China South Sea Myth Backfires

The lengths to which China will go in creating myths about its claimed historical rights to the so-called (in English) South China Sea has been uncovered by an enterprising reporter for the BBC.

A few weeks ago supposed documentary proof was widely reported in China’s media, and elsewhere, from 600 years ago of Chinese fishermen’s use of the Spratly and Paracel Islands as their traditional fishing grounds. In the possession of an 81-year inhabitant of Tanmen on the east coast of Hainan was a document handed down from generation to generation of his family. It supposedly described how to sail both to the (relatively close) Paracels and the (distant and widely scattered) Spratly islands.

However, on being questioned by the reporter, the man, named Su, said it was no longer in his possession. He was quoted as saying: “I threw it away because it was broken.”

The incident would be comic if it did not reveal the lengths to which party propaganda will go to prove the most outrageous territorial claims. Even if foreigners are sceptical, belief in their accuracy becomes deeply embedded in citizens, part of a nationalist mythology that go unquestioned by controlled media.

It is indeed a reminder of Adolf Hitler who was among the most successful practitioners of this form of propaganda, enabling him to convince Germans their war against Jews and Communists was essential for national survival.

Quote from Mein Kampf: "Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively… it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side. (...) The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted… Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward"

Hitler to his generals: “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn't matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth."

Less ridiculous but more dangerous than the Hainan “document” is the endless flow of deliberate lies about historical events that flow from China and its army of ethnic brethren apologists on the subjects of the islands and shoals in the South China Sea.

The well-drilled propaganda machine has been busy trying to discredit the author of perhaps the most authoritative work on the sea claims “The South China Sea” by Bill Hayton. Hayton wrote a critique of an article in the South China Morning Post under the byline of former Hong Kong Chief Executive and members of various “patriotic” bodies Tung Chee-hwa pointing out a number of egregious factual errors.

This has since been followed by letters attacking Hayton on the basis of historical fictions. One W.L. Chang wrote that the omission of reference to the Spratlys and Paracel islands in the 1943 Cairo Declaration (attended by the Republic of China) and the Potsdam agreement two years later on the subject of restoration of territories seized by Japan meant they were obviously included through the use of the phrase “such as” in relation to Manchuria, Formosa meant that they were included!

Chang must know perfectly well that France claimed both island groups on behalf of the Emperor of Annam and had sent warships there in the 1930s.The modern Philippine claim to the Spratlys dates to 1946, a few weeks after independence when France was still insisting on its Annam claim and left a marker on Itu Aba. This is the biggest of the Spratlys and lies closer to the Philippines than to any other country. Known as Taiping in Chinese it has been garrisoned by Taiwan since 1956.

The brutal fact is that no one else in the region or the major outside powers ever recognized Chinese claims to the Spratlys any more than they had recognised Japan’s claims, enunciated in 1939 and implemented in 1941-42 after the ouster of the Americans from the Philippines.

Yet another writer to the SCMP, one K.L. Tam repeated the statement the claim that omission of the islands from the Cairo and Potsdam declarations meant they were included in territories to be restored to China – notwithstanding the French claims which, in the case of the Paracels, were backed by force to thwart Chinese attempts to occupy all of them.

Again Tam ignored the French claims to the Spratlys which date to well before Japanese claims and China’s first landing on any of them in 1946 or the 1947 publication of the nine-dash line to which Chang referred.

Hayton was also attacked for noting that China had originally claimed an island, Zengmu Tan which did not exist. This feature, close to the Sarawak coast and known in English as James Shoal, is actually 20 meters below the sea surface. Only later did China change its designation from island to shoal. It is the approximate southern limit of Chinese claims based on imagination and the “manifest destiny” of the Chinese people than on actual history or knowledge.

Underlying Chinese official attitudes is not simply the need of the Communist Party to find an expansionist nationalist ideology to replace Marxism. It also appears to represent traditional Chinese views of the racial and cultural inferiority of their neighbors to the south. The belief in the superiority of pale over brown, let alone black, skin is pervasive in Chinese history. It finds echoes today in mainland interest in eugenics and the lingering belief that Chinese people evolved separately from other humans.