Emerging Chinese Narratives in the Sino-Korean Border Zone // 环球广播的中朝边区报道

The Korean border news narrative of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be changing in some subtle and perhaps fundamental ways.  As Michael Rank first pointed out on North Korea Economy Watch, the Huanqiu Shibao is now reporting on security problems with North Korean refugees along the Tumen River, and doing so in a relatively aggressive manner:

A Chinese report has highlighted how villagers on the North Korean border live in fear of desperate North Korean refugees who rob and steal from them.

The villagers have launched a new internet monitoring system to guard against the refugees who frequently escape across the Tumen river, according to the Chinese-language report.

Inhabitants of Sanhe, near the town of Longjing in Jilin province, were in constant fear of “illegal border-crossers who would rob, steal and cause disturbances” until, in cooperation with the police, they installed an alarm system to warn each other of possible infiltrators. […]

The Sanhe area, which covers 182 sq km, has only 1,600 inhabitants, 90% of whom are ethnic Korean, and most young people have left the area to seek work elsewhere, including South Korea and Japan. (A separate report shows photos of another border village, Nanping near Helong, which has similarly been blighted by young people leaving the area. Only 1,700 people still live there out of an original population of 4,000, while the primary school has five teachers and only three children).

“This journalist walked around [Sanhe] for over 10 minutes and only saw old people, women and children. But the Sanhe area faces danger from across the river,” the report says.

To illustrate the threat posed by refugees, it tells how in spring 2003 a North Korean woman in her 70s and her son in his 40s were killed in a border incident in Sanhe, and also mentions how in 2004, after the red light system had been installed, villagers seized a North Korean border guard who had crossed the river and begged for food from a farmer who had just slaughtered some animals.

The report says the river is only 50 metres wide at Sanhe and is shallow enough to be crossed by children.

It notes that borders “are not only a geographical concept, but also involve extremely complex [matters of] security and struggle.”

The police chief said that after the monitoring system was launched, “there have basically been no more cases of illegal border-crossers entering the village to take part in illegal activities.” However, he added, “But border security must not be relaxed because ordinary people are the most direct victims” [if it were relaxed].

A separate group of photographs illustrates the Huanqiu narrative.

Obviously, this emergence of a heightened Chinese public narrative of upping border security against dangerous North Koreans in the inner Tumen valley occurred precisely at the same time the PRC was launching some very ambitious-sounding economic projects with North Korea on the bookends of the border region.

It seems evident that the CCP, perhaps fearful of resentment at the large amounts of largesse being thrown at North Korea, is hedging its bets and giving itself rhetorical space in the border region.  As is usual these days, the emphasis is on security.  (The headline praises the ‘ten household system’ whereby villagers team up to report suspicious behavior.)

The Party media’s open acknowledgement of problems posed by North Korean refugees into China is, of course, about fifteen years overdue, and includes no discussion about the reasons for North Korean flight into China, but it is notable nevertheless.  The narrative of smooth and harmonious domestic “social management” trumps the need to save face for North Korea.

One of the most interesting aspects of the above story is how the Huanqiu Shibao itself becomes part of the story, and how the Xinhua apparatus is promoting this story as an example of hard-hitting, verismo, serve-the-people journalism:

Part of what we have here is the trope that the Party is able to correct itself.  As the (somewhat ficticious and certainly disposable in the event of martial law) narrative goes in China, the news media and the internet serves the vital function of hearing the voices of the people.  Patriotic reporters are a key piece of this narrative.

Cheng Gang is one of those writers, and he is presently Huanqiu Shibao‘s top borderlands reporter.  Last December he made a foray into the Rajin special economic zone, a visit which brought to light a few interesting facts which, to my knowledge, this blog remains the only English-language outlet to have acknowledged or covered.

(As a side note, it remains simply astonishing how many otherwise critical reporters and bloggers will believe basically unsourced allegations stemming from Chosun Ilbo that Chinese troops were occupying Rajin, and then, when Cheng Gang emerges as an actual source from Rajin emerges, totally miss the boat.  Does Xinhua have to translate it into mangled English in order for a reportable event to have actually occurred?  This is why, in addition to actually reading the Chinese media, one has to read German media about China, because German reporters, unlike, apparently, most Anglophone reporters other than Michael Rank, read and cite the Huanqiu Shibao.  Yes, the periodical is owned and run by the People’s Daily, but it also has a swarm of reporters who are occasionally allowed to extend the boundaries of discourse so long as the extension serves the national interest of the PRC.)

How do we know Cheng Gang is patriotic?  Besides regularly reading his stuff?

This 15-minute Huanqiu TV reportage from the borderlands is led by Cheng Gang, and it is not to be missed.  An absolutely classic revolutionary-era cutaway technique is used at the Sanjiaohe border post near Hunchun, where there is a flashback to the evil days of imperialism when China ceded its northern Pacific coastline to the Tsars.

The Chinese access to Rajin thus becomes swallowed into the much more capacious narrative of national revival and restoration, and is not bound by nattering contemporary concerns such as UN Security Council Resolution 1874 which was intended to punish North Korea economically.  In other words, the CCP is Li Hongzhang, and anyone who stands in the way of China assuming its rightfully central and monolithic role in East Asia is, well, Kaiser Wilhelm II, or a Romanov, whichever you prefer.

Along the lines of a renewed central push for reporting from the border region, a cluster of Huanqiu sources for your edification:

– Cheng Gang’s June 10 dispatch from Rajin

– Huanqiu’s reference to a North Korean blueprint for economic opening up [updated link] until 2020

– A back-door acknowledgement that right across the Tumen River in the city of Musan [updated link] that there is “Asia’s largest iron ore mine” from which Chinese companies might profit

– A back-door complaint that Hyeryong is the source [updated link] of the refugees that disturb security in Chinese border towns

– A gallery and update from the Hwanggumphyong zone [updated link] near Sinuiju

More details on Yalu River border security [updated link] in historical context

Reference Material:

Adam Cathcart, “Leasing of North Korean Port Arouses Suspicion”: Huanqiu Shibao on China’s Ten-Year Lease on DPRK Rajin,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, 11 March 2010.

Barbara Demick, “China Launches Economic Projects in North Korea,” Los Angeles Times, 10 June 2011.

Sino-North Korean Extravaganza at Rajin, June 9, 2011

Coda: DailyNK reports that DVDs of the moving “Crossing” are becoming popular in North Hamgyong province among the very population of struggling workers and DPRK citizens depicted in the film.  Fortunately for those of us living outside of the Sino-North Korean anti-YouTube Firewall, the film, and its “my-emotions-are-being-manipulated-but-I-love-it-anyway” soundtrack, is available.  This, by the way, is precisely the sympathetic narrative of North Korean refugees which we do not see in China — where the dystopian “social management” of the DPRK drives men to run, and to work as yet another subsection in China’s floating population of Wanderarbeiter.



  1. Ha, that‘s funny.
    Some minutes ago I read this English-language article by Cheng Gang (The thin red line: http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/666133/The-thin-red-line.aspx) and found it very interesting that Cheng reported the problems which occur in the borderland because of “frequent forays by illegal immigrants and other cross-border cases“ and so pointed relative openly with the finger at North Korea. I searched for more information and found it here. Thank you for this! Is this English article a translation of the Chinese one or is it toned down or shortened?

    1. Glad to be of use, Tobid. The linked article by Michael Rank is a shortened summary of the original Chinese; had I the time this week I would do a verbatim translation (as I have with various other Huanqiu pieces regarding this topic), but unfortunately can’t. However, I anticipate going myself to the villages in question later this summer (not being terribly exact with the dates, sorry for the precaution) and will probably have a report of some kind once I leave Yanji.

    2. Also, thank you for the link, which summarizes some of the relevant action. I find it fascinating that China is finally trying to define the North Korean refugee problem on its own global terms, after some 15 years of taking hits and playing the reactive game in terms of PR. Compared to the problems faced by the refugees (“illegal immigrants” as they technically are, in the phrase of the Global Times), China’s PR strategy is perhaps not the #1 topic upon which we should be focusing, but to the extent that the refugee discourse is becoming more visible in China, I think it does bear some discussion. Thanks again; I hadn’t seen this.

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