For most ordinary Chinese citizens, escalating tensions over the Korean peninsula, which have frequently dominated international media headlines over the past year or so, appear to be a thorny problem far from home, one that is mainly between North Korea and the United States.
State media have routinely played down news reports about Pyongyang’s frequent testing of long range missiles, which have been increasingly powerful and in clear violation of UN sanctions, and Washington’s increasingly belligerent threats to use military force to take out its nuclear and missile testing sites. Stories tend to be buried in newspapers’ international sections.
Even on those occasions when US President Donald Trump has called President Xi Jinping specifically about Pyongyang’s latest brazen show of defiance after a missile test, Chinese media have always framed their reports in a way that suggests the presidents first talked about how great their relationship had become, only later adding – almost as an afterthought – that they also talked about the North Korean nuclear issue.
This laid-back mentality seems set to change. Last Wednesday, the Jilin Daily , the main Communist Party newspaper of my hometown province of Jilin, carried a full page spread under a headline “General knowledge on nuclear weapons and protection against them”.
Located in the northeastern part of the country, Jilin, an industrial and agricultural province, shares a 1,200km border with North Korea, and is the main gateway of trade and personnel exchanges between the two countries.
Last Wednesday was the first time since the 1960s that a major official media outlet had carried such a prominent report on how to prepare for a nuclear attack. Back then, publicity campaigns teaching Chinese how to protect themselves against nuclear attacks from the former Soviet Union were continuous and prevalent throughout the country.
The Jilin Daily’s piece contained very basic information on nuclear weapons, how they are detonated and their deadly consequences, as well as tips on how to protect oneself against such attacks in cartoon illustrations. The articles made no reference to the crisis brewing over the Korean peninsula but their publication still served a clear and chilling reminder of the nuclear threat from the province’s hermit neighbour.
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It is still unclear whether the supplement marks the start of a publicity campaign to educate people in the province or nationwide. Later on Wednesday, officials in Jilin tried to calm people down by saying it was a routine public service announcement and should not be overstated or misinterpreted. While it is probably too early to draw definite conclusions, the publication of those articles may reflect the Chinese leadership’s heightened concerns that the crisis could get out of hand and the northeastern part of the country will suffer from the miscalculations.
Until last week, state media mainly portrayed the crisis as one between North Korea and the United States, with Pyongyang trying to develop missiles that could reach the US mainland and Washington contemplating military options. Meanwhile, they also played up remarks by Xi and other top Chinese officials that China would never allow any chaos or war to break out near its borders – clear references to Washington’s increasingly explicit threats to use military options against Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
Furthermore, state media usually stays clear of reporting that some of North Korea’s underground nuclear testing facilities are dangerously close to the Chinese border, including the Punggye-ri nuclear facility, about 80km from the border. The public are largely ignorant of the possible nuclear contamination from the Punggye-ri facility. As the South China Morning Post reported in October, Chinese scientists have warned their North Korean counterparts about the potential for an implosion at the mountainous site because of the frequent underground nuclear blasts.
Maybe Chinese leaders do not want to panic ordinary mainlanders, but all these factors have unfortunately created false impressions that the people who live in Jilin and the rest of the northeastern region are somehow safe from the nuclear crisis on China’s doorstep.
So far, there are no immediate signs that Washington is about to launch military strikes against the North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, while the chances of a unilateral missile strike by North Korea against a US target also appear remote. But it is self-deceiving to gloss over the tense situation on the peninsula. The US is certainly piling on more pressure, flexing its military muscles. Last week, the US and South Korea conducted large scale air force drills clearly aimed at taking out North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing sites. Ominously, US Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the US Congress’ powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Pentagon to move US military families out of South Korea because of the threat of conflict with the North. Hawaii, one of the US states closest to North Korea, this month started to test a new tone designed to alert people to an impending nuclear attack by North Korea. Its alarm system is tested monthly.
Meanwhile, the window for diplomatic negotiations with the North Korea regime is also closing. Fresh from the Communist Party’s 19th congress, which further consolidated Xi’s power, the Chinese president sent a special envoy to Pyongyang last month, presumably to urge its leader Kim Jong-un to moderate his stance. However, the special envoy failed to meet Kim. To add insult to injury, North Korea fired its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile yet just days after the envoy’s departure.
It is worth mentioning that many Chinese believe that neither Washington nor Pyongyang would make a unilateral attack on the other because of China’s strong opposition.
But given the unpredictable nature of Trump and Kim, those scenarios are not beyond the realms of possibility. The nightmare scenario is that a desperate Kim could fire a nuclear bomb at China if the crisis got out of hand.
Last week, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that South Korean President Moon Jae-in would visit China from December 13 to 16. High on the agenda is to mend ties after a year-long spat over the deployment of a US-made anti-missile system in South Korea to guard against missile attacks from the North. How to contain the nuclear crisis is also likely to be high on the agenda.
In this context, the decision to publish the supplement is the right thing to do. Ordinary Chinese should be given the complete picture of the crisis so they can be better prepared. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper