BEIJING (Reuters) - A plot to seize Libya's oil. A warning to the world that the West will cling to dominance. A flagrant display of hypocrisy over human rights.
China's ruling Communist Party has countered the West's air strikes against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi with a torrent of such criticisms in state-run newspapers and television, mounting a propaganda campaign to deter the public from any temptation to copy Arab insurrections against authoritarian rulers.
The media drive shows how nervous China's leaders are about any challenges to their firm hold on power, and especially about online comments that Western action in Libya shows the supremacy of international human rights standards, said Li Datong, a former editor at a Chinese party newspaper.
"The Chinese Communist Party sees a big threat in the idea that human rights and democratic demands can outweigh state sovereignty. They want to counter all that," said Li, who was forced out of his job for denouncing censorship.
Even before fighting in Libya broke out, Chinese security forces vehemently attacked online calls for "Jasmine Revolution" gatherings to demand democratic change inspired the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Those calls were stifled by censorship and a sweeping security crackdown.
Since the air strikes in Libya began, China's government has pushed propaganda into high pitch to tell the public that the Libyan shows the West cannot be trusted and will put self-interest ahead of principles.
"In recent days, some well-known domestic (Chinese) websites have proposed the weird argument that human rights are more important than sovereignty," said an editorial in the Global Times, a popular Chinese tabloid, on Wednesday.
The Libya air campaign is meant to send "the international political signal that in this world it's the West that calls the shots," said the paper.
"Iraq was attacked because of oil, and Libya is also being attacked for its oil," said the overseas edition of the People's Daily, the main mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing's opposition to the Western attacks in Libya reflects its longstanding opposition to intervening in other countries' internal conflicts, especially in the name of human rights. But the Chinese media condemnation is also driven by domestic political currents, said Li, the former editor.
Those political needs could give China's response to Libya and further unrest in the Middle East a harder ideological edge.
"They're using the state media for a propaganda counter-offensive using Libya," said Li.
"The Jasmine Revolution calls were never more than an online prank, but all this shows how sensitive they are to any challenges to their power."
Chinese newspapers, television stations and other media all come under state control, although there is also fierce commercial competition among them for audiences and advertising. The Party's Propaganda Department can demand that they censor information or opinions, or that they push a certain line.
"Behind the air strikes on Libya is self-interest," said the headline in the Military Weekly, published by China's People's Liberation Army.
"The air attacks are an announcement that the West wants to dominate the world," the Global Times said on Tuesday. "The West still believes down to its very bones that it's the leader of the world."
This is not a new script for China.
In 1999, China denounced NATO's Kosovo campaign as reckless meddling, its outrage reaching fever pitch after U.S. bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three people inside.
Likewise, Chinese state media have criticised the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as demonstrations of Western hypocrisy and self-interest.
Nowadays, Chinese officials confront a domestic Internet which, despite extensive censorship, is even bigger and often livelier than during those wars, said Zhan Jiang, a professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Chinese President Hu Jintao is worried about controlling the country's 453 million Internet users. In a speech last month, he urged "establishing mechanisms to guide online public opinion." .
"This is a bit like the Kosovo War in 1999, except now I think the Internet is a much bigger force and there's more support online for ideas about democracy," said Zhan.