Tea Leaf Nation
‘Stop Boasting and Fight’
Nationalist Chinese netizens are furious that their country didn’t take military action against the U.S. in the South China Sea.
On Oct. 27, the high-stakes maritime game of chicken that has been playing out in the South China Sea came to a head. In a long-discussed freedom of navigation patrol, the United States sailed the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, within 12 miles of artificial islands that China has built amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China tracked and warned the U.S. vessel; the operation concluded without incident and prompted swift condemnation from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But after weeks of tough government rhetoric claiming that China would not stand for what it views as a violation of its territorial sovereignty, Chinese social media voices are now mocking what many perceive as a spineless official response.
After learning that the U.S. naval operation was imminent, on Oct. 27 Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the United States to “think again and not to act blindly or make trouble from nothing.” Calling the ship’s actions illegal, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the ship’s actions threatened regional peace as well as U.S.-China relations. “The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability,” the ministry stated on its website. The ministry did not indicate whether Beijing would consider a military response. “I have no comment on a hypothetical question,” Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesman, told assembled journalists on the afternoon of Oct. 27.
But what look like stern warnings to the United States have prompted an outpouring of ridicule among China’s grassroots nationalists, who often evince online frustration at what they see as the Chinese government tendency to issue protests rather than take military action. Media giant Sina posted the Chinese foreign minister’s Oct. 27 warning to its news account on the Twitter-like site Weibo, where it quickly garnered more than 3,000 comments. “Don’t act rashly, otherwise I will start scolding you!” wrote one user in a popular comment, mimicking the Chinese foreign minister’s response to the U.S. naval operation. “What Wang Yi really means,” wrote another, “is ‘if you dare do this again, you better believe I’m going to strongly condemn you!’” A third user wrote mockingly, “We lodge a protest, we seriously lodge a protest, we protest we protest we super duper protest!”
An Oct. 27 editorial by state news agency Xinhua also endured netizen derision. It claimed that U.S. actions in the region had caused the “indignation of the Chinese people,” and that “China isn’t afraid of trouble.” The piece attracted thousands of comments on Weibo, the most popular of which almost universally ridiculed authorities for not taking action. “If you weren’t afraid of trouble, then you would fire a guided missile to get rid of [America],” went one popular comment. “‘China isn’t afraid of trouble,’ that really cracks me up,” wrote another user in a highly up-voted post. “What it fears most is when mighty foreigners stir up trouble.” Another demanded, “Stop boasting and fight!”
China has long maintained that it has sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, an important global waterway that several other nations also claim in part. As Chinese President Xi Jinping stated on his state visit to Washington, DC in September, the region’s islands have belonged to China “since ancient times.” In the past year, China has garnered international scrutiny for its rapid construction of artificial islands on what were once partially submerged features in the sea. The United States does not have claims in the region but has repeatedly emphasized that it will seek to preserve freedom of navigation in the resource-rich and trade-heavy region.
Beijing is surely familiar with the country’s reliably truculent online nationalists, and Chinese authorities have apparently worked to calibrate a message that is forceful enough to act as a believable deterrent to the United States while stopping short of promising direct military intervention. In May, Foreign Minister spokesperson Hua Chunying stated, amid U.S. consideration of a freedom of navigation operation, that such a move would “not give one country’s military aircraft and ships free access to another country’s territorial waters and airspace.” But as a U.S. navy patrol became more likely, official Chinese rhetoric became more pointed. On Oct. 14, Hua accused the United States of flexing its “military muscles” in the South China Sea, stating that China “will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight.” On Oct. 15, an editorial in the state-run and reliably nationalist Global Times condemned Washington’s “ceaseless provocations and coercion,” declaring that China “mustn’t tolerate rampant U.S. violations of China’s adjacent waters and the skies over those expanding islands” and adding that China’s military should “be ready to launch countermeasures according to Washington’s level of provocation.”
Evidently, Beijing did not appear to have launched countermeasures effective enough to prevent the USS Lassen from sailing within what China has repeatedly declared its inviolable sovereign territory. With such a mild initial response to the tune of netizen disdain, China’s tough nationalist rhetoric on its maritime sovereignty claims may seem to have been a strategic blunder, making it seem like a paper tiger on both the domestic and international stages. But Jessica Chen Weiss, associate professor of government at Cornell University, told Foreign Policy that the long-term outlook may be more in China’s favor. “The Chinese media have given prominent coverage to the U.S. naval patrol in the South China Sea, suggesting that the Chinese government does not plan to let this go unanswered,” said Weiss. “In addition to registering official expressions of displeasure, China will likely take additional measures to forestall domestic criticism and convey its tough stance on this now high-profile foreign policy issue.”
China’s shrill online nationalists may dominate the web in the aftermath of a flashpoint, but while common, such online outrage has not led to government action in the past. And some netizens harbor more nuanced perspectives. One particularly discerning Weibo user, who identified himself as a 22-year-old native of China’s northeastern Shandong province, also seemed to take the long view of the South China Sea, noting the behind-the-scenes machinations that make the region so complex. “This seems like a game,” wrote the user in a popular comment. “Not only have both countries maintained their reputations, neither country has suffered any losses.” Another observed somewhat sardonically that the situation, all told, was “well managed.” The user noted that China had “gotten rid of the U.S. ship, maintained its sovereignty, and hasn’t worsened the situation. Afterwards, it can be used as an excuse for militarization in the South China Sea.”
Correction, October 27, 2015: In his Sept. 25 remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that islands in the South China Sea have belonged to China “since ancient times.” A previous version of this article stated that Xi said that the islands have belonged to China “since the Tang dynasty.”
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr