SPEAKING FREELY Chinese opinion jars with policy on Korea
By Niklas Swanstrom and Kelly Chen
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
North Korea's missile and nuclear tests and its defiant attitude in the face of international condemnation have had negative consequences both for North Korea itself and all involved actors, but arguably no country has been affected more than China.
US military cooperation with its allies has been strengthened and the missile defense of Asia has been accelerated, even if
Secretary of State John Kerry has signaled room for maneuver if China can convince North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.
During the recent North Korea crisis, China's relative diplomatic weakness has been abundantly clear, as North Korea has largely ignored China. Nevertheless, while there has been a lack of success in its North Korea policy, which is indeed the case for all actors, it is arguably in the domestic domain that the most interesting effects have been felt.
The relative media storm in China has seen micro-blogging platforms and even the official press take a much more critical view of the North Korea situation than the Chinese government has done. Whereas this will not necessarily affect the current policies toward North Korea, it does point to a very interesting phenomenon: the ability and willingness of the educated elite and the public at large to express their opinions and the government's inability to control this. Thus the new challenge for the Chinese government is to try to harmonize public opinion and foreign policy, which will be no easy task.
The Chinese population, unlike in the past, now have the opportunity, even if they are not encouraged, to express their opinions on social networking platforms. However, such a development does not necessarily mean that the people's voice is actually being heard. To what extent the Chinese leadership has been considering public opinion when shaping policy regarding North Korea, for example, remains unclear. Nonetheless, it is evident that the uproar against Beijing's lenient policy toward Pyongyang has been greater than expected.
Government policy on North Korea has been very clear: despite increased sanctions from the UN, China will not destabilize the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Which implies that Beijing intends to continue with its old policy of maintaining the status quo. In the academic realm, as well as the blogging community, the response has been mixed but is largely critical of what is perceived as Beijing's weak policy.
While the Chinese government initially tried to censor certain words and arguments, the discussion has been relatively free and open on micro-blogging sites, perhaps more by necessity than by choice as the government has not been able to control the discussion.
Indeed, the case is similar to other foreign policy issues, and it seems the government is less interested in controlling such discussion than it is internal issues such as corruption and elite privileges. There are limits, however. Beijing sent out a clear signal when Deng Yuwen was suspended from his position as the deputy editor of the Central Party School's Study Times Journal.
The leaders will not accept open defiance from one of their own. In line with keeping Chinese policy consistent and so as not to "lose face", even if Beijing were to change the course of its North Korea policy, it would only be done through very subtle steps.
In the latest official statements, President Xi Jinping condemned actors seeking to jeopardize stability in the region or the world for selfish gains. Foreign Minister Wang Yi further stated that troublemaking on China's doorstep would not be allowed.
Such statements could be interpreted as being directly aimed at North Korea, or any other actor for that matter, including China's own bloggers and academics. Such warnings have not dampened the critical views of the latter, however, who are increasingly open in their criticism of China's North Korea policy, as well as any other policy that is seen as problematic and failing to stand up for China.
It is apparent that there has been a failure to harmonize the government's position with the views expressed by scholars and micro-bloggers. There are pros and cons of doing so for the Chinese government depending on how it decides to face the challenge.
On the one hand, the government could embrace the social networking platforms as a window to public opinion and thus try to communicate and engage with, but not necessarily integrate, the views of critics and so shape policies that could win over the people. On the other hand, there seems to be little that could guarantee a friction-free relationship between a burgeoning public opinion in foreign policy matters and official Chinese foreign policy.
This is a predicament of course by no means unique to China. Nevertheless, the latest events could herald the beginning of Chinese leaders coming in for increased public scrutiny and even ridicule. The challenge for the Chinese government is that the policy-making process and its long-term intentions are unclear, even for the populace that the government represents. Beijing will have, and is trying, to develop its media strategy oriented toward its own people but will also have to make its foreign policy intentions and decision-making more transparent.
This begs the question: if the debate on foreign policy is becoming increasingly free, how then can the government continue to censor the debate on internal issues. The answer is of course that it cannot and this might ultimately pose and even greater challenge than questions asked of its foreign policy.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Niklas Swanstrom is a director for the Institute for Security and Development Policy. Kelly Chen is a research assistant with the institute.