Propaganda: Chinese sharp tool to ‘win without a war’ in the South China Sea

Chinese sharp tool to win without a war in the South China SeaThough it is never said nor written, the Chinese government has invested considerably and consistently in propaganda to push for its nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea, defending and fencing such claims as well as its unlawful and arrogant activities in the South China Sea. China has turned propaganda into a front, or even a “modus operandi” in order to draw favours from the public to support its political, military, diplomatic, legal and field activities relating to sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. For years Chinese propaganda about the South China Sea, especially the nine-dash line, has become a powerful weapon to help Beijing “acquire territories” in the South China Sea without resorting to war.

In political science, information and communication are crucial, integral parts of the political life of any country both domestically and externally. In China, propaganda plays an even more important role as the Chinese Communist Party is the sole political party leading the country.

As for domestic affairs, Mao Zedong once pointed out that “strict media control is a prerequisite for political stability” and that “controlling a pen” is as critical as “controlling a gun.” Before August 2019, the Chinese Communist Party’s Guidelines on Propaganda still identified propaganda as “a very important task” in “maintaining the Party’s leadership.” Recently, Chinese leaders have emphasized the success of propaganda in maritime sovereignty protection, considering it as a political achievement to foster their legitimacy. However, regarding the propaganda about sovereignty in the South China Sea, especially that about the “nine-dash line,” China always ends up in the corner, being unable to produce any valid legal bases to persuade even its domestic public. Still, Beijing tries hard to imprint what China calls its “indisputable sovereignty” in the South China Sea into the minds of the Chinese people. The government then takes advantage of the imposed national “consensus” to advance their unlawful behaviors at sea.

In external affairs, countries around the world have long been suspecting China’s intention of a “peaceful rise” and seen Beijing as a “threat” or a greedy force trying to “invade territories,” “rob resources” from others. Particularly, in the South China Sea profile, although its “nine-dash line” claim is utterly unreasonable, China applies coercive methods such as forcefully taking over the reefs and building, then militarizing features, employing “gunboat diplomacy,” actively creating conflicts and conducting oil and gas exploration activities in other countries’ waters. Therefore, China has to use propaganda to cover up the strong international opposition. External communication has become an effective tool for Beijing to shape and lure international opinion, and at the same time, manipulating and controlling the behaviors of the parties concerned in favor of its “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea.

China is currently claiming almost all of the South China Sea, presenting baseless, unlawful arguments and evidence which contradict modern international law, especially the 1982United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is easy to point out the flaws in China’s claim. Regarding the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, China has no credible legal and historical proofs to claim sovereignty. The use of force to occupy the Paracel Islands in 1974 and some other shoals in the Spratly Islands in 1988 is illegal. China’s application of straight baseline in its claim for the Paracel Islands, demanding exclusive economic zones and continental shelves for some features in both the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, and the “nine-dash line” one are all unfounded and not included in UNCLOS 1982, of which China is a member.

However, despite other countries’ objection, China keeps conducting activities in all aspects to realize the above claims. In the legal field, it hurriedly builds domestic maritime legislations and releases legal documents violating international law and the legitimate interests of other countries. In the military field, China invests heavily in national defense, pushes up naval modernization and develops law enforcement and militia forces. In the political and diplomatic field, China still promotes bilateral negotiations, the ASEAN-China Dialogue on COC in favor of Beijing, promotes the idea of “joint development,” “the maritime silk road,” “community of common destiny” at sea, so on and so forth. At sea, China regularly holds large scale exercises, initiates conflicts with other claimants, and advances maritime surveys and explorations in waters of other countries. For instance, China blatantly sends geological survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Ironically, China always preaches in its propaganda about a peace loving, responsible and rules-abiding China. It constantly feels “unsecured” and worries that its policies and actions might taint its own international image, pushing other countries to stick to each other or become closer to the US and the West, which will then form an opposition or a counterbalance. As a result, China gives heavy weight to propaganda as an important front to mitigate and limit the negative impacts of its unlawful and unreasonable claims and illegitimate behaviors. Accordingly, all China’s propaganda serves both the political purpose of “advocating” for its illegal claims in the South China Sea, and the communication purpose of spreading the image of a China for “justice and peace” who “acts as a responsible regional big power.” Yet in practice, China’s words and deeds are usually incompatible.

History shows that China’s propaganda on the South China Sea has evolved through several stages and becomes more and more calculated. In each stage, China focused on different aspects of the South China Sea to “maximize” its interest. After 1949, China mainly streamlined its propaganda on the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands as it was in an “early stage of nation building” with limited maritime capabilities. Having occupied the Paracel Islands in 1974 by force and established Hainan Administration to carry out its unlawful claims in the South China Sea, China gradually shifted to diversify its information and propaganda on the South China Sea, from not only its position on the “sovereignty” over the Paracel and Spratly Islands but also maritime resources and the naming of features there. After “devouring” a part of the Spratly Islands in 1988, China started to preach about “friendly neighborliness” and “setting aside dispute for joint development.” Since 2009, China focuses its propaganda on the “nine-dash line,” rejecting the US’ and other powers’ engagement in the South China Sea, rejecting and criticizing the PCA ruling. Clearly, China’s propaganda through the various historical stages is consistent with its overall expansionist policy in the South China Sea.

In the increasingly complex context of the South China Sea, China’s [South China Sea] policy is facing criticism from many more countries. Chinese hegemonic intention becomes clearer in the public eyes and Beijing now has stronger urge to reaffirm its “sovereignty,” maneuver public opinion, and build its image as a “justice-loving and responsible big power.” Thus, it executes its propaganda strategy in a comprehensive, professional way in the following directions: (1) Asserting “sovereignty,” interests in the South China Sea, never giving up “sovereignty” and advocating blindly for China’s claims; (2) Protesting claims and arguments of other countries, accusing them of violating China’s “sovereignty” to turn their waters into disputed areas; (3) Supporting China’s solution to South China Sea disputes, especially bilateral negotiations, while emphasizing China’s “good will;” (4) Giving excuses, covering up its belligerent, extreme actions, and assuring the world that China would not harm the freedom of navigation; (5) Opposing third party's engagement, accusing this as “complicating the dispute.”

With these directions, China has “molded” and developed different propaganda products for all the different channels to spread information to both domestic and international public. It is easy to see that Chinese propaganda is well intended and one way – it doesn’t seek to argue or persuade, but rather to confuse thinking and awareness by “stuffing” Chinese perspectives into others' mind and use communication channels, technologies to control public opinion. China wants other countries and people to not only understand its arguments and positions but also think the way Beijing wants them to, thereby supporting China’s policies, or at least, remaining silent and not protesting. Many international communication experts share the same view that China’s propaganda about the South China is “black propaganda.”

China has employed different propaganda channels. First, magazines, newspapers and prints are still the most popular. According to National Library of China (NLC), China is storing about 123,188 published news articles and reports, more than 1,000 book titles in Chinese, and nearly 250 book titles in English about the South China Sea. The number of Chinese research articles published on magazines has also increased by the year. Particularly, in 2016, when the PCA ruling in the Philippines vs. China case in the South China Sea was made in which China lost, there were 1,751 research articles published on various “scientific” magazines. It is worth to see that China spent a huge amount to hire scholars to write articles, buy stocks to gain ownership of prestigious newspapers, buy columns on others to spread its desired information and positions. Second, China spent enormously on broadcasting channels. Currently, there are 187 news channels and 2,269 radio and television stations with 98.88% coverage nationwide. China Central Television (CCTV) is the most popular TV channel to spread propaganda about the South China Sea, especially on CCTV 4 – an international news channel. China Radio International (CRI) is China’s most important station for external communication which consistently broadcasts about the South China Sea issues on FM 101 and FM 102. There are movies which last for more than an hour and a half, but the “nine-dash line” is only covered for 4 seconds. Although it is a very short time, it is China’s delicate promulgation method. Third, digital platforms, including websites, social media such as Weibo, Weixin, Twitter, etc, serve as China’s fastest means to spread propaganda with great impact to the Chinese masses. According to statistics, in China, 35% of mobile device users read news on Weixin and 20% reads it on Weibo. Thus, disseminating information about South China Sea on these platforms becomes more common. Nonetheless, the above social media applications have strict regulations of foreign news control, thereby blocking foreign news from being spread, and creating a cohesion of information circulated in China. Fourth, through various forms of products, activities and events such as international conferences, tourism fairs, sport events, exhibitions, contests, sightseeing tours, films, arts, etc, China exploits its role as the host or sponsor to shape the program agenda to take on the leading role for the South China Sea propaganda in its favor. Movies such as Operation Red Sea, Abominable, etc are clear examples of the Chinese plan to associate political intention with mass products. Currently, China is striving more to gain ownership, control modern communication platforms to be more in control in propaganda activities to serve its interests in the South China Sea.

In short, in order to realize its ambition to control and manipulate the South China Sea without resorting to war (which China does not opt), besides putting military, diplomatic and field pressures, China has been increasingly using its South China Sea propaganda, especially the one about the “nine-dash line,” to shape public opinion, spread foul proofs and unreasonable arguments, aiming at creating an image of China’s “peaceful rise” to cover up its true hegemonic ambition. This kind of weapon is seemingly harmless, but based on its performance, is actually a sharp tool for China to “win without a war” in the South China Sea.