I recently contributed an essay to Technosphere, a multimedia online magazine based out of Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW): China’s “Blue Territory” and the Technosphere in Maritime East Asia.
According to the magazine’s calculations, it’s a 648-second read.
It’s part of a set of presentations that comprise a dossier on the theme of land and sea. I can recommend checking out some of Technosphere’s other dossiers, especially those on creolized technologies and risk and resilience.
My contribution contains some of the arguments developed in my PhD thesis, which fortunately is now done and dusted. It’s titled “Chinese Popular Nationalism and PRC Foreign Policy in the South China Sea” — as always comments and criticisms are much appreciated, so if you feel like taking a look, you can download it by clicking on the title.
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:
- Critiquing the party’s ideological policies through parody;
- Giving patriotism negative associations;
- Fomenting domestic chaos that would destabilize party rule;
- 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”
Communist Youth League Weibo, July 16, 2016
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
Somehow i’ve omitted to mention the report released in November on my first survey of Chinese public opinion on the country’s maritime disputes: Exploring China’s ‘Maritime Consciousness’: public opinion on the South and East China Sea disputes.
If you’re reading this blog you would probably have come across the report already. But since it’s based on on 1,413 conversations on the South China Sea and Diaoyu disputes, it probably does warrant a mention on this blog.
I’m doing a presentation and panel discussion on the report today (Monday, March 2) at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which Canberra-based readers may be interested in. I think the RSVP date has passed, but it’s probably a case of the more the merrier so if you’re keen i suggest clicking the link and getting in contact with ASPI.
Also based on the survey, a recent piece published on the University of Nottingham’s excellent China Policy Institute blog, as part of a special issue on nationalism in Asia. My contribution to that below:
China Policy Institute Blog, February 3, 2015
By Andrew Chubb
Few terms in public political discourse are as contested, contradictory and downright slippery as nationalism. Deployed to describe an enormous variety of social movements, ideologies, popular attitudes, mass sentiments, elite policy agendas and even consumption patterns, use of the word carries with it a risk of stringing together superficially related phenomena with very different causes under the same label. The recently released results of a survey on the South and East China Sea disputes offer further reason for caution when approaching Chinese public opinion through the lens of nationalism.
Vietnamese diplomats are saying Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided today in the disputed Paracel Islands, where China has stationed the massive oil and gas drilling platform HYSY-981. The incident may be in some ways unprecedented as the first time China has attempted to drill for hydrocarbons in a disputed area of the South China Sea. But it also resonates with the past in some surprising ways, from the PRC’s initiation of the incident, to Vietnam’s response, and even the information environment facing the two sides.
The introduction to Phoenix TV host and international affairs commentator Qiu Zhenhai’s book, excerpted in Southern Weekend a couple of weeks back, reprises an important issue for everyone studying nationalism in China: to what extent should we really understand the phenomena that get labelled “Chinese nationalism” in those terms?