The “next level smearing” of Chinese patriotism: a view from the Communist Youth League

“There’s the door”: one of many Communist Youth League-approved “memes” on the South China Sea issue

The first weekend after the July 12 Philippines vs China arbitration ruling — the “7.12 Incident” — has passed without reports of major anti-foreign protests.

There were, however, scattered cases of nationalist mobilization. There was at least one case of picketing outside a KFC in Hebei province (video), some smashing of iPhones (footage of which was often shared via iPhones), and a bunch of online dried mango retailers claiming to have switched their suppliers away from the Philippines.

Together with the various patriotic outpourings online, this was probably the largest set of collective actions by Chinese citizens on the South China Sea issue yet seen in China — bigger than Scarborough Shoal in 2012, or the peak of tensions in 2011, though still probably smaller and less intense than the demonstrations that would likely have occurred during the 2001 Sino-American EP-3 incident, had authorities had not prevented them.

While the Global Times hailed the “new wave of patriotism,” it was clear that, like in 2001, the party-state did not want real-world demonstrations. Municipal and university authorities were reportedly instructed to stay vigilantly on guard against potential mass gatherings. Nor, it seems, was online warmongering particularly desirable from the party’s perspective, with jingoistic Weibos encountering censorship.

An article published on the Communist Youth League’s Weibo illuminates some of the reasoning behind this desire to keep the patriotic outbursts relatively mild. It argues that much of the extreme nationalist outbursts are in fact “next-level smearing” (高级黑, referred to below as gaojihei) of China’s good patriots by anti-party elements posing as extreme nationalists.

Just how much of China’s ultra-nationalist output this actually accounts for is a wide open question. But the article offers evidence that it does explain at least some of the most visible and intense cases of what the outside world commonly understands as Chinese nationalism. In this way, it’s another illustration of how much more lurks behind shows of apparently anti-foreign mobilization besides simple “nationalist” ideology.

The examples cited suggest at least 4 distinct kinds of anti-regime motivation for extreme nationalist speech and actions:

  1. Critiquing the party’s ideological policies through parody;
  2. Giving patriotism negative associations;
  3. Fomenting domestic chaos that would destabilize party rule;
  4. Pushing for a war that would likely be disastrous for the party.

The article is written by one of the Communist Youth League’s most energetic proponents of pro-party “positive energy” in both China and Australia. Besides being on the committee of the All-China Youth Federation, Lei Xiying is a PhD student at Australian National University, whose previous projects include the “take a selfie with the flag,” setting up an Association for PhD Students and Outstanding Youth Scholars, and heavy promotion of last year’s military parade. He’s a prolific political commentator in the PRC state media, as well as in the Chinese-language media in Australia.

The author is, in short, a very worthy recipient of his Positive Energy Youth award bestowed on him by the Cyberspace Administration of China for being an “outstanding youth representative of online ideological construction.” As such, the article is illustrative of some of the issues facing the state’s leadership of popular nationalism on contentious foreign policy issues in the internet era, which i’ll return to briefly at the end.

 

~

Life’s-a-game memes and the hijacking of youth patriotism by “crazy uncles”
游戏人生的表情包与当代青年被“怪蜀黍”绑架的“爱国”

Communist Youth League Weibo, July 16, 2016
Lei Xiying

“A gift for American President Putin”

This afternoon a post-1995 netizen sent me a “patriotic” photograph that he found confusing.

At a glance, with the slogan “violators of my China, however distant, must be punished” it’s a hot-blooded emotional “patriot.” But look a bit closer . . . Excuse me? [The calligraphic banner] is “a gift for US President Putin” . . . look again, a bald, bespectacled, half-naked, very inelegant “crazy uncle” with bad posture hits your eye . . .

“Bro, his patriotic expression is weird, how could he say the American President is Putin…”

I replied to this post-95’s doubts in three decisive words: next! level! smear! (高!级!黑!)

Is this surprising? Actually no, it’s commonplace. Whenever big things happen in China, whenever the whole population’s patriotic sentiments rise, these kinds of gaojihei are sprayed out everywhere.

For example, the author says, during the Diaoyu crisis, a person who had once burned the 5-star red flag suddenly became a patriotic Diaoyu defender, inciting the masses to take to the streets. Other suspect “patriots” had bragged about using the occasion to help themselves to a free meal or Rolex watch. “As for those among the peaceful patriotic marchers who urged violence and looting, their shouting of patriotic slogans was the loudest, but what was their objective?”

In one common gaojihei, Lei notes, netizens purported to blame actress Zhao Wei, who has again been the target of nationalist criticism of late, for masterminding the South China Sea arbitration decision, the Turkish coup attempt, and the Nice terror attack in order to divert attention from her sins.

Satirical posts blaming recent events, including the South China Sea arbitration, on Zhao Wei

Lei makes an important distinction between those who initiate extreme nationalist actions and those who join in later:

The initiators of this type of information are generally troublemakers, while those who forward it on are overwhelmingly ordinary netizens with naive patriotic sentiments — their heart is good, but due to their unfamiliarity with the internet’s complex public opinion environment, they are used by people with a purpose.

Besides these, some groups who are normally very dissatisfied with the state, the current system and the present state of affairs, suddenly become interested in patriotism, and urge everyone to take to the streets, and take to the battlefield.

The author then provides several examples of such suspects.

Another concern is the attempts to link party-sactioned patriotism with the sickening violence seen in the anti-Japan demonstrations over the Diaoyu Islands in 2012.

Some people take the opportunity to smear and exaggerate the behaviour of “extremist elements,” and use this to “represent” and “denounce” the rational behaviour of the overwhelming majority of patriotic youth, enacting maximum distortion on patriotism.

Have we taken to the streets and smashed things? Committed violence? We are just playing with memes (表情包), OK?

Weibo post on July 14 recalling protester Cai Yang’s horrific hammer attack on Toyota driver Li Jianli during the 2012 anti-Japan protests in Xi’an

The author then takes the opportunity to address some other criticisms of South China Sea patriotism. A comment observing two main types of nationalists, “very smart swindlers” and “very emotional idiots,” comes remarkably close to Lei’s own analysis of the initiators and followers noted above. Not surprisingly, his rebuttal does not acknowledge any such parallel:

Please do not force these meaningless labels on us, OK? If you must label us, we are the ‘party of memes’ (表情包党), OK?

In response to a middle-aged Weibo user’s observation that outbursts of patriotism tend to involve the denouncing of race-traitors:

We love the country but we do not arrest traitors, that was your generation’s hobby, our hobby is memes, OK?

“What you’re doing is moral hijacking”: one of the Communist Youth League patriotic meme gang’s responses to the critics

In the words of noted scholar Liu Yang 刘仰: “If you trace the patriotic demonstrations over the past few years, you find that every time patriotic enthusiasm is ignited, a succession of acts of sabotage follow. Strong voices immediately appear afterwards, saying patriots are ‘angry youth,’ patriots are criminals, patriots are extremist terrorists, patriots are ignorant brain-dead! . . . Time after time patriotic enthusiasm has ended in farce. This may be the behind-the-scenes manipulators’ objective: [keep this pattern repeating] until one day when China really needs the power of patriotism no one will appear, like the villagers in the Boy Who Cried Wolf or King You’s generals after he played with the fire beacons (‘烽火戏诸侯’故事里的勤王之师).”

Thankfully, according to the author, the plot was thwarted thanks to the Communist Youth League sending out articles such as his own, discouraging any boycotts of any country’s products, and designating memes as the “patriotic form” of choice for today’s youth.

“I’m not giving you a single fish from my South China Sea”

In conclusion Lei notes that critics of patriotism had different motivations corresponding to their generations. In contrast to the post-1970 and post-1980 generations (who presumably act on the basis of their westernised values), post-1950 and post-1960 critics of contemporary youth patriotism are often driven by their disillusionment with “the current system, road, and theory.” The article finishes with a rousing affirmation of the current generation:

Our understanding of history, of China, and of the world is inevitably more complete, more objective, more rational than that ‘historically burdened’ generation

. . .

this is why, after the 7.12 arbitration incident, we did not take to streets, scream protests, or even smash things up as some people had hoped . . . on the contrary we initiated a form of ‘mocking and scolding’ (嬉笑怒骂) unique to this generation.

“Your ignorance pains me”

~

Not sure if the summary above hangs together at all — the article itself is similarly disjointed — but it does raise a couple of issues facing the state’s leadership of popular nationalism on contentious foreign policy issues in the internet era.

First, as the Liu Yang quote suggests, the CCP state’s ability to tap into the power of popular nationalist mobilizations is significantly compromised by the moderate backlash their extreme elements generate. This point, borne out in Chris Cairns and Allen Carlson’s recent study of the 2012 wave of nationalism, has been recognized by other smart minds within the propaganda system. In a research interview in 2013, a state media employee familiar with audience costs theory observed that any international leverage China may gain from allowing domestic protests is greatly diminished when violence ensues. Not only does protest violence require suppression, thereby foregrounding the state’s ability to control nationalist outrage. It also brings forth strong anti-nationalist voices from across society, suggesting popular support for defiance of nationalist demands for escalatory foreign policy choices.

Second, perhaps reflecting the need to protect trade ties in a time of economic uncertainty, the CYL was clearly keen to specifically discourage boycotts among the youth, and substitute them with online “memes” (表情包). For the party-state to adopt these particular forms of internet-era youth expression as a vehicle for its propaganda makes perfect sense. But as a substitute for real political action it’s so openly inconsequential (and, due to the need for political correctness, humourless) that i wonder how this could possibly satisfy any genuine nationalist anger about the South China Sea issue — let alone the kind of general dissatisfaction with life that underpins at least part of it. This might be why some of the approved “memes” contained nods in the direction of slightly more violent Cultural Revolution-esque imagery (e.g. the one below).

What else is going on here? What am i missing about this “meme” strategy? As always, thoughts, suggestions, corrections etc. most welcome.

 

“You, a banana seller, dare to scramble with daddy for the South China Sea!”

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5 Comments on “The “next level smearing” of Chinese patriotism: a view from the Communist Youth League”

  1. […] and pointing out that KFCs in China employ Chinese people. And the Communist Youth League urged patriotic youth to stay home and post anti-U.S. memes online rather than demonstrating in the […]

  2. […] and pointing out that KFCs in China employ Chinese people. And the Communist Youth League urged patriotic youth to stay home and post anti-U.S. memes online rather than demonstrating in the […]

  3. Shouwang says:

    I just saw you article on Foreign Policy with the headline “Are China’s Most Extreme Nationalists Actually Foreign Stooges?” Are you happy with that headline?

    As far as I can read from the FP article and this post Lei Xiying is not saying the extreme nationalists are foreign stooges. The only thing in your FP article that hints at this is the Lei associate who posted about the protesters targeting KFC instead of McDonalds.

    You must agree that the FP headline puts too much emphasis on the foreigners being behind the gaojihei incidents?

    It makes it out to be a crazy conspiracy theory, that no westerner would think any Chinese person would believe. While in fact it’s a somewhat less crazy conspiracy theory, that many Chinese people will consider likely to have some truth to it. With the FP headline this could easily be a point lost on the reader.

    The gaojihei theory is even more misrepresented when FP account @TeaLeafNation shares the article with the comment “China’s web has a bizarre new conspiracy theory: extreme Chinese nationalism is all a foreign plot”, which you then retweeted.

    • Andrew Chubb says:

      Great question. So there are two aspects of this gaojihei conspiracy theory: a sane aspect (anti-party motivations) and a crazy aspect (foreign sponsorship). You’re absolutely right that by focusing on the crazy aspect, the headline doesn’t tell the full story – but i don’t think it’s wrong.

      If it was based purely on the one article translated here on the blog, then the headline may have been inaccurate. However, having read more on this issue from the CYL ppl (Lei and the meme-making studio) in the days since then, it’s clear that they have in fact strongly pushed the idea that foreign backing is behind the objectionable (gaojihei’d) patriotism. The FP piece mentioned the meme studio explaining the targeting of KFC rather than McDonalds due to the instigators’ protecting their financial backers’ interests – this was made very explicit in that meme-lecture you can see if you click the link. Another example is after the arrest of the would-be KFC protesters in Henan, “Arresting them is just the first step, now please investigate their funding sources” http://www.weibo.com/1634365454/DFNYkf0j3?from=page_1005051634365454_profile&wvr=6&mod=weibotime&type=comment

      It’s also there in Liu Yang’s 烽火戏诸侯 / 狼来了 argument – who else but foreign interests would seek to drain China of patriotic will to resist foreign aggression?

      I can understand why FP would want to emphasize the foreign aspect in the headline. If the article had only emphasized this, it would have been inaccurate, because as mentioned, there is in fact a sane aspect AND a crazy aspect. But i think the content of the article makes clear there’s a basis for at least some of extreme patriotism being based on anti-party motivations – in fact, it lists out the various evidence Lei presents, and adds my own analysis suggesting that part of it’s credible. After all, like most good propaganda lines, there’s an element of truth to it. Some extreme patriotism is indeed motivated by anti-party sentiments. This much i think most people, whether Chinese or westerners, would agree is logical enough. But that’s quite different to foreign-backed anti-party activity. The two are conflated in Lei etc’s accounts, and that’s where it gets “crazy”.

      (BTW, besides its propaganda value, that “crazy” part of the conspiracy, i would venture, reflects a pretty standard CCP view of things – contradiction is the source of all motion including historical progress, so if i’m on the CCP side, whatever is unhelpful to what i’m doing (including patriotic mobilization that’s not wanted at that time) by definition constitutes the actions of the opposing side of the contradiction. Hence why it’s so easy to conflate anti-party forces with anti-China forces…so perhaps not crazy at all for someone trained in CCP theory, but bonkers for many/most ppl outside the CCP ideological system, whether Chinese or foreign.)

      What title/headline would you have preferred?

  4. […] Energy Youth Award” winner Lei Xiying, and distributed by the Communist Youth League, similarly paints offline unrest as potentially subversive “false flag” activity. Lei urges true patriots to channel their zeal online, where aggressive nationalism has come under […]


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