Word of the Week: “U-lock” (U型锁, U-xíngsuǒ)

This month, there have been a number of incidents—some major and some minor—that illustrate the “U-lock” mentality, a phrase that is sometimes used as shorthand to describe vitriolic xenophobic (particularly anti-Japanese) sentiment. “U-lock” refers to a U-shaped metal bicycle lock used to attack the Chinese owner of a Japanese-made car during the 2012 anti-Japanese protests in Xi’an. Ever since, Chinese internet users have used the term “U-lock” to refer to knee-jerk, xenophobic sentiment with the potential to incite real-world violence.

The “U-lock” mentality was on display in some of the rejoicing and Schadenfreude on Chinese social media after a destructive magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck western Japan on New Year’s Day of this year. Some nationalist commenters even claimed that the earthquake was “retribution” for past Japanese transgressions, from the conquest of Asia during WWII, up to and including last September’s initial release of treated nuclear wastewater from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. 

Just a week after the earthquake came the Nanning Metro “rising sun/folding fan” flap, set in motion by a nationalistic Douyin vlogger who complained that a colorful new advertisement on the Nanning metro system resembled the controversial former “rising sun” flag of the Imperial Japanese Army. Nanning Metro quickly backed down, deleting the offending imagery and promising to improve its oversight of future advertising, but a look at the entirety of the advertisement revealed that the image was not a Japanese rising sun at all, but a traditional Chinese folding fan. Some online observers chalked the incident up to nationalist trolls attempting to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment through deliberate misrepresentation or intentional misdirection (指鹿为马, zhǐlùwéimǎ, literally “pointing at a deer and calling it a horse.”) Others characterized it as an example of “porcelain bumping” (碰瓷, pèngcí)—in other words, creating a sham scenario to fool the unwary and advance one’s own agenda. (The term was coined, noted David Bandurski, “to describe a technique used by fraudsters who would wait with delicate porcelain vessels outside busy markets and demand payment when these shattered, ostensibly due to the carelessness of others.”) 

CDT Chinese editors have archived numerous social media comments from Weibo, WeChat, and X (formerly Twitter) about the rising sun vs. folding fan incident. Many of the comments were humorous, joking that from now on, the Chinese government would have to ban anything that vaguely resembled the former Japanese flag: no more circles, suns, wheels, bicycle spokes, or even nuclear symbols. But some of the responses were more thought-provoking. As WeChat blogger Song Qing Ren (送青人) noted, “This is definitely something that sends a chill down our spines, because removing one advertisement won’t be enough to satisfy these so-called ‘patriots.’ What will we have to do to satisfy them the next time they start making groundless accusations, ranting and raving about ‘hostile foreign forces,’ militarism, and fascism?”

Anti-Japanese sentiment in China sometimes plays out in the realm of clothing and costumery. Earlier this month, for example, there was a major backlash to the Pingyao County Culture and Tourism Bureau’s announcement that it would prohibit “tourist photography” shops in Pingyao’s ancient city center from selling clothing from “non-Han-Chinese” ethnic groups. Many online accused Pingyao’s tourism authorities of engaging in reflexive Han ethnocentrism. More recently, there was vigorous online debate about a viral video of a cosplayer dressed in white and lavender robes, a lavender pageboy wig, and a dark purple hat as she tried to board the Shanghai Metro. She was stopped by subway security and sent to speak to a police officer, who asked the woman to show her ID and remove her hat before getting on the subway. After explaining that her clothes were Chinese-style garments and that she was dressed as the character Qiqi from the Chinese video game “Genshin Impact,” she was allowed to board the subway, but cautioned that if she attracted too many onlookers with her flamboyant costume, she would be held legally responsible.

The Shanghai Metro cosplay controversy recalls a similar incident in Suzhou in August 2022, when a young woman wearing a kimono was interrogated by police for five hours, simply for wearing a Japanese kimono on a public street frequented by cosplayers.

The newly published China Digital Times Lexicon, 20th Anniversary Edition, contains a more detailed explanation of the term “U-lock.” The full lexicon entry is reproduced below:

U-lock (U型锁, U-xíngsuǒ)

Reference to a U-shaped metal bicycle lock used in the brutal beating of a Chinese citizen named Li Jianli during the 2012 anti-Japanese protests in Xi’an. Nowadays, the term is sometimes used as shorthand for vitriolic xenophobic (particularly anti-Japanese) sentiment.

The massive, sometimes violent protests that rocked over 80 cities in mainland China in August and September of 2012 were rooted in a long-running territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese). The protests were fueled by an escalating series of events: Tokyo provincial governor Shintaro Ishihara’s announcement that Tokyo planned to purchase the islands from their private (Japanese) owner; standoffs between Taiwanese fishing boats and the Japanese Coast Guard; activists from both Japan and Hong Kong landing on the disputed islands; and the Japanese central government’s eventual purchase of the islands, which provoked fierce diplomatic protests from China and Taiwan and accusations of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” (see entry). A protest by “baodiao” activists (保钓, bǎodiào, “defending the islands”), took place outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on September 15, days before the sensitive anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident

The protests spread from Beijing to as many as 80 other Chinese cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Qingdao, Jinan, Changsha, Shenyang, and Xi’an. In many places, demonstrations devolved into riots, with angry protesters burning Japanese flags; attacking Japanese factories, businesses, restaurants; and targeting the owners of Japanese-branded automobiles. The Chinese government seemed to tacitly condone the protests, although there was a police response in some places including Shenzhen, where authorities used tear gas to disperse protesters. State media sent mixed messages: a People’s Daily editorial said that while it did not defend violence, the protests were a sign of patriotism and “should be viewed sympathetically.”

Wary of the demonstrations spiraling into a broader anti-government protest movement, however, mainland authorities began to censor news of the protests. A September 15 censorship directive from the State Council Information Office, translated by CDT, instructed that all websites “clear every forum, blog, Weibo post and other form of interactive content of material concerning ‘mobilizing anti-Japan demonstrations, stirring up excitement, rioting and looting.’” Some images of the protests were removed from Weibo, and many protest-related terms became sensitive words on Weibo, including “anti-Japan” (反日 fǎn Rì, 抗日 kàng Rì), “smash + car” (砸+车, záchē), “protest” (抗议, kàngyì), “take a walk” (散步, sànbù), “demonstrate” (游行, yóuxíng), and “demonstration” (示威, shìwēi). Some bloggers and public figures, including popular young writer Han Han, denounced the violence and urged the public not to succumb to hatred.

In the aftermath of the protests, Sino-Japanese relations hit a nadir, and sales of Japanese-branded vehicles in China plummeted. One of the most horrifying and enduring images to emerge was the sight of Li Jianli, the driver of a Japanese car in Xi’an, being hit four times in the head with a heavy bicycle lock and crumpling to the ground. His wife, with the help of some bystanders, managed to get him into a taxi and take him to a hospital, where he underwent surgery. His injuries, however, were life-changing, leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to speak more than a few simple phrases. Years of physical and speech therapy later, his condition has improved somewhat, but he and his wife still struggle with daily life. The violence he endured prompted a great deal of soul-searching by many Chinese citizens. His attacker, then-21-year-old Cai Yang, was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison, putting a heavy burden on his aging parents. Nine years after the attack, Phoenix TV published a profile on the two families whose lives were destroyed by xenophobic nationalism run amok.

More recent examples of anti-Japanese incidents and sentiments—although nowhere near as violent as the 2012 Diaoyu/Senkaku protests—include public glee over the July 2022 assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe; the August 2022 detention of a young Chinese woman for wearing a kimono on a street in Suzhou; and a spate of boycotts against Japanese products and harassing calls to individuals and businesses in Japan following the August 2023 release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The “U-lock” metaphor is not limited to anti-Japanese nationalism. In early 2017, a wave of anti-South Korean sentiment swept through China following a plan to deploy the U.S. THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system in South Korea. There was a public backlash and calls for boycotts against South Korean brands, such as Lotte, which used to run supermarkets and department stores in China. (By 2023, Lotte had completely exited the China market.) State media helped to stoke public anger: Legal Daily’s official Weibo account published a list of Lotte store locations in China, seemingly inviting the public to target those shops, and the Hunan Provincial Communist Youth League Committee mobilized its members to agitate for a boycott of the company. Many online were dismissive of these efforts to manipulate Chinese patriotism. As Weibo user @无关年轻 commented, “The U-lock is ready. It’s just waiting for the order to bash Lotte to death, huh?” Later that year, investigative journalist Jiang Xue blamed pernicious Chinese nationalism on the long-running suppression of free speech in mainland China. “They’ve gone from resisting Japanese goods to resisting Korean [goods], but some people say that the most urgently needed boycott is on idiots. […] Our country must admit that the existence of these idiots is related to the decades-long restrictions on speech.”

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