No, a state leader did not die ... but it almost seemed that way

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am


Mainland public opinion about the once intimate bond between Beijing and Pyongyang has changed over the past six decades but officially, not much appears to have changed in 2,600 years. China still trumpets its close ties with North Korea's reclusive, isolated and nuclear-armed dictatorship.

While the world debates North Korea's uncertain future, Chinese leaders have, without hesitation, thrown their support behind Kim Jong-il's untested son, Kim Jong-un, who is likely to face a difficult power transition.

Beijing's propaganda machine kicked into high gear, with government-sanctioned media trying to create an impression of close bilateral ties after Kim Jong-il's death last month.

Just about every mainland newspaper and television news bulletin has run blanket coverage over the past two weeks showing North Koreans wailing at the loss of the 'Dear Leader'.

The sheer scale of the coverage, which has surprised not only foreigners but also many mainlanders, indicates China's interest in North Korea, which has long been viewed as a buffer state that keeps American troops in South Korea at a distance.

But no matter which mainland media outlet you choose, there is frustration at the lack of diversity. Most publications and broadcasters stick to the script of Xinhua.

Kim Jong-il was widely referred to as 'a great leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and a close friend of the Chinese people', titles used by President Hu Jintao in his official condolence message, despite apparent widespread public loathing of Kim.

CCTV ran almost hourly updates about Kim's funeral and national memorial service last week and the state-run China Daily even ran a banner front-page headline 'A Friend's Departure'.

While many may find it hard to believe that Beijing has gone out of its way to honour a ruthless dictator and reach out to his heir apparent, the nationalist Global Times tabloid ran at least two editorials in its Chinese- and English-language editions praising Beijing's handling of Kim's death.

'China responded quickly by supporting the new leader and helping ensure a smooth transition. China's attitude this time is a successful example of international diplomacy,' said the newspaper, which is controlled by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily.

Noting that North Korea remains a special partner of China, despite the negative impact of its nuclear test in 2006, it said: 'Continuing the relationship is critical to maintain the stability of China's neighbouring environment and increase China's strategic initiative in northeast Asia.'

Highlighting the sensitivity of Sino-North Korean relations, a media taboo for decades, many business and financial publications gave the whole affair minimal coverage. The 21st Century Business Herald, a usually outspoken Guangzhou-based newspaper, ran a photo of the enigmatic Kim and a brief caption giving details of his death on its front page without further elaboration.

The Southern Metropolis Weekly ran a four-page photo essay depicting Kim along with his father, his youngest son and military figures, and the Sanlian Life Weekly ran a cover story and four lengthy stories on his death and its potential implications for regional affairs. The stories examined North Korea's relations with key players, including the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea - but not China.

North Korea has increasingly been seen as a 'strategic liability' in China, especially among academics and internet-savvy urbanites, after bilateral ties soured under Kim Jong-il's stewardship.

But Beijing has largely kept discussions of its ties with Pyongyang off-limits to the public. In 2004, the respected Strategy and Management journal was shut down because of an article criticising Beijing's appeasement policy towards North Korea.

Internet users were blunt in discussions about Beijing's handling of Kim's death. 'Are we seeing the death of a Chinese state leader?' asked one in a Sina weibo microblog lamenting the seemingly non-stop television coverage.

Another was more critical of the buffer state theory. 'North Korea is apparently unreliable as a strategic buffer zone. Instead, it serves better as a buffer shielding China from Western-style democracy.'