China 2008: Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity

This is a continuation of the series on CDT relating to relevant China issues in 2008. This article deals with Chinese Nationalism and Internet Culture. Please see also previous posts on the Developing World.

Chinese nationalism was a hot topic this year, quite the opposite of the usual criticism directed at China, whether it be her food safety issues, human rights record, environmental policies, or the authoritarian regime’s repressive techniques and censorship. Indeed, China has strived to improve its image, culminating this year with the Beijing Olympics 2008, where nationalism played an integral role in expressing the pride and glory of China’s rise and achievements. However, as in the Belgrade embassy bombing in 1999 and the anti-Japanese protests in 2005, nationalistic citizens have an agenda of their own, sometimes promoting state agenda and ideology, but not always working in favor for the government. CDT has collected these stories over the past year. Here are some of highlight events that have sparked a wave of nationalism:

In the months prior to the Olympics, the Lhasa riots in March that spurred a movement of by nationalistic netizens, termed “angry youth” or fenqing by the domestic press. With the dual images of China, the nationalists sided with the “left,” (conservative), creating websites like that became a leader against the perceived Western media bias. The effect was immediate, with responses from Western media after pressure from these netizens. No one was immune to their wrath. The elite “right,”(liberals) like Southern Metropolitan Weekly editor Chang Ping, made slight criticism on the rationality of these “angry youth” and was deemed a traitor, eventually stepping down from his role as editor.

Indeed the nationalistic wave was soon shown to be fickle and quite polarized. During the Olympic Torch Relay in Paris, Jin Jing, was once glorified as a hero for her role, then vilified a week later as a traitor for her comments on the Carrefour boycotts. Grace Wang, a Duke University student trying to bridge the gap between Tibet protesters and Chinese citizens came under attack and showed the power of “human search engines” and netizens when they find their target. Even the official government was relatively quiet during all of this, only stepping in to direct the nationalistic energies to more “constructive” purposes and the police and universities’ trying to cancel student protests.

During the Sichuan Earthquake, the nationalism was directed toward grieving and the rebuilding the nation.
And even aggrieved parents stayed quiet for the Olympics.

As for the Olympics, the promotion of athletes (e.g.Liu Xiang), even Olympic marketing and publicity had a nationalism spin.

The reaction to the Tibetan riots, Carrefour boycotts have dwindled down while the Olympics were happening. After the Olympics, nationalism was still around, but no major event triggered as strong as the reaction prior to the Olympics.

Sometimes, nationalism attacks were on a smaller cultural scale such as Gong Li changing her citizenship to Singapore or the film Kung Fu Panda. The refueling of between Japanese and Chinese students or manifesting in the Japan train controversy. Nationalism can also create mass movements such as Crazy English.

Here are the highlights of how some have interpreted nationalism’s role in today’s China:

As ethnicity discrimination

Its impact on marketing

Formation of a new nationalism

How history has impacted the telling of Chinese nationalism

The youth movement as similar to Tiananmen

Why China is so touchy about tarnishing their image

As pessimists/optimist

Journalists on Tibet & Olympics

Scholars defining nationalism

Nationalism and how to avoid its dangers

The danger in Chinese democracy with nationalism.

Indeed the question about where nationalism stems from can be seen from many points of view, as xenophobic (seen in Shanghainese discrimination), specifically anti-West or pro-China. State propaganda certainly plays a role in the formation of a nationalistic identity, with some deeming nationalism as “soft power” for the state propaganda. Certainly in China’s first spacewalk after the Olympics not only diverted attention from the food safety issues and instilled legitimacy in the CCP’s rule, but created a sense of pride within the nation. State propaganda doesn’t just use nationalism as a tool, but also more broadly builds on ideology on a “harmonious society.” In reaction to individual stories, such as the teacher murders in October, the state stressed state ideology to focus more on moral education.

The internet played a large role in spreading the nationalistic sentiment. With the spread of information through the internet, the state has even had to change their strategy of censorship, leaking the story out first and spinning the story to their favor.

There are several debates on angry youth from Chinese media and Western media.

2008! China Stand Up Video made on April 15, 2008

The internet’s power in nationalism creates a cyber nationalism that can be seen as a threat as it breaks down physical boundaries. Already, the role of the internet not only mass mobilizes people in China, but overseas Chinese as well.

The state acknowledges that the internet is powerful and can be a tool, as in nationalism, as well as a threat. There has been limits to the internet including censorship, crack downs on internet cafes, and deeming too much online time as an addiction. Chinese bloggers have also noted the power of the internet. And Chinese netizens in response to censorship have been creative.

The role of nationalism has certainly had an affect on the events of this year, but where nationalism’s future lies, is another question. Certainly, democracy is constantly being questioned in China. However, the internet will play an integral role in how nationalism will fare. Especially if the state is unable to contain the Internet and the spread of information and opinions, whether the polarizing affect of nationalism will occur in the future is another question and the rise of more moderate voices. Already, the internet has been shown to be the site of critiques of the government, questioning corruption and mismanagement as in the “Changzhi New Deal” in response to the Shanxi mining and landslide accidents, with individual bloggers getting their voices heard, like Wuyeusanren and Woeser on Tibet. The 4th Annual Blogger Conference just wrapped up and as tech blogger Gang Lu pointed out, the internet in China is diverse and expanding with censorship only being a part of the Chinese blogosphere.

On the other side, the state is also hitting back, with more people being harassed, even arrested for blogging and online or off-line commentary, as Chen Daojun for his comments on the Lhasa riots and Yang Shiqun, a professor for his criticisms of the government.

Read more of CDT’s tags on Internet culture and Online Culture to find out more about the Netizen Role and Culture in Nationalism.

See CDT’s Nationalism and Chinese Nationalism tags for the full collection of stories relating to this topic.


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