(From Radio Free Asia)
Media outlets controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party moved on Wednesday to tamp down spreading patriotic protests in the wake of an unfavorable arbitration decision over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Last week, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in The Hague ruled in an arbitration case initiated by the Philippines to limit the size of territorial waters claimed by China in the disputed maritime region.
China immediately reissued claims to sovereignty over all land features in the South China Sea, as well as entitlement to internal waters, territorial seas, an exclusive economic zone, and the continental shelf.
Scattered protests have already broken out around fast-food outlet KFC and other U.S.-linked targets, with some calling for a boycott of U.S. goods in the wake of the ruling.
“The protest against the KFC is obviously irrational,” the Global Times newspaper, which has close party ties, said in an editorial on Wednesday.
“Whether it is a spontaneous demonstration or one manipulated by other forces is still unknown,” it added, without elaborating.
But it called for a “rational” patriotism that protects and safeguards the safety of Filipinos, who brought the arbitration case, as well as the U.S. and Japan, who have opposed Chinese claims in the crucial shipping lanes of the South China Sea.
“Extreme nationalism does not reflect the mainstream attitude in Chinese society,” the paper said.
Public order warnings
Meanwhile, party mouthpiece the People’s Daily warned against any breach of public order.
“Any action that promotes national development can rightfully be called patriotic,” the paper said in an editorial. “But so-called patriotism that willfully sacrifices public order will only bring damage to the nation and society,” it warned.
Posts circulated widely on Chinese social media following last week’s ruling against China by The Hague arbitration tribunal, with one post calling on the public to boycott KFC and McDonalds on July 15 and 16, while small numbers of protesters showed up outside a KFC outlet in the northern province of Hebei on July 17, it said.
“Boycott U.S., Japan and the Philippines! You are eating KFC from the U.S. and bringing shame on China!” their banners read. Similar protests also popped up in Hunan, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Anhui provinces.
The protests have sparked counter-protests by others who defend their right to eat at KFC if they want to.
There have also been calls for boycotts of Philippine mangoes and iPhones, while a Hangzhou-based company issued a directive banning its employees from buying the new iPhone7, saying they would offer subsidies for employees buying Chinese-made smartphones instead, the paper said.
Some social media users, who are assumed to be members of the “angry youth” generation born in the 1980s, have posted images of themselves smashing their iPhones, wearing patriotic slogans.
But trade officials have played down any suggestion of boycotts of foreign goods in response to the ruling, while the official news agency Xinhua said recent protests had little to do with patriotism.
“In the farce of the South China Sea arbitration, we take a tit-for-tat approach, but still hold the moral high ground,” the agency said in a commentary.
The government appears to be trying to avoid a repeat of scenes in late 2012, when tens of thousands of angry protesters thronged the streets of cities across China to protest the nationalization of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea, with some smashing Japanese cars and injuring their drivers.
But Chongqing-based scholar Zhang Qi said there is far less unity to be found in online comment than there was just a few years ago in China.
“We can see from the KFC incident that the government no longer has the same hold on public opinion that it did 10 years ago,” Zhang said. “A lot of people are calling for boycotts of U.S. and Japanese … goods, but there are some people calling for a boycott of goods made by idiots, too.”
“This definitely helps the forces pushing back against the Chinese government’s attempts to manipulate nationalist fervor,” he said.
Patrols to continue
China refused to participate in the arbitration and has refused to recognize last week’s ruling overturning its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), meanwhile, has vowed to continue air patrols and a program of island-building on disputed reefs.
China says it wants direct talks with the Philippines over the dispute, but Manila has said Beijing should first recognize the arbitration tribunal’s ruling.
Hong Kong political commentator Willy Lam said there is little immediate threat from heightened military tensions in the region, in spite of recent PLA military exercises around the Paracel Islands ahead of the court ruling.
“The likelihood of a mishap from accidental firing of weapons is still pretty low,” Lam said. “Most of Beijing’s ire is directed at Japan and the U.S., and the … issue was discussed during the visit of U.S. Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson to Beijing.”
He said continued PLA military exercises in the region were just a show of force.
“China knows very well that any kind of clash will carry little benefit for Beijing or for any other country,” Lam said. “It’s all done to raise morale.”
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Copyright Radio Free Asia 2016