One of Fang Fang’s most outspoken detractors had a change of heart when those she had maligned came to her aid. Li Dan, a 31-year-old woman from Sichuan, used to attack Fang Fang and her supporters incessantly. She was not alone. After Fang Fang began documenting life under lockdown in Wuhan, nationalists across China took to the internet to denounce her as a traitor. One even put up a big-character poster—once used to tragic effect during the Cultural Revolution—announcing, “I will personally use the chivalrous ways of the Chinese people to come and attack and cut you down, Fang Fang.”
Li Dan was swept up in the nationalist tide. A typical post from her read, “Prepare a coffin for the traitor Fang Fang and make sure it’s big—that’s the only way that traitorous sell-out will fit.” She also savaged critics of China’s medical system as “collaborators, traitors, nation-hating maggots, spiritually American, dogs collared by the West” and wrote that intellectuals “stink like cockroaches and flies.” But after being diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2020 and experiencing firsthand the degradations imposed on the poor by China’s medical system, she says she regrets her vitriol. “Now I believe. The iron fist of reality has struck. It hurts. I was a fool to be so protective of my nation,” she wrote. Unable to pay for her care, she started a crowd-funding campaign seeking 100,000 yuan (over $15,000) to cover expenses. Fang Fang’s supporters answered the call en masse, with many suggesting their aid might serve as an impetus for renewed tolerance both from and for those mired in online nationalism. Some of their anonymised comments, translated below, were collected in a WeChat post:
I don’t like pinks, but you deserve help.
Hello, I’m Fang Fang’s fan. I hope that your personal experience will allow you to understand how rare and precious Fang Fang’s appeal is for we struggling masses. That you may truly see good from evil, and truth from lies.
After you’re better, read more good books, see more of this beautiful world, and watch less Douyin and Kuaishou—then you’ll be able to understand the true meaning of life.
I hope you get well soon! I’m someone you used to hate. My sister was also hit by the “iron fist” last year.
Although I hate little pinks, I know we all start off from ignorance. I have but little to offer. I hope that God watches over your recovery.
The harshest rebuke stems from the deepest love. A society needs different voices.
I am a fan of Teacher Fang Fang’s and I am praying for you! Fight on, I hope you get well soon!
I’ve given what little I have. I hope you pass through this crucible soon! I’m also one of those you hate, but I still hope you get well soon.
Working people are also Fang Fang fans. I love this land and I love the ordinary people around me even more. I don’t have more to say at the moment. Get well soon. I’ve donated. 🙏
Life is precious. —From the most pernicious of nation-hating maggots, in your words.
I don’t agree with your views, nor do I condone your behavior. But I’ve still chosen to do this because we are different than you. [Chinese]
In a brief essay reflecting on the episode, WeChat public account @小晖原创 expressed hope that the two sides’ recognition of their common humanity might help avoid similar tragedies in the future:
Whether it’s Li Dan or the netizens she fought with, they can now see that their opposites are neither traitors, nor monsters, nor people with ulterior motives. Both sides have value. Their views only diverge on a few issues: Li Dan tends towards nationalism, while those other netizens tend toward criticism.
Life’s real like that—it won’t give you a pass just because you’re a nationalist. What’s coming around the bend comes sooner or later. No matter how loudly you shout slogans, cancer will come in the end, and you’ll still need to ask strangers for help.
That’s when the importance of empathy becomes clear. Empathy does not allow for Schadenfreude. Even if people are on opposite sides of an issue, they’ll still do all they can to help those in need.
Now Li Dan, at 31 years old, has finally awoken to life. Surely this must be her coming of age? Although our views may differ, we must all maintain a basic level of respect for others. I have faith that she will understand this and so be at peace.
I return to that one phrase. People are allowed their own views but they must have empathy and a benevolent heart. Don’t say anything you can’t take back, don’t burn any bridges you can’t rebuild.
Only in this way can we avoid repeating the tragedies of the past. [Chinese]
Nationalism remains ascendant. Many feel they have no choice but to silence themselves in the face of its onslaught. Many LGBTQ groups and feminists have been deemed agents of “foreign forces” and shut down. Nationalists fan boycotts of foreign brands over Xinjiang cotton, with government backing. What’s driving the surge? According to Yuan Yang of The Financial Times, rampaging nationalism is the progeny of government efforts to promote patriotism, and “influencers” desperate for cachet in online spaces:
After Xi Jinping became leader of the Chinese Communist party in 2012, crackdowns on political speech and even celebrity gossip limited what Weibo users were allowed to say. Influencers — who need to keep attracting followers and attention — have the difficult task of creating hot topics without touching political hot potatoes. For many, nationalism is a safe arena.
Influencers often earn their keep by promoting brands, as they do in other countries, and it’s not unusual to find posts promoting washing machines alongside those on who should own the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are subject to a territorial dispute with Japan and Taiwan. The same people who accuse, say, public intellectuals of “selling out to Japan” often sell Japanese products via sponsored posts.
[…] China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration, aims to promote patriotic speech. But the line between fervent patriotism and aggressive nationalism is difficult to manage. “Platforms can’t gently direct the influencers, lest they leak our conversations and cause even more trouble,” says the insider. And even if posts are deleted, some controversies become big enough that they still burst into the open. [Source]