China’s Coverage of North Korea Is Bizarrely Glowing

China has made sure that coverage of North Korea is adulatory, writes Dan Levin in Beijing.

Scan the Chinese media and it’s easy to think the late Kim Jong-il was a magnanimous head of state who ranked up there with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and the more recently departed Czech president Vaclav Havel. Amid the photos of a waving “Comrade Kim” and beatific scenes of Koreans reaping the lush bounties of communism, China’s newspapers and websites are gushing over his legacy as a “friend of the Chinese people” who “are all very sad” over the news of his passing. No mention is made of the millions of North Koreans who starved to death during the country's famines while the survivors rummaged for grass and bark. Don't even try looking for information about the dictator's expensive tastes for Hennessy cognac and fresh lobster. Instead the narrative is focusing on the need for "stability" in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the reclusive police state is formally known.

Judging from the comments on China's major news portals, it would appear that the Chinese are actually buying the propaganda—hook, line, and sinker. "All the best! China-DPRK friendship forever!" one reader wrote on one popular website.

But not all Chinese are fooled. Rather it appears China's censors are working overtime to delete the tsunami of scathing reactions to China's official support of the North Korean regime and its dearly departed dictator. And they are particularly sensitive to any comments comparing Kim Jong-il's devastating rule with that of Chairman Mao, whose death also triggered mass public sobbing. When one popular blogger—and former government official—announced, "The truth is, almost all 'Chinese people' are relieved, even happy about his death," and that North Koreans "can't surf the Internet, which would land them in prison and an executioner's bullet," the post was rapidly—to use the local parlance—"harmonized."

The Chinese government is obsessed with manufacturing consent domestically for its pro–North Korea policies because it has the most to lose if Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s 20-something son and successor, falters. That means dusting off an ideology that has grown increasingly tattered since China turned capitalist. As North Korea's neighbor, only major ally, and largest trading partner, China wants a smooth transition that preserves their military alliances and business deals. After all, trade between the two countries increased by more than 70 percent this year through October to $4.7 billion. That gives Beijing unrivaled leverage over Pyongyang and its ruling class's entrenched patronage system. So while Kim Jong-un may right now be paying respects to his father, he knows that China is his daddy.

“Kim must find a way to continue the cash flow, so he has to keep the Chinese on his side,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the Beijing-based Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. With so much at stake, China's leaders will stop at nothing to ensure North Korea remains stable—and bleak—for years to come. Unrest is not an option. “Anyone who expects those doomsday scenarios to occur has been smoking too much of that Arab Spring stuff,” said Kleine-Ahlbrandt.

China's role as crypto-regent propping up the new dictator explains Beijing's fawning response, complete with senior officials bowing their heads in condolence to Kim Jong-il and heavy suppression of public ridicule of the regime, which would risk angering Pyongyang and undermine decades of carefully built trust.

While the world, and particularly the U.S. and South Korea, were caught off guard by Monday's announcement of Kim Jong-il's death, recent press reports out of Hong Kong claim the North Koreans alerted Beijing mere hours after he died on Saturday, a telling example of the considerable trust between the allies.

That trust does not trickle down to all the Chinese people, many of whom are frustrated by Beijing's blatant censorship and are ashamed of their government's close ties to North Korea. “A lot of tech-savvy young people in China just look at this official support of North Korea as an embarrassment,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the Chinese media website “Often there is an unstated understanding that the worst tendencies of North Korea used to be here in China and some still are.”