Paper cats and uncivilised swimmers

Harrison Rule

Politics, International relations | East Asia, Australia

21 August 2016

Why a Chinese Communist Party newspaper attacked “Paper Cat” Australia and Netizens are trolling an Olympic athlete.

Canberra’s recent decision to support an international arbitration ruling on the South China Sea that went against Beijing sparked a fiery response from Chinese media, with one Global Times editorial nominating Australia as an ideal target for a Chinese military warning strike.

As a Communist Party owned and controlled paper, the hostility of the Global Times has raised Australian eyebrows. Some interpret the state-aligned status of the paper as an indication of official party approval, highlighting the gravity of the proposed military threats.

And they may not be entirely wrong.

The Global Times potency is in its role and position in the Chinese Communist Party structure. Often touted by foreign media as the ‘Fox News cousin’ of parent body the People’s Daily, the paper should not be dismissed as simply a scandalous tabloid. Operated by the Central Committee and Politburo organs of the Chinese Communist Party, both the Global Times and People’s Daily provide specialised channels beyond the restraints of official government statements for achieving international party objectives.

In an interview with Quartz News, Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin claims that his paper reflects what party officials are actually thinking. “They can’t speak willfully, but I can”.

If the Global Times is an accurate barometer of the frustrated mood inside Beijing, its attack of Australia is the story of a China irritated by Australia’s allegiance to Washington’s security objectives.

The Global Times’ reference to Australia as a “paper cat” likely strikes the strongest blow to Australian legitimacy in the eyes of a Chinese reader. Originally attributed to Mao’s criticism of American Imperialism, the phrase “Paper Tiger” or 紙老虎 (zhilaohu) is used to describe something that is powerful in appearance only.

The phrase holds incredible cultural significance, long associated with anti-Americanism, Chinese state nationalism and security policy. To demote Australia to merely a “paper cat” is a metaphor designed to both humiliate and caution.

In the context of the Australian – United States security relationship, it paints Australia as a foolishly boisterous lackey of a loud talking but ultimately powerless Uncle Sam. When paired with the editorial’s provocative mockery of Australia’s “inglorious” history, the “paper cat” comparison perhaps carries more weight than the threat of a military strike.

More on this: Will China use force to reunify with Taiwan?

Whether directly commissioned by the Communist Party or an independent piece which managed to pass through the party filter, ‘Paper cat’ Australia will learn its lesson displays an undiplomatic hostility declared acceptable by the Chinese Communist Party. If the Global Times is indeed a reflective of decision makers in Beijing, as Hu suggests, the newspaper forms a kind of ‘offensive arm’ of the Communist Party – an arm in which magnificent, unsubstantiated threats are used to express party disapproval.

But if the Global Times represents the offensive components of the Communist Party’s media arsenal, the People’s Daily is the Party’s all-star defence.

In the wake of Australian swimmer Mack Horton controversially criticising Chinese rival Sun Yang, labelling him as a drug cheat for former doping charges, the People’s Daily response was one of victimisation and defensiveness.

While sister paper Global Times opted for its typically over aggressive stance, describing Australia as “a country at the fringes of civilization”, the People’s Daily instead observed Sun “sobbing on the shoulders of a Chinese reporter”.

This distinction is significant.

China’s political preoccupation with what Communist Party historians refer to as the ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of foreign imperialists, has become a cornerstone of China’s national identity. The editorial team’s choice to depict a Chinese athlete as the victim of harassment from foreign powers is designed to play on this cultural sensitivity. The hurt feelings of a single athlete quickly becomes a defensive nationalistic rallying call.

While Australia may not need to fear a Chinese military strike anytime soon, the Global Times and People’s Daily newspapers do provide a degree of insight into the mutterings of Beijing. What these papers chose to attack and defend, and the way in which they do so, signposts to keen-eyed observers the dominant concerns of the Chinese Communist Party.

As China and other global powers begin to make waves in our region, these are concerns that a fragile ‘paper cat’ must take note of if it is to avoid getting wet.

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