Ahead of a key international arbitration court ruling next Tuesday over China’s territorial dispute in the South China Sea, Beijing has unleashed an unprecedented English-language public relations push to tell its side of the story.
Newspapers across the world have carried editorials by Chinese ambassadors, while social media have been blanketed with videos, tweets and Facebook posts presenting the government’s stance.
The ruling by a tribunal at The Hague centers on the applicability of China’s vaguely drawn “nine-dash line” South China Sea boundary under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.
The court is widely expected to rule in favor of the Philippines, which unilaterally filed the case in 2013.
China has not participated in the case and has vowed to ignore the ruling, but as the clock ticks, Beijing is harnessing the power of the internet and of its global network of diplomats amid what it has routinely labeled as “media hype” in the Western press.
On Friday, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party, released a series of 10 English-language videos on YouTube in which scholars and officials from China, Malaysia and Singapore “voiced opinions on the South China Sea issue that are similar to the Chinese government’s stance,” the state-run Global Times reported Tuesday.
While China Central Television, the leading state broadcaster, has produced a number of short videos explaining the government’s position, it also released a slickly designed web cartoon in English for the internet generation late last month.
In that video, titled “Who is stirring up trouble in the South China Sea?” Beijing takes a consumer-driven approach to drum up support for its case, highlighting the key role the waters play as international trade routes.
“Do you want to buy the most fashionable clothes or electronic devices with state of the art technology?” Then “you’d better pray for the peace and safety of the ocean,” the video says in dubbed English.
While citing its moves to “better ensure the safety and freedom of this shipping route,” it takes the U.S. — “a faraway country” — to task for raising tensions in the region.
China has also criticized Western media for their coverage of the South China Sea dispute, claiming it is a U.S.-backed campaign designed to discredit Beijing while ignoring the lighthouses and meteorological forecast facilities that have been built by China for the “public good.”
“Uncle Sam and its friends are good at staging biased media publicity campaigns, confusing different concepts and applying double standards,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in a June 17 editorial. “The farce, led by the U.S. and supported by its allies, was intentioned to make China the scapegoat for the tense situation in the South China Sea region.”
Yet another part of the recent propaganda push was a rap music video released by China’s Communist Youth League on June 28 that aims to tell foreigners “the truth” about the country.
That song opens by saying it wants to “restore the impression you have on my country, China,” saying a false image had been fabricated by the Western media.
According to June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor who served as a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, most of the people who come across these kinds of videos and opinion pieces are unlikely to be paying much attention to the issue.
“Legal arguments that concern fishing in distant areas are far from their concerns,” said Dreyer.
“Statements by international courts are more likely to be perceived as authoritative versus the opinion of one of the parties to the legal case,” Dreyer said.
“It is likely that the reason for Beijing’s efforts to present its case to the public is defensive: it fears that ITLOS’s decision will go against it,” she said, referring to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, whose president picked the members of the Hague tribunal.
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