There are a handful of locations in the world that all sane people recognize are poor picks for a vacation – Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine … Or maybe not. During the midst of Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, a special insert in China’s primary newspaper on global issues touted Crimea for vacation holidays.
Much like some U.S. cable channels, PRC newspapers often focus on a specific topic, and the Chinese newspaper focused on international affairs is the Global Times. It devoted a full page of its March 29 issue to potential vacations in Crimea. Page B8 of the March 29 issue was titled “Russia In-depth: Vacation,” with multiple articles offering travel tips to the Ukrainian region recently acceded to Russia.
One could hardly dream up a less appetizing travel package, unless it added a stopover in Syria and a flight back to Beijing on Malaysian Airlines. One week before the March 29 “Crimean vacation” issue, elite Russian troops with tanks and machine guns stormed two Ukrainian air force bases. One week after the Crimean travel issue appeared, a Russian junior sergeant shot a Ukrainian military officer at point-blank with an AK-47.
But “Russia In-depth: Vacation” did not suggest that travelers attend the capture of an air force base. It was filled with such mundane travel articles as “Black Sea Pearl: Crimea’s Precious Palaces.” They sizzled with politically-charged subtexts, not-so-subtly linking Crimea to Russia. One sub-headline emphasized the Russian heritage of Crimea, stating, “The Czars built vacation palaces; Tolstoi wished to be buried here.” A photo collage of Crimean palaces carried a message linking Crimea to Russia, only adding a vacation reference as an afterthought: “Many famous Russian figures lived in Crimea, and enjoyed the beautiful sights there.”
So what is going on here? Does China so wholeheartedly support the Russian seizure of Crimea that its state media subjects citizens to the world’s worst travel advice? Not really. In fact, deeper digging reveals that while “Russia in-depth” is old-fashioned Kremlin propaganda, its presence in China’s state media is due to a bit of modern-day capitalism.
China’s government carefully abstained from the UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Russia. Some Asia experts commented that it would be strange for China to back Russia on Ukraine, considering China’s own concern about a Crimea-like future Taiwan or Tibetan referendum on independence.
Certainly, the editorial board of Global Times appears relatively sympathetic toward Russia, publishing one opinion piece that described Russia’s seizure of Crimea as “smashing American imperialism.” Another article ironically makes use of an American-penned editorial cartoon, in which a giant Russian bear sniffs at a stuttering Obama, and spectators derisively remark about the president, “I think he’s trying to play brain dead.”
An English-language article in Global Times declared matter-of-factly that China was leaning toward Russia: “China is not 100 percent neutral in this issue, and it has already shown its inclination in an implicit way, which is supporting Russia by choosing not to go against it.” As to the threat of future referendums in Tibet or Taiwan, Global Times flips the question on the West, asking why Western countries that supported Kosovo’s decision to split from Serbia now oppose Crimea’s vote to break away from Ukraine.
Yet the Global Times editorial page seems to lean a bit to the left of China itself. During a recent trip to Beijing, many Chinese in leadership positions used the Ukraine crisis as a vehicle to personally comment to me, unprovoked, about old Chinese grievances against Russia, such as Russia’s seizure of land in northern China decades earlier. A number of folks commented on the recent diplomatic gift to China from Germany of an ancient map of China, pointedly noting that portions of “China” portrayed in the map are now under Russian control.
As it turns out, while the Crimean vacation insert is ham-handed propaganda, it is not China’s ham-handed propaganda after all. To be sure, it is not easy to recognize that this propaganda is not from Global Times. The newspaper’s name appears at the top of each page of this special “Russia in-depth” section, and the authors of articles are named as “special contributors.” In fact, however, this is paid Russian propaganda.