Is There a Backlash Against Online Nationalism?

In recent months, episodes such as the invasion of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page and uproars over perceived insults to China by Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop singers, Australian swimmers and the Rio Olympic Committee have brought renewed attention to the long-established phenomenon of online nationalism. Reporting on the outcry this week at a Taiwanese model’s reference to Chinese people as “426”—a Hokkien homophone for “damned mainlanders”—Manya Koetse recaps recent incidents and their deeper roots. From What’s On Weibo:

According to Ying Jiang, the author of Cyber- in China (2012), the roots of the “angry ” expressed by today’s Chinese netizens can be traced back to China’s “Century of Humiliation” that took place from roughly the mid-1800s until after WWII.

[…] In the postwar 20th century, the rise of Chinese nationalism has gone hand in hand with an intensification of anti-foreign sentiments. A new wave of nationalism came about in the 1990s when Western influences on China were considered to negatively influence Chinese traditional culture. It was also the time when the government launched an extensive propaganda campaign of patriotic education, that especially impacted China’s younger generations.

[…] Author Zheng Jiawen recently wrote how the term ‘little pinkos’ (小粉红) nowadays refers to a high-profile group of Chinese young female netizens who go online to defend their patriotism. Taking action against foreign “insults” is part of their movement. They are not alone; the sentence “never forget national humiliation” (勿忘國耻) is ubiquitous on Chinese . [Source]

In an article at Sixth Tone, though, Zha Wen of Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University argues that militantly nationalist sentiments may be less widespread than they appear, and that much of the public has little sympathy or patience for them:

In fact, the more jingoistic nationalists have found that it has become increasingly difficult to defend their patriotic rhetoric. Recently, I watched a video shot in a restaurant by a female protester calling for people to the company and trying to humiliate those eating there.

Naturally, the response of many customers was to simply evade the camera. What surprised me, however, was that a few customers actually confronted her. One young woman hit back by recording the protester on her own phone. Another customer tersely pointed out that the protester herself was using an : “Smash up your , and I’ll leave!” she yelled.

Similar behavior also met with severe backlash online. Some netizens posted photos of themselves eating KFC chicken with axes, toy guns, and signs reading, “Patriotic hooligans, try to harass me and I will take you out.”

[… T]he public’s response to calls to boycott Apple, KFC, and Filipino mangoes represents a check on unbridled Chinese nationalism. It is also imperative to distinguish nationalist sentiments from nationalist behavior; the prevalence of the former does not guarantee that ordinary people will actively rally behind the nationalist cause. While it is easy to express nationalist sentiments from behind a keyboard, many would surely think twice before supporting any policy that demanded personal sacrifice. [Source]

Also at What’s On Weibo, Diandian Guo discussed criticism of real estate tycoon Guo Bin’s comment on the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, which led to its occupation of much of China:

“Our whole country was thoroughly bullied by a much smaller, son-of-a-b**ch country! I never use any Japanese products, and I even leave all hotel water taps running when I am in Japan. It’s despicable but I enjoy it.”

[…] For some netizens, the problem of Guo’s supposed “patriotism” lies in its hatred and irrationality. “This kind of uneducated behaviour will only make people look down on us, especially by using bad words such as ‘little Japan’ (小日本)”, one netizen says: “We should use this time to improve our lives and our character. Patriotism has nothing to do with name calling.”

“Such hatred is blind and worthless”, writes another netizen: “Education of the people does not start with hatred against Japan, but with a love for ourselves.” [Source]

In another commentary at Sixth Tone, University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral candidate Zheng Jiawen examines the history of Chinese nationalism online, including the notorious “Little Pinks” and their predecessors. Like Zha, he notes the emergence of a pronounced reaction against them:

[…] People often think of this group as a bunch of under-educated youngsters, ignorant of history and politics, who are unconcerned with real political issues so long as their own national identity is protected.

[…] Despite the pessimistic views of the little pinkos, the bright side is that their rhetoric has opened up a new discursive space in which patriotism and patriots may be seen as a problem. As a result, young patriots have been forced into a debate in which they are required to defend the legitimacy of their beliefs and actions.

For a long time now, many Chinese have tended to view patriotism as an ultimate goal for which the sacrifice of other values is justified. This has been largely due to the dual influences of traditional culture, which have privileged collectivism, and to a well-orchestrated patriotic education campaign led by the Communist Party since 1949. At least at the grassroots level, patriots are therefore rarely held up as objects of public ridicule. The emergence of little pinkos as a derogatory term signifies a nascent disdain for such patriots, as well as for what has conventionally been considered noble behavior, indicating that even nationalism may even be problematic under certain circumstances.

[… T]he distinct feature of this wave of nationalism is that the actions of the little pinkos may raise mass awareness of the problems of patriotism. This in turn may cause thousands more people to find, upon reflection, that unquestioned patriotism can lose its appeal. For intellectuals, this is a perfect moment to invite ordinary people to engage in a constructive dialogue on topics of the self, state, and society. To do this, they will have to learn new ways to discuss basic political ideas with young patriots, and avoid deriding them as irrational or impetuous. [Source]

In its role as a state media outlet, Sixth Tone could be seen as deliberately downplaying online nationalism to provide a reassuring balance to Global Times’ sensationalist “bad cop.” The site has quickly garnered widespread respect, however, and reservations about its content have so far tended to focus more on what it cannot say than on what it does.

Regardless of any public backlash, have attracted praise from official organs including People’s Daily’s Public Sentiment Monitoring Unit, which recognized their “strong and emotional variety of patriotism, refuting Western negative information to discredit the Chinese government.” At East Asia Forum, Macquarie University’s Kevin Carrico recently pointed out the dangers of the government’s embrace and cultivation of nationalist sentiment, often summed up with the proverb “when you ride a tiger, it’s hard to dismount” (骑虎难下).

This is the catch-22 of seeking socio-political stability through nationalism: it is inherently an unstable ideology. Certainly on the surface, nationalism can be a stabilising value that places faith in the Chinese Communist Party leadership as the wise guides toward the goal of national revitalisation.

Yet nationalism is always far more than submission to powerful leaders. It is also a highly affective phenomenon, mapping out insiders and outsiders, enemies and friends, the twists and turns of which are reliably unpredictable. A state that relies upon nationalism for stability is making use of a fundamentally unstable ideology. And a state that relies upon nationalism for legitimation also opens itself up to de-legitimation as ‘not nationalist enough’.

[… B]y cultivating generations of xenophobic nationalists as the core of , the Party has in fact made the prospect of sudden democratisation a scary thought. A government that actively responds to and is guided by sentiments of the type we saw in the Mack Horton affair is potentially even more disconcerting than the current regime.

Examining this paradox of nationalism in China today, it becomes apparent that any future political change must start from cultural change. This would allow for a wider and considerably more open airing of viewpoints beyond the current politically correct, nationalist perspective. But such cultural change remains highly unlikely so long as a party that relies upon nationalist ideology for legitimation remains in power. [Source]

Authorities clearly recognize some potential hazard, particularly when nationalism spills offline. A leaked media directive in July warned outlets “once again, for the near future, do not hype or spread information related to illegal rallies and demonstrations,” coinciding with the KFC/ protests. Around the same time, Peking University implemented “wartime stability procedures” to “prevent large-scale gatherings, demonstrations, or even extreme behavior,” or “non-university persons with ulterior motives […] coming onto campus and making trouble.”

Back at Sixth Tone, Zhang Weiyu of the National University of Singapore has examined the apolitical origins of Little Pinkish crusades in music and literary fandom, and the transference of fan attitudes to the political arena. Zhang objected to the way “international media were keen to portray little pinkos as blind followers of the ‘red’ Communist Party”; in a recent essay at The World Post, Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Kate Merkel-Hess similarly warned that “we must be careful […] to guard against conflating Chinese nationalism with agreement with the government.” Meanwhile, at Global Times, University of Hong Kong doctoral candidate Xu Bijun argued recently that the “Chinese owe no apologies for nationalism.”

At the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Analysis Blog, Guobin Yang discussed the Little Pinks’ use of English translation as an apparent (and apparently successful) “cry for global attention.” He also noted their deployment of classical references and biaoqing bao, or “emoji packs.” See more on the biaoqing bao phenomenon, including their utility for “non-committal political dialogue,” from Nanjing University’s Chen Jing at Sixth Tone and from Christina Xu at Motherboard.