- - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

China on bin Laden

Anti-American sentiment continues to be rampant among Chinese Internet users, most of them educated elites.

Reacting to the death of Osama bin Laden, large numbers of Chinese overwhelmingly viewed him as a heroic “anti-American fighter.” Immediately after the Navy SEALs’ successful mission that killed bin Laden, China’s Phoenix TV website conducted an online poll on the death of the world’s No. 1 terrorist. By midnight Tuesday, more than a half-million people responded. Asked “How do you feel about the death of Osama bin Laden,” 59.9 percent said they were “saddened, because an anti-American fighter has fallen.” About 20 percent indicated that they were “happy that he is dead.”

The same poll showed that while a clear majority strongly endorsed bin Laden’s anti-American “heroism,” almost 60 percent of those polled expressed disapproval of bin Laden’s indiscriminate killing of innocent people.

Some Chinese commentators were not surprised by the vitriolic anti-American feeling among so many Chinese. One of them, media commentator Mo Zhixu in Beijing, noted that the poll results represent progress since 90 percent of Chinese he polled right after the Sept. 11 attacks expressed cheering approval for the terrorists’ mass killings of Americans.

The strong anti-American hatred was reflected in website after website, microblog after microblog, across China’s vast cyberspace. In the most popular online chat room, Strong China Forum (qiangguoluntan), hosted under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily newspaper, almost all comments on bin Laden’s death predicted a gloom-and-doom future for the United States, as the death of bin Laden, they say, will expedite America’s decline. Or, as a blogger writing anonymously as “1235” opined on the People’s Microblog (renminweibo): “Laden’s death is just like the passing of a brother of the USA because American hegemony and terrorism are like twin brothers.”

Considering China’s highly controlled and censored Internet, it is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of these online polls. However, if pro-American sentiment is censored and deleted voluminously from polling data by China’s state propaganda organs, such polling results should reflect the Chinese government’s official anti-Americanism. If these results are accurate and uncensored, they are indeed revealing and shocking. Either way, the United States may have a far bigger problem in dealing with China in years than most Americans know.

China’s carrier name

The entire nation of China appears intoxicated lately with the imminent launch of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s first aircraft carrier. In recent weeks, virtually every media outlet in the communist state featured reports, analyses and illustrations on the upcoming sea trials of the refurbished Soviet ship as an unmistakable symbol for the dawn of Chinese naval revival, if not dominance, in the western Pacific.

One problem is that if the carrier is a symbol for something of great consequence, the Chinese inevitably resort to semantics and names — and this ship has a namesake that is nothing short of a Chinese fairy tale.

Designed by the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, the carrier originally was named Riga after the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia to symbolize ethnic unity under the Soviet regime. Yet when the Soviet Union was disintegrating after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russian nationalism was on the rise, so the ship, still under construction, was renamed Varyag in late 1990 to symbolize Russian pride.

Varyag was the name of the renowned protected cruiser in the czarist navy. Built in Pennsylvania by the shipyard William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia in 1899, the first Varyag served as a Russian Imperial admiralty’s capital ship in the 1904 to 1905 Russo-Japanese War. On Feb. 9, 1904, while blockaded by a Japanese fleet inside Incheon harbor, crews of Varyag scuttled the prized ship to avoid a humiliating surrender, thus creating a Russian naval legend.

The Japanese later salvaged the Varyag from the bottom of the Yellow Sea and refitted it to serve in the Japanese Imperial Navy with the name of Soya. So Varyag symbolizes much Russian-Japanese historical animosity.

This symbolic power did not go unnoticed by the Chinese government. Before the renamed Russian aircraft carrier was completely built, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992. The gigantic Varyag remained rudderless and without electronics in a Ukrainian shipyard waiting to be bought for scrap. In 1998, a Chinese company linked to the People’s Liberation Army bought the ship for $20 million. In March 2002, the behemoth was towed to the Chinese navy port of Dalian, a mere 300 miles away from the site of the original Varyag in Incheon harbor, Korea. It stands tall and proud, having been painted Chinese navy gray and outfitted with extensive new propulsion, electronics and weapons, making it almost certain to become China’s first aircraft carrier.

The docking of Varyag in Dalian is clearly a symbolic and cantankerous gesture meant for Washington’s close ally in Asia, Japan — Russia’s old foe and China’s new strategic regional and maritime opponent.

Yet the semantics game did not stop there. It was widely reported that the refitted former Russian carrier Varyag, once launched for sea trials this summer, will be called Shi Lang — after the last Chinese general to conquer Taiwan in 1683.

Taiwan is clearly not amused. On Monday, amid all the aircraft carrier hoopla in the communist state, China Times, the leading newspaper in democratic Taiwan, ran an editorial headlined “China Should Not Name Carrier After Conqueror of Taiwan.”

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.

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