North Korea's Jan. 6 nuclear test, its fourth in a decade, has presented China's leaders with a crossroads moment. Chinese President Xi Jinping is under growing pressure to decide whether to continue Beijing's policy of unswerving support for its ally in Pyongyang -- or to cooperate with the United States and the international community in imposing tough new sanctions on North Korea, as Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California San Diego, recently noted in the Nikkei Asian Review.
If Xi opts for the latter approach, he might find backing from a surprising source: the Chinese public.
Most analysts believe China is unlikely to go too far in curbing its relatively strong commercial and trade ties with North Korea, or to curtail its food and energy aid that is largely propping up Kim Jong-un's regime in Pyongyang. China's fear of instability on the Korean peninsula is acute, as is the fear of desperate North Korean refugees pouring over the 1,400-km border into China.
But if Xi did decide to make a policy reversal -- to end China's "deep engagement" with Pyongyang and to join the international community in turning the screws with tough sanctions -- the move would not necessarily be seen as bowing to U.S. pressure. In fact, the shift would enjoy broad popular support, judging by comments from China's hyperactive online community, which increasingly sees North Korea as unpredictable and unstable, at best.
Social media backlash
"North Korea has become a 'hot potato'," one Chinese Internet user wrote on the day of the latest test. "Should China stay close to it or stay away from it?"
On the official level, China and North Korea are allies, indelibly bonded through their shared battle against American "imperialists" during the Korean War, known in China as "The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid North Korea." In October 1950, Mao Zedong sent more than 100,000 Chinese troops across the Yalu River to fight American and United Nations forces, and beat them to a standstill. Mao famously said China and North Korea "were as close as lips and teeth."
The shared memory still runs deep for Chinese of a certain age. A few years ago, when I last visited the town of Dandong on China's border with North Korea, I wandered into a Korean restaurant selling dog meat stew, and I saw elderly Chinese people roused to patriotic fervor when the colorfully clad North Korean female singers on stage launched into a spirited rendition of an old 1950s martial anthem, "The Chinese People's Volunteer Battle Song," extolling the heroes who went to fight Americans across the Yalu River.
But for a more updated view of how younger Chinese see their North Korean neighbor, I asked Ryanne Hsu, a graduate researcher at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, to monitor social media posts about North Korea immediately after the Jan. 6 nuclear test. The comments she found were harsh.
"The Xinhua news agency insists the general public should exercise self-restraint in the face of North Korea's nuclear experiments," said one post on microblogging site Weibo. "But after all these years, what has restraint brought to us?"
Another post said China's North Korea policy was "helping villains and breeding evil."
Still another Weibo user wrote: "Whoever uses money from the Chinese people to aid the Kim's regime is the enemy of the Chinese people. Stop giving aid to North Korea now!"
This was not the first time for Chinese "netizens" to aim their invective at the North Koreans, and at their own leadership for the Communist regime's continued embrace of its ally. It also happened in May 2012 when I was Beijing correspondent for The Washington Post, after North Korean sailors kidnapped and robbed 28 Chinese fishermen. The Chinese were stripped to their underwear, beaten and held for 13 days, and had their boats drained of fuel.
China's official state-controlled media tried to downplay the incident, noting that all the fishermen had been released and no ransom paid. "Hype unnecessary over North Korean sea action," was the headline in the Global Times, the Communist Party's normally nationalistic tabloid. But many Chinese were livid, as they expressed on Weibo -- with much of the invective directed against the Chinese government for its backing of Pyongyang.
"China's foreign policy toward North Korea is too weak and incompetent," said one Weibo post. "The Chinese government wasted hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers, while Kim Jong-un's government acted like pirates and held our fishermen for money!"
Another wrote: "We're giving loads of aid to this rogue state. The lives of Chinese fishermen are doomed." Said yet another: "The 'friendship sealed with blood' either no longer exists or never existed."
One Weibo user, summing up the apparent disconnect between official policy and online opinion, wrote: "The gap between the attitudes of the general public and that of the top leaders towards North Korea is as wide as the Yalu River."
Politics and the 'wired generation'
One important caveat is worth noting: online opinion invariably comes from urban, educated and younger people who are digitally savvy. But they are a crucial constituency. And while Weibo is an imperfect gauge of wider sentiments, the social media platform does offer insight into what China's young, wired generation is thinking.
Also, as important as what is being said on Weibo is the fact that it is allowed to be said at all. China's censors are notoriously efficient at swiftly deleting posts deemed too sensitive -- including topics like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre or Tibetan separatism -- and sites thought to be offensive are typically shut down. But the fact that much of the anti-North Korean sentiment has been allowed to remain publicly posted suggests at least some in the Communist bureaucracy are comfortable allowing those disparate views to be aired.
It might at first sound antithetical that an authoritarian Communist regime that allows no opposition or dissent would be concerned with public opinion in implementing foreign policy. But since the advent of Weibo and microblogging in China in late 2009, public opinion has become a key new factor in shaping policy.
There are already subtle signs that China's leaders may be growing tired of their troublesome ally. As far as is known, Xi has yet to even officially meet with Kim Jong-un, even though Xi has traveled to Seoul and has met with South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, who attended China's parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II -- an event from which Kim was notably absent.
In April 2013, just a few months after taking power, Xi told an audience in Bo'ao, on Hainan island, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain." The remark was widely taken as a direct slap at North Korea.
While the elderly veterans I met in Dandong could still be moved to tears by the martial songs recalling the battle against U.S. imperialists, it should be remembered that China's current leaders are a different generation. Xi was born in 1953, three years after Mao sent Chinese troops across the Yalu River -- and Xi's formative memory is the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, not the camaraderie of the Korean War. And Kim, who took power after the death of his father in December 2011, was born in January 1983 -- just a month before the airing of the final episode of the popular television series M*A*S*H set during the Korean War.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who in early January called on China to end its "business as usual" approach to Pyongyang, is scheduled to arrive in Beijing this week, on Jan. 27, when he is expected to press China to end its engagement policy and agree to tough new sanctions on North Korea.
The U.S. is said to be drafting a new set of proposed sanctions to present to the United Nations Security Council, including tightened restrictions on North Korean finance and trade and a ban on some of the country's ships from entering ports. These are the kinds of tough, targeted sanctions that crippled the Iranian economy and are believed to have brought Tehran to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program.
Xi is unlikely to agree to any increased sanctions, such as cutting off oil shipments to North Korea, that may lead to a collapse of the regime. But if China's leaders really are growing weary of their troublesome neighbor, and the signs suggest they are, then Xi might be convinced to go along with real sanctions that bite.
And as evident on China's overactive social media, Xi might just find that a tough new approach to rein in North Korea has widespread popular backing, coming at a time of heightened economic anxiety, when China's leaders desperately want to shore up their public support.
Keith B. Richburg was foreign editor of The Washington Post from 2005 to 2007 and served as the paper's bureau chief in Paris, Manila, Nairobi, Hong Kong and Beijing.