contrast that fawning state-driven coverage with Chinese cyberspace, which for years has been awash with invective aimed at Kim Jong-Un, whom netizens commonly called “fatty Kim the third.” A July 2014 analysis by Foreign Policy showed 15.7 million mentions of the term on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, and found plenty of grist as well on the Twitter-like Weibo, a breadth of use that constituted “proof positive of censors’ indifference.” But that all appears to have changed; an Oct. 12 search on Baidu blocks all mentions of the term for failing to cohere with “relevant rules and regulations,” although a search for “little fatty Kim the third” calls up a dead link that promises to lead to 336,081 related images, a vestige of the term’s bygone ubiquity. On Weibo, as of Oct. 12, searches for the term have been blocked, also “in accordance with relevant rules and regulations.” Such language typically indicates that officials have sought censorship.

The drive appears to be part of a government-led effort to rehabilitate North Korea’s tattered image within China. In an Oct. 12 editorial, reliably nationalistic state-run outlet Global Times explicitly called on Chinese web users to end their once-ceaseless bashing of the North in an article titled, “Some Chinese People’s Making Fun of North Korea Does Not Show Self-Respect.” In a feat of understatement, it complained that“some voices have emerged on the Chinese Internet making fun” of the North. But in a line that seemed directed both domestically and internationally, the opinion continued, “We want to say to that portion of Chinese people openly chattering about North Korea are not showing self-respect. And they clearly do not represent the collective sentiments of the Chinese people toward North Korea.”

It’s unclear what has precipitated China’s recent shift. Chinese officials may feel a corrective to the longstanding vitriol is needed, given that the party-state feels that tolerating North Korea’s erratic behavior is in China’s interest. Far better to have a relatively pliant neighbor, the rough calculus goes, than a collapse or reunification with South Korea, either of which would position the U.S. ally at China’s southern doorstep.

The Times article acknowledged that compared to China, North Korea “faces more difficulties and is internationally sanctioned. Those are facts. China and North Korea had a serious falling out over the nuclear question; that’s also a fact. But none of this is an excuse for humiliating those on the other bank of the Yalu River,”which separates the two countries. “We need to respect North Korea’s political choices,” the article continued. “Perhaps we ‘don’t like’ some things about North Korea, but a great nation can tolerate diversity on its borders.”

On Weibo, responses poked holes in the Times’ logic. “So if parents next door are abusing their children, I’ll just pretend nothing is happening,” went one. Another wrote, “we’ll tolerate backwardness and abuse of power.” Another argued, “North Korea’s political choices are Kim Jong-Un’s political choices, not the choices of the North Korean people. So why should we respect it?”

The latest Chinese effort to rehabilitate North Korea’s tattered online image is in keeping with other campaigns to shape public opinion: it combines censorship of skeptics, paternal finger-wagging for the noncompliant, and the halo of“diversity” for a country’s “political decisions,” even if that means a massive apparatus of internal oppression. More subtly, Chinese officials appear eager to reposition North Korea not as an economic laggard too foolish to embrace reform, but a fragile nation eager to follow China’s path if only given the chance. The Times article, for example, took pains to stress that “North Korea is eager for communication with the world, and badly wants to develop.” An Oct. 12 report by news portal Sina noted that Kim said he wishes to host either the World Cup or the Olympics “as soon as possible.” (Web users promptly dismissed it as a pipe dream, akin to North Korea landing humans on the sun.) And Wu Danhong, a well-known pro-government voice and professor in Beijing, said on Weibo that he attended the 70th anniversary parade, posting a flyover image of the Taedong River at the center of Pyongyang, North Korea’s showcase capital, looking just a bit like Shanghai’s Huangpu River before the area around it transformed into a cluster of skyscrapers.“Next time I come,” he wrote to North Korea, “I hope you’re rich, prosperous, and self-confident.”

Image: AFP/Getty

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

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