A surprisingly deep Chinese joke about Hurricane Sandy

October 30, 2012

A screenshot of Chinese state-run CCTV's Sandy coverage. (Weibo, via Tea Leaf Nation)

The invaluable Tea Leaf Nation rounds up some of the apparently widespread discussion about Hurricane Sandy on Chinese social media. Some of the comments offer concern for American well-being, some find lessons for China (more infrastructure, less censorship), and some cheer at "those American devils" getting their due.

But this one comment, from a Sichuan-based Weibo user named @wangfei20, really struck me:

As to the dispute between the United States and Sandy, we do not take a position. We hope that both sides see the situation clearly, see peace and unity as the main aim, and manage their previous conflicts.  

If you're a foreign policy nerd, you might already be chuckling to yourself. If not, then you might consider reading this blog more often. (Sandy is of course a tragedy, but keep in mind that this hasn't stopped Americans from making jokes, and there's no reason to think this joker meant any disrespect to the victim.) 

The joke is a reference to a State Department spokesman's statement in July about a small chain of uninhabited islands that both China and Japan claim: "The U.S. policy does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, and we expect the claimants to resolve the issue through peaceful means among themselves." 

The spokesman added that the islands "fall within" the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. In other words, the U.S. doesn't take a side ... unless the dispute comes to blows, in which case America is totally taking Japan's side against China.

That comment received wide attention in China, where the island dispute has fueled anti-Japanese sentiment and, this fall, some very ugly anti-Japanese protests that also briefly made their way over to the U.S. embassy.

This Weibo jokester, in drawing a parallel between the island dispute and hurricane Sandy, seems to be highlighting the absurdity of the U.S. declaration that it "takes no position."

It's also quite possible that he or she could see a deeper metaphor between the island dispute and this week's storm. Chinese citizens are extremely aware of Japan's horrific 1930s invasion of China, and many see its echoes in Japan's current occupation of the disputed islands. Siding with Japan over those islands, in this thinking, would be like siding with a hurricane against the country it's hit.

I'm not saying this is the correct way to view the island dispute, but if you didn't find the joke funny, then putting yourself within this Chinese perspective might help it to make sense.

Update: Commenter Jonny Wang has a different take:

It sounded to me like @wangfei20 was mocking the Chinese government's standard response to any international dispute - namely, to never take a firm stance in favor of any party, no matter what the situation. Genocide in Africa? Both sides should work to a peaceful resolution. Insurgents fighting a tyrannical dictator in Syria? Both sides should work to minimize civilian casualties.

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Olga Khazan | October 30, 2012