Friday, May 25, 2012

The keyboard as a blunt instrument:
Rise of the Chinese netizen machinery
(plus Peresnorka Watch)

You may recall in February I briefly mentioned the case of Wu Ying (pictured above), a woman of humble origins in China who rose to be one of the richest females in all of China. For the crime of defaulting on $160 million in loans as her business collapsed, she was sentenced to death.

Long-time readers of Monster Island know my Catholic-influenced and logically concluded opposition to the death penalty in virtually all cases (except where a person kept alive continues to kill), but it holds doubly and triply so for those who have been sentenced to capital punishment even though their crime did not actually lead to someone's death.

Ms Wu Ying's case definitely falls into that category, just like those of virtually all the other white-collar criminals in China who've been given the death penalty. Apparently the Chinese netizenry agrees, and in that land where the closes thing to democracy is delivered through the Internet, the government was forced to sit up and take notice:
Wu Ying, once ranked as China’s sixth richest businesswoman, was sentenced to death with a two year reprieve on Monday evening; such sentences are almost always commuted to imprisonment after two years.

The Supreme Court had overturned an original death sentence in April, ordering the High Court in Zhejiang, Ms. Wu’s home province, to reconsider its judgment after a huge public outcry. The case has attracted attention as an example of how the Chinese legal system can be influenced by public sentiment.

“Public opinion played a very important role in this case,” wrote @Heyu Crisis on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform, which had registered more than 3.7 million tweets about Wu Ying by Tuesday afternoon. “This case proves once again that the people’s will is truth,” declared another user called @Shishi bear.
Good on you, Shishi bear (no relation). So often we hear in Korea about the rabid anti-Korea bashing of the netizenry, but it's good to see people taking an interest in responsible citizenship.

+ - + - +

In the wake of North Korea's detainment of nearly thirty Chinese fishermen and their vessels, this behavior also channels criticism onto the Beijing leadership for their support of the Pyongyang regime:
Many netizens have criticized the Chinese government's handling of the incident, some even calling Beijing "impotent".

"After such a shameful incident, why doesn't our government demand an explanation from North Korea?" a Weibo user said.

Some have accused Beijing of trying to play down the matter for fear of offending Pyongyang.

"[The government] criticizes Japan, America, the Philippines and Vietnam every day, but dare not utter a word against North Korea," You Yi, a Shenzhen-based commentator, wrote on his microblog.
[I find this idea — that China is afraid to offend North Korea even though it frequently pokes the eyes of Japan, the US, etc. — to be very interesting, sort of a mirror to South Korea's left (and even the right) taking shots at Tokyo and Washington (de facto allies) while avoiding criticism of Beijing and Pyongyang (an economic partner it's trying to woo and a crazy uncle in the attic, respectively).]

The Chinese media is following suit:
hina’s leadership is hitting a rough patch with ally North Korea under its new leader Kim Jong Un, as Beijing finds itself wrong-footed in episodes including Pyongyang’s rocket launch and the murky detention of Chinese fishing boats.

The testy state of China-North Korea affairs became public this week after Chinese media flashed images of the fishing crews, some of the 28 crew members stripped to their longjohns, returning home after 13 days in North Korean custody accused of illegal fishing. The reports quoted the fishermen as saying they were beaten and starved, and the coverage unleashed furious criticism in China’s blogosphere.

“The North Koreans are like bandits and robbers,” China’s Southern Metropolis Weekly newspaper quoted one fisherman as saying Tuesday. The story, shared thousands of times on China’s Sina Weibo social media website, said the hijackers ripped down the Chinese flag on one boat and used it “like a rag.”
Of course, this isn't the first time we've seen Chinese netizens criticize their government. In late 2010, in the wake of the North Korean attack on Yŏnpyŏng-do, which killed two South Korean civilians and two ROK military personnel, there was open questioning of China's support for the DPRK.

Anger toward North Korea has always been a bit subdued, however, in part because (as I have opined) Chinese are generally ignorant about the evil excesses of the government in North Korea.

But while there is ambivalence back then, the big difference now is that the Chinese netizenry sees their own country as the victim of North Korea's brinkmanship this time around (although I'm not so sure). At One Free Korea, Joshua suggests that their anger toward their own government over a lack of firmness befitting cooked pasta means little, but the fact that they were allowed to express their dismay is itself enlightening:
No, the Chinese government isn’t about to bow to the demands of Weibo commenters, but the other side of this cause-and-effect relationship is interesting. This outrage, as temporary as it’s sure to be, has to be a consequence of a deliberate decision by the Chinese government to make a public issue of this incident. China’s attitude here really isn’t all that different from what you’d expect had the arresting authorities been South Korean — this really seems to be a reflection of China’s insistence on the filial piety of its vassal states. China’s beef isn’t that North Korea is brutal, it’s that North Korea is rebellious.
I completely agree with him that this is largely about Benevolent Big Brother China being upset with its propped-up satellite state. Back in 2008, when protesters lined the route of the Olympic Torch in both Nagano and especially Seoul, Chinese were furious that their fellow Greater Sino-world Co-Prosperity Sphere members would stoop so low as to insult their historic masters. North Korea generally reacting like a junkyard dog has kept it immune from this treatment, but the recent fishermen incident may have been a game-changer.


And we have to wonder in what other ways it is a game-changer. In light of the past behavior of Chinese fish pirates in South Korean waters, I'm of the belief that North Korea may have been acting reasonably in detaining the Chinese (and we'll probably never know), but what was up with North Korean authorities actually going through with the capture and payment plan?

To cut to the chase: Is Kim Jong-un looking for ways to change direction from his father's in an effort to spin North Korea out of China's orbit? From inviting the world to see what could easily be a failed launch, to being upfront with the North Korean people that the celebrated achievement turned out to be a total muck-up, to openly criticizing the way the country has been run (at least on the periphery), we've seen some behavior that is very uncharacteristic of a North Korean leader.

Is the Western-educated Kim Jong-un seeing his country's future with South Korea, the US, and Japan, in some sort of Peresnorka? Is there some serious palace intrigue going on behind the scenes we don't know about, with the fishing boat incident a flare-up in this unseen war? If there really were changes, what would they look like and how would we know?

I don't know the answer, but it is an interesting question. To complicate matters, my readings of the KCNA news reports have chronicled a severe underreporting of Kim Jong-un's activities, which could be a sign of who knows what.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE:
The Chosun Ilbo has an article on "welcome signs" that China's attitude toward North Korea is changing. It offers this advice for Beijing:
If China continues to deal with the North Korean defector issue simply from the perspective of a border treaty it signed with Pyongyang in 1998 and continues to ignore the human rights of defectors, it would seriously undermine Beijing's goal of becoming a global leader. The time has come for China to consider not only relations with long-time ally North Korea, but also to think about the standards that are expected from a leading global power.
Yeah. I'm sure the Chinese will agree. Now where's the "eye rolling" emoticon? (Seriously, one of the big problems South Koreans have in dealing with China is that they are used to their biggest ally, the US, actually responding to bad press and bad impressions, at least some of the time. China, seeing itself as Benevolent Big Brother and the natural leader of a Sinocentric East Asia behind which countries like the Koreas, Japan, Vietnam, etc., will fall in line, simply doesn't give a rat's arse.)

Did Kim Jong-un (inside circle, center back) learn about the virtues of democratic rule and freedom during his years in Switzerland, or did classmates in the back left and front center teach him that choking and other forms of violence are the way to solve conflict?

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