The flag that launched 1,000 headaches

The standoff between China and Japan over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands, a set of islands and rocky atolls northeast of Taiwan and southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa, is figuring prominently in China’s headlines today. Central to the story is Japan’s arrest yesterday of 14 activists who sailed from Hong Kong on a vessel called “Defense of the Diaoyu II” and landed on one of the islands, climbing atop it with flags and banners.

But one of the most interesting substories today has involved the handling inside China of an image of the landing by Hong Kong activists. The image shows a man in a white shirt bearing the national flag of the People’s Republic of China. Right below him is a man in an olive-colored vest bearing the flag of the Republic of China.


[ABOVE: A complete, unedited image of the Hong Kong activist crew landing on the Diaoyu Islands, with Taiwanese flag fully evident.]

The image quickly became iconic on China’s internet, and many were quick to note the obvious presence of Taiwan’s flag alongside that of mainland China.

But how were Chinese media to deal with the iconic image today? How could they use this powerful visual to assert China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands while dealing at the same time with the super-sensitive question of sovereignty that still hangs over the Taiwan issue?

The Chinese-language Global Times, a paper frequently dismissed as a “nationalist rag” (and that very often looks like one), in fact made one of the bravest shows. The paper ran the full image — no wily cropping or Photoshopping.


[ABOVE: The August 16 edition of the Global Times run the full image of the Hong Kong activist crew landing on the Diaoyu Islands, with Taiwanese flag evident. A Weibo user circled the Taiwanese flag and remarked: "This is the truest [use].”]

The Yimeng Evening Post (沂蒙晚报), a commercial paper in the city of Linyi in Shandong province, also ran the full image.

The paper was congratulated by some Chinese on Weibo for its show of courage and principle, but by Thursday afternoon the link to the front page on the paper’s electronic version had already been disabled. Indeed, this is the kind of risk that might better be run by bigger players like the Global Times.

So how did other Chinese newspapers deal with the Taiwanese flag?

Recognizing the sensitivity of the image, but still apparently feeling it was the best front page option, the Wuhan Evening Post splashed its bold black headline — “Setting Foot on the Diaoyus” — right across the Taiwanese flag. A deceitful, but of course resourceful, workaround.


[ABOVE: The Wuhan Evening Post cleverly blocks out Taiwan's flag with a strategically placed headline.]

The Chongqing Commercial News solved the problem by doing some heavy-handed cropping of the image of the Diaoyu Island landing. The paper isolates the portion at the top of the photo in which the man in the white shirt climbs with the PRC flag.


[ABOVE: The Chongqing Commercial News crops out everything but the PRC flag bearer at the top of the image.]

Not unlike the Wuhan Evening Post, Shenzhen’s Daily Sunshine chose to block out the Taiwanese flag with a bold headline. This time, the headline reads: “We Salute You! Heroes on Diaoyu!” But the Daily Sunshine treatment is done so cleverly that the reader sees only the red on the flag — not the white and blue — and can only assume that this, too, is a PRC flag.


[ABOVE: The Daily Sunshine uses a headline to block the Taiwanese flag, and suggest it is a PRC one.]

The day’s Infamy Prize goes to the Xiamen Commercial News, a commercial newspaper in Fuzhou province, and right across the straits from Taiwan. Taking the lowest of the ethical low roads, the paper simply photoshopped the Taiwanese flag, bringing the PRC flag tally in the image to three.


[ABOVE: The Xiamen Commercial News rubs out historical fact with the help of software.]

In a Weibo post earlier today, Chinese legal scholar Xu Xin (徐昕) shook a finger at the Xiamen Commercial News, writing: “You can decide not to use the whole image, but you cannot outright fabricate it. I pay my respects to the Yimeng Evening Post and observe a moment of silence for Xiamen Commercial News.”

It should also be noted that an earlier image of the “Defense of the Diaoyu II” vessel en route to the Diaoyu Islands shows that several flags were flying during the journey. A PRC national flag was affixed to the front of the vessel, and Hong Kong and Taiwan flags flew at the top of the vessel.

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