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.

 

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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”

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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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A lazy Sunday afternoon at the Beijing anti-Japan protests

The first thing that struck me about the anti-Japanese protests in Beijing on Sunday was how helpful the authorities were, to me and everyone else who went.

Being the goose that i am, i went to the wrong embassy — the old one on Ritan St that’s awaiting demolition. I wasn’t alone, however, for a handful of locals had also made the same mistake. The policemen on duty very obligingly told us where to go, and the options for getting there, and even let us listen in on their radio for the latest update, which was that about 350 people were over there protesting.

I combined for a taxi with a couple from Hebei whose purpose turned out to be similar to mine: they were just going down there to have a look.

When the taxi could take us no further, the police were only too happy to help once again. Verbatim conversation:

Hebei fellow: Where should we go?

Policeman: Are you here to work, or to protest?

Hebei lady: Umm…protest.

Policeman (pointing across the road): That way and turn right.

The protest zone bore all the hallmarks of a well-organized event venue, starting with the roadblocks and the hundreds of evenly-spaced “volunteers” lining the path leading towards the embassy. I asked several of the latter how they came to be here and where they got their red armbands, but the closest i got to answer was, “Uhhh…” (looking around at her friends), “this is not good to say.”

“Volunteers” along the path to the anti-Japan protests in Beijing, September 16, 2012

Later on, i asked another young woman, who told me she was from a neighbourhood committee. A friend who i met up with suggested that they were probably also drawn from the ranks of grassroots-level government workers.

Outside the embassy it became apparent that the whole purpose of the roadblocks to was create a long racetrack with hairpin bends at both ends, around which the groups of protesters could march in safety and captivity, under the watchful eyes of the armed police.

Around and around they went, in four or five groups whose numbers anywhere from 50 up to about 200. They carried their banners, chanted their slogans, and occasionally threw volleys of plastic water bottles over the motionless rows of People’s Armed Police as they passed by the embassy. The result:

At one point i said something about the “PLA brothers” across the street, which a fellow onlooker quickly corrected: “The PLA is for attacking the Japanese, the PAP is for attacking the Chinese.” Indeed, the armed police would have been feeling a bit nervous after what happened yesterday (more photos from Netease):

But in the three hours or so that i stood there, i didn’t hear anything remotely controversial yelled — for example, the chant of “打倒汉奸”, or “down with Chinese traitors” that is heard around 1:41 in this video from Saturday’s protests.

The most remarkable thing about the slogans was the frequency with which the protesters came past yelling at the crowds of onlookers (leaders//followers): “Chinese people!//Join in!” Sometimes this bolstered their numbers by one or two, but on most occasions those around me (directly opposite the embassy) stood staring as passively as the laowai in their midst.

It was getting late in the day by the time i got there, so some of the spectators had probably marched around the track a few times, but genuinely angry people really did seem to be a fairly small minority. In contrast, despite the marchers’ direct appeals, the great majority of those present were just there to observe the spectacle of a protest in the heart of the Chinese capital.

Nonetheless, lest i fall into the trap of Beijingcentrism after but a single weekend here, the following is a selection of photos of the havoc wreaked around the country by the mass protests of, according to Xinhua, up to 10,000 in more than 50 other cities.

Eric Fish is right to point out the opportunity that the Diaoyu affair has presented to the ruling party in terms of diverting the Chinese people’s attention away from its Eighteenth Congress, but whether it proves to be a “godsend” is not certain. As Adam Minter and Evan Osnos have both recently observed, since the Chinese party-state has no way of satisfying the demands it has unleashed, this could spell trouble.

Police car smashed in Suzhou

Protester throws teargas canister in Shenzhen

Fire in Xi’an

Police car in Chengdu (from Shanghaiist)

The Communist Party has successfully neutralized these types of nationalist mobilization in the past through a combination of suppression of activism and positive media coverage of Japan. The question is how they will manage this in the internet era.


Several-hundred-person anti-Japan rallies in Hangzhou

Going to start posting some straight translations of forum threads. Apologies to those email subscribers who may find this rough data inconvenient.

Please note there is no implication that these conversations are representative of any significant proportion of the PRC population.

As a non-native reader of Chinese i especially welcome clarifications, corrections and comments. { brackets } indicate summary. Bold = caught my attention for some reason. Headlines written by portal staff.

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Topic: Several-hundred-person anti-Japan rallies in Hangzhou – QQ.c0m/XH

主题:杭州主城区发生数百人反日集会游行活动

我要发帖(已有2126条帖子,共48586人参与) approx 6pm
我要发帖(已有16028条帖子,共150246人参与) 11.55pm

1. “Boycott Japanese goods” “Give back the Diaoyu Islands” [31070]

2. I think our government is making a clear move, if not then just give Diaoyu to the others! I suggest the following: 1.) demote the embassy to charge d’affaires level; 2.) freeze all economic exchange; 3.) set a date for Chinese people in Japan to return 4.) set Japanese residents in China a date to leave by. 5.) make sure no Chinese people who have worked for a Japanese company does not leave the country; 6.) eliminate Japanophiles, and do a statistical survey of pro-Japan elements; 7.) eliminate Japanese vehicles from the military and government and make sure no car electrical systems or GPS installed by Japanese people leaks our military secrets, the Japanese haven’t not committed vile acts. [26520]

3. Every Chinese person with a conscience should boycott Japan should do their own boycott, buying one less is a contribution. [10575 – rose 2 places in past 6 hours]
IN REPLY TO (earliest first)
If I see a newly bought Japanese car I will smash it, a *forced* Japan boycott! –> You can’t only boycott cars, what about cameras? TVs? Fluorescent lights? If the government doesn’t oppose [Japan], is there any use in your opposition? -> Unity is power, don’t you know?

4. I think it’s not just Hanzhou, the whole country should resist. [9605]

5. {Don’t buy Japanese products} [5645]

6. I love you Hangzhou people to death! [4090]

7. A pity i’m not there, if I was I would definitely join you!!! Unite!!! [3285]

8. At last the mainland is doing something, bravo! I support…down with Japanese imperialism! Boycott Jap goods! Defend Diaoyu to the death [3020]

9. Popular news websites in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, fuck, who shut them down? [2125]

10. “Boycott Japanese goods” “Give back the Diaoyu Islands” [2115]

Most recent comment:

“Supporters…the Communist Party doesn’t want China’s historic land, the Chinese brethren 中华同胞 should unite with all the force it has, and resist to the end…unless the Chinese nation 中华民族..to fight to the end..?”

 


“Strongly demand to send one of the Politburo Standing Committee to Diaoyu”

Diaoyu activists on board Qifeng-2 at Hong Kong

 

UPDATE FRI PM: the detainees are being released in two batches, with 7 sent by plane to Hong Kong and the other 7, including the captain and bosun, told to sail their boat back. The activist group says a second landing attempt “cannot be ruled out” (see Twitter for details and sources).

China and Japan are now engaged in their second nasty diplomatic confrontation in the past 2 years, over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. There were anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday, and the issue is dominating China’s entire newsmediascape. But it’s the Chinese government that is copping most of the wrath of online opinion.

On Sunday (August 12) a group of mostly middle-aged-and-older activists set out from Hong Kong on a rusty old tub called the Qifeng-2, to proclaim China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands by landing on one of them and raising the Chinese flag, or flags as it turned out.

Even at that early stage domestic Chinese internet opinion was focusing on the PRC government. The Huanqiu Shibao got the activists a great deal of online media attention by picking up their public request for a PLA Naval escort for the Qifeng-2 in the (inevitable) event that they were intercepted by Japanese Coastguard patrols.

Top comments on the portals were divided between expressions of support for the Hong Kong activists, and criticism of the government. Five out of the top ten comments on the 184,000-strong Tencent thread, ‘Activists from two sides [of the Straits] and three regions plan to proclaim Diaoyu sovereignty, Japan orders interception‘ directly challenged the government to match the activists’ patriotism:

Strongly demand the Central Committee of the CCP send at one of the Politburo Standing Committee or a ministerial-level official to Diaoyu to declare sovereignty! If you agree please ‘ding’!” [28212 dings]

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