The .CN Reaction to Kim Jong-il’s Death

February 8th, 2012

Since the 1990s, independent media in China has flourished and is no longer required to follow the formerly strict guidelines set by the Government. State-run media still holds the largest majority of the news market, although the access to varying independent reports on the internet has reduced the sway of the Communist Party’s influence on matters of importance.  But while state run media tends to maintain the pro-DPRK stance of the Chinese Communist Party, independent media generally holds a more critical view, often revealing the view that North Korea’s system is vulnerable and should be questioned.  A review of reporting in recent weeks shows some of these inconsistencies.

Caixun, an independent financial-orientated news agency aimed at professional workers, reported on February 1st that the use of the Chinese Yuan was being limited within North Korea. The news agency interpreted this as a move to ‘reduce economic dependence [on China]’ and concluded this move would lead North Korea to ‘eventually fall into political turmoil’. With the DPRK aiming to become a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012, Caixun’s commentary can be seen as a clear swipe at the North Korean economy, suggesting that public reliance on the Yuan for barter is indicative of major weakness in the country’s indigenous currency.

In contrast, the same story about the limited use of the Chinese Yuan just one day earlier by the Chinese party’s official mouth piece Xinhua is far closer in tone to official reports from DPRK state media, which often criticizes bourgeois ideology.  This contrast in reporting highlights Beijing’s aim to avoid reporting anything which shows North Korea in a negative light, while independent media better reflects reality, showing Chinese desire for real news from North Korea.

Stepping backward, reporting on Kim Jong-il’s death also varied considerably, showing the array of views in Chinese media. The state-owned China Daily reported that China had sent condolences including ‘vowing long-term friendship with its neighbor’. The China Daily also attempted to show disillusionment with the West’s approach to North Korea with a quote from Glyn Ford, a close observer of the DPRK: ‘I think the West needs swift engagement and of course, more patience’. They also emphasised the official relationship with the DPRK with phrases such as ‘China believes that the DPRK will remain united under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea and continuously advance toward the goal of building a strong and prosperous socialist nation’.

On the same day though, the independent Hulunbeir (HLBR) Daily reported a rather more cynical and curious angle. They reported an ‘analysis’ that Kim Jong-il had died in an unspecified hospital in China a few days earlier, adding that North Korea then had to wait for a wax figure of Kim Jong-il to be made before announcing the death. The DPRK had apparently sent a delegation of 200 people of high levels to China but the list of whom was present was not revealed. The day after Kim Jong-il’s death, HLBR reports that Xinhua had published and then quickly deleted the news of the wax figure’s creation.  HLBR then responded to delaying of the report with, ‘even the dead are frustrating’.  Their piece also referred to Kim Jong-il as an ‘omnipotent big mouth, no one is really without parallel in history’, showing the disillusionment of the Chinese public with the official stance of the government and their contempt for the former North Korean leader.

But of course it was not just the press that was talking about Kim Jong-il’s death. When Kim Jong-il died, China’s version of Twitter, Weibo, exploded with commentary on the issue from Chinese nationals, providing an interesting contrast to the official rhetoric coming out of official Chinese media. The publishing of posts by China’s Weibo users presented the world with Chinese perspectives on their long-standing but frequently embarrassing ally.

On Weibo, Chinese netizens views’ ranged from being tactfully critical of their own Government’s approach to relations, to simply teasing  the North Korean’s situation. An example being one Weibo user calling China’s approach to Kim Jong-il’s death ‘hypocritical and contrived’, which again shows that many Chinese people disagree with the party’s official stance.

Another netizen commented on Kim’s supposed cause of death with a satirical statement, ‘he had six wives – anyone would become tired’. Weibo user Qiantang Chen was critical of the Chinese Government by speculating that if the North Koreans achieved freedom in the near future the root of their problems would then be dealing with China’s control.

Some users compared North Korea’s situation to that of China 30 years ago. Weibo User Shang Dao Gong Ying stated that the Chinese people cried like the North Koreans after the death of Chairman Mao and believed the sky would fall but added, ‘the fact is, the sky didn’t fall’. Similar opinions are rife on Weibo, with many seemingly unmoved by the North Korean’s situation because the Chinese people were there themselves some 35 years ago.

Blogging from China, though very carefully worded, tends to always have a Sino-centric focus illustrating just how important China is in any matters related to North Korea’s secretive world. When the State run CCTV reported Kim Jong-il’s death they stated that both the Chinese and Korean people were in a state of sorrow and grief. However, the response from Weibo did not mirror this official view, with replies stating ‘I don’t feel sorrow or grief, do you? and ‘Who are these Chinese people?’

Chinese interest in North Korea could easily be described as more politically based than the humanitarian approach taken by Western organisations. Little mention of the North’s prison system or food shortage is ever encountered and many of the Chinese Weibo users seem to see the country as more of a problem than a deeply emotional concern. Though the future is uncertain and many are pessimistic about the current situation, there seems to be a small spark of hope or optimism like that of Shang Dao Gong Ying in believing that if China can overcome purges, starvation and political trouble, so can North Korea.

The question still remains as to whether the Chinese government owned news will change its stance with anti-DPRK sentiment growing ever louder both on online communities like Weibo and in independent news outlets. The most likely answer, however, is that the government will respond with more pro-DPRK articles and controls upon the independent media in an effort to reflect its own views and objectives. The life span of such a policy in a country of people desperate to get their opinions heard remains to be seen.

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About the Author

Nicolle Loughlin

Nicolle Loughlin first became interested in North Korea whilst studying Chinese history at college which brought her attention to the Korean War. She subsequently spent her time reading and learning about anything she could find related to North Korea. Nicolle Loughlin lives in the UK and is undertaking her final year of university studying English Literature and Mandarin Chinese. Nicolle has particular interests in North Korea's foreign relations and literature about North Korea. Next year, Nicolle intends to begin a masters degree in Asia studies or international relations in order to further and appropriate her knowledge and interests.