What China's Talking About Today: Hostility and Compassion for North Koreans

Web users fume over Chinese fishermen held hostage by North Koreans, another turn in a complex relationship going back to the Korean War.

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A Beijing art-goer looks at a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Reuters)

The Chinese public tends to get angry when they perceive foreign territorial or military aggression against their country, and they've had a few opportunities recently: there was wariness over the U.S. decision to establish a permanent military presence in Australia, fury following the Japanese government's detention of a Chinese boat captain, and the indignation expressed during the ongoing standoff between China and the Philippines over disputed territory in the South China Sea. But there was something different about popular reaction to the recent kidnapping of Chinese fishermen by North Koreans. The response, though, seems to be less about threatened national pride or deep-rooted historical hostility. Instead, it seems to be part of a trend of growing Chinese frustration with this national ally and China's sense of patronizing superiority over its impoverished and closed neighbor as the two once-similar societies proceed on diverging paths and become more distant.

Many in China can remember the common ground that the two countries once shared. Chinese elementary school textbooks still teach the "Help Korea, Oppose America" conflict, as the Korean War is sometimes described, though the Chinese telling often chides North Korea like a mother scolding an unfilial son. That sentiment of disapproval persists today, and can be seen in Chinese web users' reactions to this week's kidnapped-fishermen incident.

"Without the Chinese pouring their blood, there wouldn't have been the three generations of Kim regimes; without China's long-term economic aid, North Korean people would have faced a crisis in maintaining their living; without China's political and military support, Kim Jong Un would not have been able to smoothly take over the nation's highest position," Chinese web user Ding Dong wrote in his blog. "Any abuse from a nation like this one is especially unforgivable."

On Weibo, user Tianwailaike8378 joined in chiding North Korea. "Forgetting your pain after your scar healed, you ungrateful little bastard. The Chinese soldiers' blood was shed in vain."

"Even raising a dog is better than [raising] this one, and we've done it for so many years!" Nianguoshudehunhun lamented in a Weibo message.

As the China-North Korea relationship hits these speed bumps, and as the two countries adopt drastically different political and economic models, many in China are starting to question the unwavering nature of the alliance.

"Why should China support and help as tyrannical and shameless a country as North Korea? What does China need from it? I can't fathom, and I feel so soft and useless on behalf of my country!" A Weibo message asked.

Neither could user Chenzhicheng see North Korea as a worthy friend for today's China. "How could a three-generation hereditary regime hold a socialist society? How could a nation in such destitute be so closely tied to China? Aren't we lowering our own rank by being its friend?"

Similar sentiments have permeated Chinese cyberspace before, when Kim Jong Un succeeded his father earlier this year, and when the nation's Unha-3 missile plunged into the Yellow Sea minutes after launching. Largely undisturbed by censors in their discussions, Chinese web users ruthlessly (and hilariously) parodied the Kim regime.

On other occasions, however, Chinese web users have found compassion for the helpless North Korean citizens, such as when angry Chinese netizens accused its government of "intentional murder" for repatriating North Korean defectors, knowing the harsh sentences they would face upon their return. Perhaps the plight of North Koreans had hit upon memories of China's own history, not many decades removed from the massive labor camps and large-scale flights of refugees. In any case, for a Chinese public that is not often concerned with playing arbiter of international justice, such outpourings for the North Koreans are perhaps a sign of an affinity that, despite the recent tensions, still lingers between the two peoples, who share more than just a 900-mile border.