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“Zēng Shēn the murderer” in the Southeast Asian Sea dispute

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“Zēng Shēn the murderer” in the Southeast Asian Sea dispute

Authors: Lê Vĩnh Trương, Phạm Thu Xuân, Lê Chính Duật (Southeast Asian Sea Research Foundation)

Translator: Nguyễn Trịnh Đôn

From the Zēng Shēn story to the government of China’s tale

Paul Joseph Goebbels, Nazi’s master of propaganda, once said: “If you tell the lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it[1]. This was so true in the Oriental ancient story about Zēng Shēn (曾参), also called Zēngzǐ (曾子), who was an excellent student of Confucius (Kǒngzǐ/孔子) and very well known for his righteousness and gentleness. One day, as Zēng Shēn’s mother was weaving, somebody told her that her son had just committed a homicide. With no doubt about Zēng Shēn’s morals, she ignored the message. Not too long later, another person came and said “Zēng Shēn is a murderer!”; his mother once again remained calm. However, after being told for the third time that Zēng Shēn had killed somebody, the mother, now overcome with fear, ran for her life. In fact, the killer was just a namesake of Zēng Shēn, and her son was still studying with Confucius at that moment [2].

Not only in the above story, this reasoning also does seem to work in many cases.

Recently, China has used its armed “fishery administration” and “marine surveillance” vessels to repeatedly disturb the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Viet Nam and the Philippines. The most prominent incident occurred on May 26, 2011, when China’s vessels cut the research cable of the Viet Nam’s seismic ship Binh Minh 02, which was operating completely inside Viet Nam’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ [3]. These incidents again revealed the goal of China to push the activities of Viet Nam and the Philippines to the rim of the Southeast Asian Sea (conventionally referred to as “South China Sea”), thus clearing the way for China to contend with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei for territorial waters in the sea’s southern area [4,5]. At the same time with its provoking behaviour at sea, China actively rages a well-prepared media campaign, imposing over the Chinese public the “victim mentality” and advertising to the world its position of a pacifist being harassed by the aggressive and unreasonable countries in the region [6–8]

Media tricks played by China’s authorities

China has been patiently building their “soft power” in the last decade [9]. The government of China is thus taking advantage of recent incidents to convince the world that they represent a peaceful country while portraying Viet Nam and other Southeast Asian Sea claimants as greedy and irresponsible. The most conspicuous example of this media campaign was a leading article on the Chinese website of the Global Times [10] describing Viet Nam as the aggressor that provoked China first in the incident described above. Before that, China had criticized the Philippines for the latter’s “irresponsible” statements on the Southeast Asian Sea dispute [11]. Compared to Zēng Shēn’s neighbours who were merely telling unverified stories, China’s authorities are much more powerful and skillful with their influence over international media and their ability to manipulate information to cover up the truth.

The truth is that China has continuously violated Viet Nam’s EEZ and caused substantial economic loss for Viet Nam by sabotaging oil and gas surveillance, interrupting fishing activities, and even detaining, mistreating, and opening fire at fishermen [3,12–16]. Chinese incursion into the Philippines’ EEZ has also been increasingly reported [17]. China is indeed employing the “silkworm strategy” (eating the leaf by little pieces at a time) with an iron fist in a (not really) velvet glove in the Southeast Asian Sea [18]. Using its economic power, China threatens any foreign petroleum companies which have, or consider having, business in the EEZs of its neighbours [19,20]. These clearly breach the 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” of which it is a signatory [21].




Locations of the recent incidents in the Southeast Asian Sea: Binh Minh 02 (12o48’25’’ N, 111o26’48” on May 26, 2011) and Viking II (6o47’5” N, 109o17’5” E on June 9, 2011). Blue lines indicate the 200-nautical-mile limit of EEZs as assigned by the 1982 UNCLOS based on coastlines and islands; blue lines also show various agreements (e.g. Viet Nam–Indonesia), claims (e.g. Viet Nam, Malaysia), and hypothetical boundaries (e.g.China). Red dashed line indicates the territorial waters claimed by China. Green lines indicate the equidistance between the Paracel and Spratly Islands to other territories. The coastlines and islands are drawn using the software Generic Mapping Tool based on the GSHH dataset [22], which is a combinatorial database of the CIA World Data Bank II [23] and the NASA World Vector Shoreline Data [24]. Better annotation of these locations can be found at the UNCLOS 1982 blog [25].


In contrast with its behaviour in the Southeast Asian Sea, China has been actively building the image of an enduring country which patiently strives for peace. The government of China has repeatedly promoted its “harmonious development” (héxié fāzhăn/和谐发展) [26,27] and “seeking common ground while respecting differences” (qiútóng cúnyì/求同存异) policies [28]. However, inside China, the authorities encourage bloggers to spread their domestic and foreign policies [29,30] and disseminate China’s unilateral arguments about the incidents at sea to mislead the public about the situation in both the Southeast Asian Sea and the East China Sea. The Chinese authorities also quietly encourage fanatical nationalism and leave the possibility of using military power open [6,7,31].

Effectively, the world is prone to misunderstanding what is actually going on in the Southeast Asian Sea. Although people from other countries most likely rely upon sources they believe to be neutral, these sources often quote China’s media as the primary sources of information. As a consequence, the nature of the Southeast Asian Sea dispute are distorted, and countries like Viet Nam and the Philippines are considered as the aggressors in the region. For instance, while reporting the tension in the Southeast Asian Sea after the seismic ship Viking II’s cable was cut by China on June 9, 2011, The New York Times repeated China’s claim that the incident happened outside of Viet Nam’s EEZ [32]. Although the Viet Nam’s statement on the incident was mentioned later in the article, the story appears debatable to the readers because The New York Times completely ignored the actual location of the Viking II incident (see the above map) [33,34]. This information is not difficult to find but is easily drowned out by China’s propaganda machine. In the case of Viking II and other incidents alike, the government of China’s goal is to make Chinese people believe in its tales and the world media repeat its messages.

Moreover, it is not an easy task to verify the authenticity of every detail. The Chinese media have reported that Viet Nam’s armed vessels attacked China’s fishing boats “regardless of the Chinese fishermen’s lives being in danger”, leading to the Viking II incidents [33]. In contrast, witnesses on the ship Viking II confirmed the sabotaging action of China’s “fishing boats”. This aggressive behaviour of China resembles that displayed in the 2009 incidents, where the surveillance ship USS Impeccable was harassed by China’s vessels also in the Southeast Asian Sea [35], and recent clashes between China’s fishing boats with patrol ships of Japan in the East China Sea [36] and South Korea in the Yellow Sea [37].

The world cannot be fooled forever

Fooling the nation and the whole world to satisfy its thirst for natural resources and realize its expansionist ambition, the government of China has indeed created misunderstanding and driven a wedge between nations. Its action may also lead to wars for its abuse of unilateral propaganda and its promotion of hatred.

The price we have to pay for exposing this falsification can be high, and seeking the truth can very well be one of the biggest challenges for us in the information era of the 21st century. However, Zēng Shēn would eventually be vindicated, and Goebbels’ strategy could not delude the world for long. It is often said that “you can fool all the people some of the time and some people all the time but you cannot fool all the people all the time”, particularly in the “flat world” in which we are living.


The importance of public relations has never been appreciated as it is today. The stories of Zēng Shēn and Goebbels will never be outdated. They keep reminding every one, particularly Chinese people, about the risk of being fooled by one of the world’s greediest hegemonies.





[1] This quote of Goebbels can be found at the Holocaust Research Project website:

[2] This well-known story is called “Zēng Shēn is a killer” (Zēng Shēn shā ren/曾參殺人)

[3] “Vietnam accuses China in sea disputes” (May 30, 2011).

[4] Li Jinming and Li Dexia (2003). “The dotted line on the Chinese map of the South China Sea: a note”. Ocean Development & International Law 34:287–295.

[5] J. Peter Burgess (2003). “The politics of the South China Sea: territoriality and international law”. Security Dialogue 34:7–10.

[6] Chinese authorities lead the public to believe that “China tried hard to show restraint” and that “Viet Nam has been increasingly aggressive”: “China must react to Vietnam’s provocation” (June 21, 2011)

[7] The prism of China’s media results in the “negative feelings” of the Chinese public towards Viet Nam over the Southeast Asian Sea issue: “Vietnam ‘upsets’ Chinese public” (June 21, 2011)

[8] “Vietnam urged to act responsibly over tensions” (June 14, 2011)

[9] Esther Pan (May 18, 2006). “China’s soft power initiative”.

[10] “Editorial: Confronting a tough China, Viet Nam will gain nothing” (社评:对中国强硬不会给越南带来利益) (in Chinese) (June 11, 2011)

[11] “China scolds Philippines over disputed waters” (June 8, 2011)

[12] China often enforces annual fishing bans in the disputed waters and other countries’ EEZ: “South China Sea fishing ban ‘indisputable’” (June 9, 2009)

[13] Vietnamese fisherman Duong Van Dien mentioned his detention by Chinese authorities: (June 8, 2011)

[14] Vietnamese fishermen illegally seized by China: (October 25, 2010)

[15] The seismic ship Viking II was harassed by China within Viet Nam’s EEZ: “Viet Nam opposes Chinese intrusion” (June 10, 2011)

[16] Eight Vietnamese fishermen were killed at sea by Chinese border guards: “Vietnamese fishermen killed in territory dispute” (January 13, 2005)

[17] “Philippines to report China to U.N. over incursions” (June 17, 2011).

[18] Starting with its famous (or infamous) map of territorial waters claim in the Southeast Asian Sea, China gradually uses political and military forces to impose its control over the Southeast Asian Sea: “The South China Sea dispute: an unbalanced bargaining game” (February 9, 2009)

[19] “US warship docks in Vietnam amid China sea dispute” (August 10, 2010)

[20] “China intimidates foreign oil explorers in Vietnam” (June 11, 2011)

[21] “The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” was agreed and signed by ten ASEAN countries and China on November 4, 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

[22] Global Self-Consistent, Hierarchical, High-Resolution Shoreline Database:

[23] CIA World Data Bank II:

[24] NASA World Vector Shoreline Data:

[25] “On the essay ‘How China can avoid conflict’ by Minxin Pei” (June 21, 2011)

[26] President Hu Jintao emphasized the building of a harmonious society in China in his 2006 New Year Address

[27] Address by China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the Opening Ceremony of the 10th “Spring of Diplomats” on April 22, 2011 entitled “Win-win cooperation for harmonious development”

[28] Martin Lu (1998). “One culture two systems: a cultural approach to inter-Chinese politics”. The Bulletin of the Centre for East–West Cultural and Economic Studies 3:18–40.

[29] “China pays internet users to flood web forums with pro-government propaganda” (May 16, 2011)

[30] “Let go of ‘WuMaoDang’ and ‘50-cent Party’” . (May 23, 2011)

[31] General Peng Guangqian of the People’s Liberation Army and an analyst at the Chinese Academy of Military Science said “We should send regular battle-capable fisheries vessels to the Diaoyu area to protect navigation”: “China’s row with Japan threatens to escalate” (September 21, 2010)

[32] “Dispute between Vietnam and China escalates over competing claims in South China Sea”. (June 10, 2011)

[33] “6226 is not a normal fishing boat: official”. (June 11, 2011)

[34] The Viking II incident occurred within the 200-nautical mile limit from Viet Nam’s coast: “Vietnam’s vessel Viking 2 ‘harassed’ many times” (June 10, 2011)

[35] “Pentagon says Chinese vessels harassed U.S. ship” (March 9, 2009)

[36] A Chinese fishing boat reportedly rammed Japanese patrol vessels: “Japan frees Chinese boat captain amid diplomatic row” (September 24, 2010)

[37] Chinese fishermen illegally fished in South Korea’s waters and attacked South Korean patrolmen: “Chinese trawler in Yellow Sea clash” (December 18, 2010)