China’s Propaganda Strategy for South China Sea

Propaganda is central to Chinese leadership to uphold and enforce legitimacy of the regime. It is also an important tool to instill belief among the people that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the only institution that can help China become a global power and save the country from any future “national humiliation,” by external forces.

Likewise, China has also developed a full propaganda toolkit to promote its national capabilities among the international audiences for which it has marshaled its political, diplomatic, economic, strategic and cultural institutions to ‘sing the song’ of its achievements be it the ongoing pandemic through medical diplomacy, the Belt and Road Initiatives to showcase its ability to develop world class infrastructure, the Digital Silk Road to promote its technological prowess, heritage diplomacy through Silk Road tourism to promote its soft power, etc. In order to get a better understanding of Chinese propaganda on South China Sea it is useful to examine some of the mechanisms in this toolkit.

Perhaps one of the most innocuous way of showcasing Chinese sovereignty over features in South China Sea is the use promotional materials such as souvenirs, mementos, postcards, and clothing items such as T-shirts. These merchandise and memorabilia are distributed in the country as also overseas. Among these, the educational-instructional globe used in classrooms is a very god example. It depicts Chinese nine-dash line in South China Sea and being the top manufacturer of such educational-instructional instruments, these are available in schools all over the world.

As far as maps are concerned, China began printing a different map on its note verbale to assert “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters”. Also, a map published by SinoMap Press, had “a 10-dashed line, with an extra dash around Taiwan” to “realign claims along a common nationalist axis.”

China also has video games on South China Sea and at least one animated film ‘Abominable’ produced by DreamWorks film in which one scene features a map which shows China’s unilaterally declared "nine-dash line" in the South China Sea. Sure enough, the film invited sharp criticism and the authorities in Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia censored the scene.

Similarly, a Chinese television documentary “1974 Battle of Xisha” is a narrative on the Chinese navy’s battle at sea. However, a recent attempt by China to highlight its partnership with the Philippines against the COVID-19 through a song backfired after “many Filipinos found the lyrics a thinly veiled attempt by Beijing to reassert its claims over the disputed South China Sea”; it recorded 100,000 ‘dislikes’ on YouTube.

Second avenue for propaganda to generate nationalism among people is through cruise tourism between Sansha City to South China Sea. Although this cruise is expensive it is still popular and is loaded with both leisure and patriotism.

Third, Chinese propaganda on South China Sea is also supported by its academic community who have published as many as 260 articles in 20 “prominent” scientific journals to promote Chinese claims in South China Sea. Likewise scholars from Chinese think tanks are a common sight at international conferences on South China Sea across the globe, and aggressively defend Chinese position on the nine-dash line. Besides, these think tanks have set up bilateral academic MoUs with universities and think tanks across continents. In some cases, they are known to provide financial support for academic and research activities. According to a Taiwanese scholar, these types of Chinese actions serve at least two purposes i.e. “approach the international community and promote that the PRC has had the whole South China Sea forever” and also for “domestic patriotic education,”

Fourth, China has also set up think tanks on the study of South China Sea to fill the gaps in maritime knowledge (legal, diplomacy, security, strategy, etc.) and these help overcome shortages in “qualified maritime-affairs personnel skilled in international dialogue and cooperation.” These also serve the purpose of engendering “maritime consciousness” among the Chinese community.

For instance, in 1996, China established the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) at Hainan and it is affiliated with the China’s Foreign Ministry and State Oceanic Administration. Similarly, the Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies (CICSCSS), based at Nanjing University was set up in 2012. These institutes host foreign scholars and experts who are part of the regular faculty or can occupy adjunct positions. They are potential unofficial spokesperson who often defend Chinese policies with regards to South China Sea and this is also discernable from their writings and publications.

Fifth, China has adeptly used the electronic/digital/cyber/print/social media to push its claims of sovereignty over whole of South China Sea. It is mix of official statements and narratives that span the historical claims over South China Sea to promoting “delivery of public goods” for the safety of shipping in the region and providing emergency support to fishermen operating in the region.

It is therefore not surprising that China not only asserts its territorial claims in the South China Sea through military infrastructure development on disputed features, but also has a sophisticated propaganda strategy to justify its historical claims over the nine-dash line.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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