Why China is also a loser in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute

Japanese prosecutors have vowed to free the Chinese captain they arrested two weeks ago after a collision near a set of uninhabited islands disputed between both Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Zhan Qixiong’s ship collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels on 8th September near the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), which both East Asian nations claim as their own. Zhan was subsequently handed over to prosecutors on the southern Japanese island of Ishigaki, where he was detained and questioned over “intentionally hitting at least one patrol ship and obstructing officers.” If found guilty, he could have faced up to three years in prison.

Today, however, Japan conceded that no damage was intended, but blamed Zhan for ignoring repeated requests to leave the hotly-disputed area.

The row between Japan and China following Zhan’s detention was a key factor in today’s decision making, Japanese prosecutors said. Premier Wen demanded Zhan’s release, claiming Zhan’s detention was illegal, while Tokyo called for high-level bilateral talks between the two nations. However, once Japan extended Zhan’s period of detention, China retaliated by cutting diplomatic communication.

It did not stop there: a selection of Chinese travel agencies cancelled package tours to Japan, while a Chinese ticket agency suspended ticket sales of a Japanese band’s gigs in mainland China, a Japanese tabloid reported. The situation became even stickier yesterday, as The Economist reports:

China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports.

The row undoubtedly opened a lot of old wounds for China in terms of its national pride, which Tokyo had feared. Since such a substantial part of Chinese nationalism rests on how China battled against foreign humiliation, in particular Japanese oppression, to form a nation, it is unsurprising that this month’s events have garnered such sensitive responses from citizens. Ever more the vehicle for discussion and protest, the Chinese Internet was awash with nationalist sentiment. In the words of one netizen, reposted on ChinaSMACK:

Our national humiliation can never be forgotten. As an ordinary common person, all I can do is be angry and boycott Japanese goods; if there is a war, as a reserve officer, I will not hesitate!

In conceding to China’s heated demands, Japan has, much to China’s relish, perhaps come off from this scenario looking weak and unable to avoid diplomatic pressure from its looming neighbour. That China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy is an attest to the Middle Kingdom’s growing prowess.

However, none of this is to say China is the ‘winner’ in this battle for Zhan’s release. As The Economist wrote today, China’s actions have “called into question its maturity as a responsible international actor and undermined its pretensions to a ‘peaceful rise’.” That China should respond so dramatically to such a dispute does its diplomatic image as a global player no favours. Similarly melodramatic responses have plagued the nation throughout the past year, from its stubbornness to agree to legally-binding cuts at Copenhagen to a slew of disputes with the US ranging from Google’s exit to the revaluation of the Renminbi.

However, given China’s knack for holding on to its history tight, in particular the pain inflicted on the nation by Japan, its reaction to this month’s events is perhaps understandable. But understandable only to an extent: China’s obstinacy may well prove to be unsustainable as more and more global players become, simply, fed up of having to deal with a nation that won’t compromise.

For the past year, China has been Japan’s number one trading partner, and so it is in both countries’ interests to maintain diplomatic ties. The nasty effect of this month’s episode on those relations remains to be seen: perhaps the two countries, with a lot of face having been lost, will proceed with business as usual. Perhaps the event may harbour deeper resentment for an inability to progress past historical wounds. In any case, the post-decision “chill” will certainly be felt.

Google and China: the sequel

Like most relocations, the recent move of Google’s Chinese service to Hong Kong has not been painless. On Monday, Google said that its mobile services in China were being partially blocked. Then, yesterday evening, much of Google’s search services were unavailable in mainland China. Many users reported that searches made from the google.com.hk page resulted in a resetting of the Internet connection, meaning no results were displayed. Browser error messages appeared regardless of what was being searched.

Some saw the disruption as the Chinese government’s eventual blocking of the Hong Kong site, the expected response to Google’s re-routing last week.

Initially, Google took the blame, saying that its own internal changes had conflicted with the filtering of the Great Firewall. The FT reported that Google had

configured its servers by accident in a way that made all its traffic appear to involve an organisation banned by the Chinese government. This had led to an automatic blocking of its search results by China’s “Great Firewall”, which filters information coming into the mainland.

The organisation in question was Radio Free Asia, a human rights and free speech radio station, also referred to as RFA. Coincidentally, a string of characters Google had introduced to all its search queries globally to improve results included the letters “gs_rfai”. Google said that the GFW had associated the letters ‘rfa’ with Radio Free Asia, resulting in the lockdown.

Yet, this being China and the reality never being quite simple, the events took a twist. Some hours later, Google attributed the problem to the GFW itself, claiming that the server configuration had occurred a week ago, thus could not have caused Tuesday’s fiasco. To quote Forbes’ Andy Greenberg, “China just happened to tweak its censorship of Radio Free Asia today, which sent Google searches into the ether.”

The convoluted events cap a sequence of icy tensions continuing to mount. As with the Google-China saga in its entirety, this week’s ongoing confusion reiterates the unpredictable and intricate workings of China’s censorship machinery.

Conspiracy theories are also hovering. According to Forbes’ Taylor Bulley,

China momentarily changed its RFA censorship purposefully in a manner that would give Google a taste of what it’s like to lose its China traffic without actually blocking Google. That might be a maneuver to let the PRC save face internationally and still give Google a chance to come back to the negotiation table with China’s cadres. (Google isn’t likely to compromise at this point, of course, but China wouldn’t have lost anything by trying.)

But the key issue is indeed that any chance of compromise is slim. While I do not buy the argument that the manoeuvre could have given Google a chance to negotiate (especially if a negotiation is not even on the cards), giving Google a taste of its own medicine seems plausible: saving face is certainly a top priority for the PRC, not least during this time of extra criticism.

In the meantime, the WSJ posits that, while a permanent blockage of Google’s searches by China may always be possible, it would not be an ideal move:

[it] would deal a sharp blow to the company’s hopes of continuing to operate part of its business in the country after dismantling its censored Chinese site. Google said last week that it hoped to maintain its music search and maps services in China, along with sales and research-and-development operations.

(…)

Many analysts have believed Beijing would stop short of that [permanent blockage] for fear of infuriating Google’s tens of millions of regular Chinese users, not to mention foreign businesses that require access to information.

What remains certain is that tensions are continuing to unfold murkily, not least thanks to another reminder of the difficulties that Internet companies in China face. As early as last Thursday, less than three days after google.cn’s relocation, the Yahoo e-mail accounts of at least a dozen rights activists, academics and journalists covering China were hacked. Upon trying to access their accounts, victims received an automated message that read, “we have detected an issue [with your account].”

Speaking to AP, Clifford Coonan, China correspondent for The Independent and the Irish Times, said,

I’d just be interested to see if anyone in the business community or outside of journalism and academia has had the same problem, then it might be less sinister (…) It’s obviously annoying, but if it’s just journalists and academics, that’s scary.

It is too soon to tell, however, whether this addition to the chain of events mirrors something more than a simple concoction of bad timing and coincidence.

Other than Google: bankrupt language schools, warplanes to Venezuela and a word on Gao Zhisheng

While the Google/China drama occupies most of the radar, some other great stories have been surfacing over the past few days. Check them below.

  • Tessa Thorniley has investigated the bankruptcies and “suicidal mismanagement” faced by language schools in China and the foreigners that flee from them. Remember Kai En?
  • Making the US a little more uncomfortable is openDemocracy’s news that China has supplied Venezuela with six warplanes. The official line is that these jets will be used for training missions and to target drug traffickers, and President Hugo Chavez said he was forced to turn to China because of US export controls. On a television broadcast he thanked the PRC: “The empire wanted to leave us unarmed. Socialist China, revolutionary China appeared and here are our K-8 planes.”
  • The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts has given us this horrific account of lead poisoning in China. Chinese authorities defended the six-month detention of lead poisoning victims in Hunan who were seeking medical care, saying the punishment was necessary for “public education”. The 53 villagers who were on their way to get health checks were mistakenly believed to be planning a protest. China Digital Times have also linked to an AFP story detailing the closure of a factory in Sichuan after its pollution caused lead poisoning in 100 people, 88 of whom were children.
  • On Tuesday, China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang called for greater medical reform in the country, the People’s Daily reported. He put great emphasis on working towards establishing a basic health care service system and improving health care services at grassroots level.
  • The New York Times reported that light has finally been shed on the Gao Zhisheng saga. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said Mr. Gao had been sentenced to prison for subversion. Yang also denied Gao had ever been tortured. That said, we still don’t know where Gao is or what this sentence refers to.
  • There’s been a lot of coverage of China’s hukou system. Tania Branigan has looked at how migrants’ children are bearing the brunt of the household registration, and provided video footage here. Carl Minzner from the LA Times has also written this op-ed outlining the changes necessary in hukou reform. Finally, yours truly has also looked at what bloggers have to say on Global Voices.
  • Ai Wei Wei is still my ol’ reliable. This time, he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that “China’s government has no humanity”, and he has faith that new media can effect change in China. And while we’re on the subject, China Media Project has summarised a talk by popular blogger Yang Hengjun discussing the Internet and social change. Yang said, “I can guarantee that if the Web did not exist I would not find a place to express what I wished to express.”
  • China Digital Times has linked to this piece in the FT summarising the “test of ties” Obama faces with Beijing. Further discussing the currency spat going on between China and the US, this editorial in the New York Times today asks “Will China listen?”
  • On a lighter note, this opinion piece in the Global Times has slammed the 2010 Miss Laowai China beauty pageant. Apparently, it’s female expats’ “inner grace and intelligence that sets them apart from their counterparts back home.” Aw.

China and Google: 16 hours later

I’m a little late to the game, but earlier today Google announced it was no longer willing to censor search results on google.cn,  threatening to eventually pull out of the PRC altogether. Google said this followed Chinese hackers attacking Gmail servers, with the intention of infiltrating accounts of human rights activists in the PRC.

Netizens and commentators typed on overdrive in response to the move. According to Rebecca MacKinnon, Google sent “a very public message – which people in China are hearing – that the Chinese government’s approach to Internet regulation is unacceptable and poisonous.”

Fears for the future of China’s cybersphere also rang around the FT. Internet commentator Xie Wen told the paper,

We are not allowed to play along with Web 2.0. Maybe the Chinese will become second-class citizens of the internet world. That is a real possibility. To put it more straightforward, some want to transform the internet into a national intranet.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the long censored Danwei, wrote with pragmatism on The Guardian’s CiF pages:

China’s internet does not meet international standards. Without Google, there is no way to pretend that it does. (…) As someone who agreed with Google’s reasoning when it entered China, I also support this move. If it cannot operate here in accordance with its global standards, it should leave.

But cynicism was also in full swing. Evgeny Morozov wasn’t buying the argument that cyberattacks forced Google to rethink its China policy. He said,

Google was in need of some positive PR to correct its worsening image (especially in Europe, where concerns about privacy are mounting on a daily basis). Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google’s business  (Google.cn holds roughly 30 percent of the Chinese market).

One positive outcome, for rival search engine Baidu at least, is that its shares have soared by 16.6% in the past few hours. Sina has followed suit with a 4.9% rise, whilst Google dropped by just over 2%.

As Charles Arthur, technology editor of The Guardian, claims, it would be nice to believe today’s events will put an end to China’s sophisticated censorship. But, as both he and Gady Epstein have reminded us, let’s not be naive: 2009 saw an unprecedented building up of the Great Firewall, and Google’s admittedly daring move isn’t going to chisel away at these bricks.

Web 2.0. has provided the privileged and passionate few who make up China’s online dissidents and activists with the chance to create a semblance of civil society. Yet, while the expansion of the online public sphere, with the help of proxies and VPNs, may continue, the democratic reform it seeks to achieve is still too far off in the distance to be visible.