Chinese missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile on July 8 during a military exercise in the waters near south China's Hainan Island and Paracel Islands. The islands are controlled by Beijing but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. (Zha Chunming/Xinhua News Agency via AP)
In a front-page editorial published the day before the Permanent Court of Arbitration is set to rule, the People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, argues that it is China, not the Philippines, that is the "real victim," casting the case as a foreign "plot" to weaken and humiliate China.
"The facts have proved clearly that the Philippines South China Sea arbitration case is completely a “trap” targeting China, which is hyped and manipulated by the U.S., led by the Philippines, and with cooperation from the arbitration courtroom," it says.
Why China is militarizing the South China Sea
China has laid claim to a number of islands in the South China Sea, building airbases on tiny spits of land while installing powerful radar and missile launchers. Here's why.(Jason Aldag, Julie Vitkovskaya/The Washington Post / Satellite photos courtesy of CSIS)
What's interesting about the People's Daily piece is how it merges a story about law with one of the Communist Party's most potent narratives:national humiliation.
If you are following China from outside the country, particularly from the United States, you are probably used to hearing China discussed in terms of its "rise." The U.S. tends to talk about China as a country growing ever-richer and stronger, as a soon-to-be superpower about to supplant Uncle Sam. (See, for instance, Donald Trump's comments in the early Republican debates.)
Not here. When the ruling Communist Party talks about China's place in the world, it is less likely to talk about the country's rise than its "rejuvenation" after a century of humiliation that started with Qing losses to the barbarian British during the Opium Wars and lasted until the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has made the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" one of his signature slogans, drawing a rhetorical line between the humiliation and suffering of the past and the strong, proud China of the future.
In a major speech last September, he called Japan's defeat in World War II a "great triumph" that "crushed the plot of the Japanese militarists to colonize and enslave China and put an end to China's national humiliation of suffering successive defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors in modern times."
State media are now using similar language to describe the maritime disputes that have pitted China against smaller, less prosperous neighbors, most notably the Philippines.
A recent China Daily editorial headlined "China will not swallow bitter pill of humiliation" drew a direct link between the suffering of the Opium War era and the as-yet-revealed findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
"The days have long passed since the country was referred to as the 'sick man of East Asia' whose fate was at the mercy of a few Western powers," it read.
The People's Daily on Monday takes that emotional appeal a step further. "China is growing, but the humiliating experiences of being invaded by outside enemies and bullied by hegemonic powers in more than a century are the inerasable memories of Chinese people," it says.
"Chinese people who have walked through such historical memories will absolutely not allow the replay of 'the humiliating past' even in part."
Having set the tone, Beijing's challenge is to respond to the ruling in a way that will affirm nationalist sentiment, but also keep the peace. When you convince the body politic that dignity and destiny turn on victory, it becomes dangerous to lose.
Gu Jinglu contributed to this story from Beijing.