- China’s youth are increasingly disaffected with many aspects of their lives. They are burning out, involuting, and thinking twice about having children. Yet, at the same time, this generation is often referred to as the “most nationalistic” generation in many years.
- “Generation N,” as one commentary labeled this cohort, have made their presence felt online by orchestrating boycotts of Western brands and forcing celebrities (both domestic and international) into groveling apologies, causing experts to wonder whether they might push the government into ever-more hostile foreign policy.
- An interesting trend of a more bellicose China full of angry young nationalists is intersecting with growing evidence that a broad swath of Chinese society seem unhappy with their lives.
- There is a disconnect between people’s perceptions of their lives on an individual level and their continued belief in the prospects for China on a national level.
- This disconnect is partly attributable to propaganda and censorship, but also to the material development of the nation that young Chinese have experienced. Although the later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused this situation to change, it would be hasty to argue that it has completely overwritten this foundation.
- Online culture plays a key, under-recognized role in this dynamic. For many online nationalists, “China” functions like a popular celebrity or idol whom they rush to defend against perceived slights.
- Nationalism is not driving Chinese foreign policy choices, but it is having a distinct impact in Chinese society. This trend bears watching in the future to understand the impact of youth anger and online culture and technology.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plane touched down in Taiwan on August 2, 2022, some Chinese bloggers greeted the news by slapping their faces. One man posted a video of himself watching the plane land. As the wheels touched down, he jumped out of his seat, threw his chair, and burst into tears. This anger not only was directed at Pelosi, but also was turned inward — an impotent rage that Chinese inflicted on themselves in response to their government’s perceived failure to act. Across the Strait, and around the world, however, many breathed a sigh of relief. Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the staunchly nationalist Global Times, tweeted before Pelosi’s visit that China should scramble its jets to block her plane from landing, or if need be, shoot it down from the sky. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, had said just days earlier that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would “never stand idly by” and allow Pelosi’s visit. To those watching Chinese social media closely, her safe landing was not a foregone conclusion.
There is common meme in policy and media circles that Chinese youth today are the most nationalistic generation yet. The South China Morning Post referred to Chinese youth as “Generation N,” arguing that “nationalism has been on the rise, encouraged by the Communist Party and put to effective use by President Xi Jinping.” Foreign Policy magazine argued similarly, noting that Chinese youth are “trapped in the cult of nationalism.” But it is not just foreign commentators who claim that nationalism is on the rise in China. The Global Times declared a “new wave of patriotism” after the South China Sea arbitration in 2016. In recent years, the Chinese government has been assiduous about promoting the concept of “cultural confidence.” As Xi Jinping noted in his opening remarks at the 20th Party Congress in 2022, in order "to build a modern socialist country in all respects, we must develop a socialist culture with Chinese characteristics and be more confident in our culture." Such remarks have emboldened academics, commentators, and bloggers to trumpet China’s superiority.
This emphasis on cultural confidence has coincided with the coming of age of the generation of Chinese youth educated under the Patriotic Education Campaign, which launched fully in 1994. This campaign implemented a more nationalistic curriculum to shore up the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of young people, with a view toward preventing the kind of unrest seen during the 1989 student movement. This generation now forms a key demographic of consumers, young entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
Prominent online incidents in recent years lend credence to the claim that nationalism is a significant social force. The “little pinks” (小粉红), a group of nationalist online trolls, became infamous for meme-bombing the social media of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen after her election in 2016. There have been vocal callouts and boycotts of foreign brands, such as that leveled at Dolce & Gabbana after a perceived racist campaign in 2018 or the #SupportXinjiangCotton campaign launched in response to a decision by Western brands such as Nike and H&M to divest from products made in Xinjiang to avoid any implication in forced labor. Some netizens burned their Nike shoes in online videos. There were so many flameouts of foreign brands online in 2019 that the hashtag #LuxuryBrandsApologyDay went viral on Weibo. When Shinzo Abe was assassinated in Japan, a number of prominent Chinese nationalist bloggers celebrated his death. The videos of people slapping their faces as Pelosi landed were just another example of what seems to be an inexorable groundswell of nationalism.
What is Nationalism?
Nationalism has many definitions, and, as we see in the way that nationalism is discussed in relation to Chinese youth, there is no stable definition that is used across cases. For that reason, we see disparate phenomena such as meme wars, cultural confidence, “wolf warrior” diplomacy, boycotts of foreign brands, and heated online sentiments directed at the government as evidence of increased “nationalism,” even though they refer to different acts by diverse actors across the political and power spectrum within China.
The academic debate largely focuses on defining what constitutes nationalism. Is nationalism a belief that the Chinese nation is superior to others? Or is nationalism a belief that China should respond strongly to perceived slights? How can we pull apart love of country and love of the regime, particularly when the Chinese Communist Party has spent decades conflating the two through such means as the Patriotic Education Campaign?
These are important questions, but for this paper employs a definition of nationalism drawn from a recent paper by Center for China Analysis Fellow Andrew Chubb on the link between the Chinese government’s response to maritime disputes and public opinion. There, Chubb defines nationalism as “public actions or sentiments favoring more assertive foreign policy actions.” This definition sufficiently narrows the conceptual lens to focus on the most pertinent set of fears dominating media and policy conversations. The trend of rising Chinese nationalism is salient in light of international anxieties that the Chinese government and public are locked in a dangerous spiral that might provoke the government to react more forcefully on the global stage, which could lead to conflict and even war. This very real fear of escalation provokes hypervigilance in the global discussion of Chinese nationalism.
Worrying About Wolves
Under this definition of nationalism, we must ask what is causing people in China to demand a more assertive foreign policy. Many commentators have pointed out that “Generation N” thinking derives from the reality of China’s economic success combined with effective propaganda and censorship efforts under Xi Jinping. As Yan Xuetong, one of China’s top international relations scholars, has noted, young Chinese feel superior to the rest of the world, tending to look at other countries “from a condescending perspective.” Since 1990, China has seen an 11-fold rise in real income per head of household and a 15-fold increase in university enrollment. Chinese of this generation have only known an increasingly wealthy and developed nation, not one that significantly lags its Western peers. This reality is reflected in the number of young Chinese who return disillusioned from study abroad. In 2001, of those who went overseas to study, just 14 percent returned to China. But in every year since 2013, at least four in five overseas graduates has chosen to come home. In a 2018 survey conducted by Purdue University, 42 percent of Chinese students in the United States said their perceptions of the United States had become worse or much worse after going there.
At the same time, those who remained in China have grown up in a much tighter intellectual and ideological environment. Anyone who was educated after 1994 was taught a curriculum defined by the Patriotic Education Campaign. Shortly after assuming office in 2012, Xi Jinping disseminated “Document Number 9,” which banned the promotion of concepts such as universal values and constitutionalism and explicitly warned against “the cultural penetration of Western hostile forces” that threaten “the security of our ideology.” Ideology therefore has been a core tenet of the Xi era, and Patriotic Education efforts have been strengthened, especially since 2019, when the government issued its "Outline for the Implementation of Patriotic Education in the New Era." This program included tenets of “Xi Jinping Thought” and banner terms like “the China Dream.” The app Xuexi Qiangguo has been rolled out among cadres to ensure ideological conformity in a gamified fashion. Many prominent intellectuals and activists have been silenced, and some university lecturers have had cameras installed in their classrooms to ensure they do not stray from approved materials. This combination of material development coupled with censorship and propaganda has strengthened the sense of pride among many Chinese. This pride, in turn, translates into a desire to see China push back more strongly against perceived threats on the international stage.
Pop culture reflects this nationalistic sentiment. Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed the need to “tell China’s story well.” This has resulted in increased restrictions on foreign movies playing in China and the sidelining of arthouse and more critical or edgy movies. In their place, a wave of patriotic films has stormed the box office. These include the Wolf Warrior franchise, whose second installment broke numerous box-office records upon its release. The series is fronted by Wu Jing, one of China’s most famous movie stars, who also cowrote and directed the films. Wolf Warrior 2 sees Wu, who plays a former PLA marksman called Leng Feng, fighting off local rebels and warlords in an unnamed African country while protecting a group of Chinese medical aid workers. In an iconic scene, Leng Feng uses his muscular forearm as a flagpole, raising the Chinese flag to ensure the safe passage of his convoy through rebel territory. Beyond the Wolf Warrior franchise, popular films with nationalistic themes include the Korean War epic The Battle at Lake Changjin, the most expensive film ever produced in China, and Man Jiang Hong (Full River Red), a recent box-office hit by director Zhang Yimou.
An iconic scene from Wolf Warrior 2, in which Leng Feng uses his forearm as a flagpole to raise the Chinese flag to ensure the safe passage of his convoy of aid workers through rebel territory.
As these nationalistic sentiments have poured forth from the Chinese public and have been broadcast on their screens, so too has the Chinese government’s rhetoric become more bellicose. Under the banner of “wolf warriors” (a term drawn from the film franchise), Chinese diplomats have become increasingly caustic in recent years. Wang Yi, a former foreign minister, famously called out a Canadian journalist, asking him whether he had been to China or even had any knowledge of the country or its history. Zhao Lijian, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, delighted in reminding the United States of its legacy of slavery, murder of George Floyd, and incredibly high rates of gun violence. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, diplomats and officials celebrated the superiority of the Chinese system and pointed to the failings of Western democracies. “As Dr. Fauci once said, numbers don’t lie,” noted Hua Chunying, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in 2020, when China could still credibly claim the lowest per capita death rate from COVID-19 in the world. In the same way that the American right likes to “own the libs,” the Chinese diplomatic corps likes to own the liberal international order.
A massive dance and operatic performance celebrating 100 years of Communist Party rule in 2021, organized around the slogan “People First, Life First."
Until 2022, when the more transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 became uncontainable and the costs of maintaining zero-COVID policies too high, the government happily pointed to the failures of the Western system. Under the auspices of “People First, Life First” (人民至上 生命至上), the propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party and many senior politicians loudly proclaimed the superiority of the Chinese system (中国制度优势). In comparison to the high numbers of deaths in the West, China had proved that it was capable of protecting people’s lives above all else. As Xi Jinping said in June 2020, “We paid a high price to put people's lives and health first. People only have one life. We must protect it. Everything we do starts from this principle."
This rhetoric has filtered down to nationalist commentators. For example, Zhang Weiwei, a scholar at the prestigious Fudan University and one of China’s most prominent nationalist pundits, has wielded the pandemic as an effective tool to silence critics. The performance of the Chinese system, he argues in an online video, “has made so many ‘spiritual Americans’ frightened. In their eyes, how could China have outperformed America!? This is exactly the kind of thing they wouldn’t dare let themselves think, it has made them completely lose confidence in themselves.” Zhang’s term “spiritual Americans” (精神美国人) is tellingly used to accuse Chinese who criticize their government or nation of being unpatriotic and thus un-Chinese. It means that even though a person might be ethnically, culturally, and, by dint of citizenship, Chinese, they have forgone that identity by criticizing the Party-state.
Of course, as the pandemic dragged on, scenes like the Shanghai lockdown or the Urumqi fire became too much for the nation to bear. Mass protests in November 2022, and the realization that the virus had slipped even the Communist Party’s tight grasp, led to a drastic change in policy, and the virus was allowed to tear through the Chinese population. Nationalist bloggers then pivoted, accusing Western commentators of being morbidly obsessed with China’s COVID-19 death rates and harassing journalists who attempted to conduct interviews at crematoriums or mortuaries. It is still too early to assess the long-term impact of the government’s extended pursuit of zero-COVID policies or the knee-jerk suspension of COVID controls on public perceptions of the regime, but it is clear that for many Chinese nationalists, there is always a way to spin the news to suit their resolute beliefs. Not all nationalists are statists, of course, and even some of the government’s most ardent supporters have criticized its COVID policies. Although a diversity of opinion exists, even among nationalists, this paper is concerned with the apparent rising tide of nationalist sentiment that might push the government toward a more assertive foreign policy.
This concern is starkest in regard to Taiwan. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, responded to comments from President Joe Biden about Taiwan in May 2022 by quoting a song from the Korean War: “For friends we have good wine, for enemies we have shotguns.” As official rhetoric has been ratcheted up in recent years, we have seen more prominent examples of online nationalist sentiment from the public. This begs the question of whether the public is echoing the line that the government is setting, or whether the government’s rhetoric has hardened in response to domestic pressure and the need to signal strength to audiences at home. Wang suggested that there would be arms if an enemy came; should we be surprised if they slap their faces in shame when the enemy lands seemingly without any fuss?
A Rising Tide?
How do we reconcile this trend of rising and aggressive nationalism that is increasingly antagonistic to the West and to those Chinese who take “Western” positions or views (like Zhang Weiwei’s “spiritual Americans”) with the social reality, explored in this series, of increasing disaffection and personal unease among China’s youth? At its worst point in mid-2022, China’s urban youth unemployment rate reached 19.9 percent. Many young Chinese describe themselves as “involuted,” have to seek counseling or mental health treatment to get by, and see themselves as unwilling or unable to have children considering the steep costs and social pressures they face.
There is some contention among academics, however, as to whether Chinese nationalism is in fact “rising.” In a landmark study published in 2017, Alastair Iain Johnston argues that “‘Rising nationalism’ has been a major meme in commentary on the development of China's material power since the early 1990s,” but his analysis of a data set from the Beijing Area Study 1998–2015 shows that “there has not been a continuously rising level of nationalism among the survey respondents.” Contrary to prevailing wisdom, Johnston, says, the “data do not show that China's youth express higher levels of nationalism than older generations. Indeed, it is China's older generations that are more nationalistic than its youth.”
Johnston finds no evidence to support the thesis that Chinese nationalism is rising among the general population, and especially among youth, and therefore he questions the assumption that this is a cause of China’s more muscular foreign policy. Rather, he posits that this posture is likely related to other factors, such as elite opinion, strategic opportunities, or the personal preferences of top leaders. However, in a literature review looking across five large surveys in 2019, Center for China Analysis Senior Fellow Jessica Chen Weiss disputes some of Johnston’s claims. Weiss finds “widespread support for a more muscular Chinese foreign policy, particularly among younger Chinese, netizens, and elites.” This, she argues, implies that optimistic views about the trajectory of younger generations are “overly sanguine.”
In a 2022 study of Chinese internet users after the U.S. military restarted freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea, Weiss and her colleagues show that “incidents construed as provocative increase public pressure on the Chinese government to respond or incur public disapproval.” In this light, the example of nationalists slapping their faces can be seen as pressure on the government to respond strongly to events seen as provocative. The PLA and the government clearly responded after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, shooting missiles over the island, increasing entries into Taiwan's air defense identification zone, and rolling out a robust propaganda campaign championing these actions. But the extent to which this response was conditioned in any way by public pressure is not clear.
As Chubb’s 2019 paper on maritime disputes shows, “popular nationalism has certainly shaped Beijing’s information strategies on sensitive maritime disputes, but plausible examples of bottom-up sentiments driving on-water actions are much rarer than commonly assumed.” In three of the five case studies he explores, “public opinion was demonstrably not a significant factor.” The academic literature points toward a complicated situation in which public sentiments are shifting, but it is hard to say for certain whether they are precipitating stronger government positions in international affairs. Just because these positions have not yet materialized, however, does not mean they will not in the future, so the need for continued vigilance is warranted.
This was evident in the case of the Chinese spy balloon, or “airship” (飞艇) as the Chinese referred to it. The Chinese government initially voiced “regrets” that the airship had strayed over the United States. Nationalist commentators like Fudan University’s Shen Yi argued that, by their very nature, balloons are “blown by the wind,” and the whole incident had been blown out of proportion by America as a way to criticize China. Another blogger commented that this incident gave China a pretext to shoot American planes from the sky. Memes quickly proliferated online, joking that this was China’s way of wishing a happy Lantern Festival to the United States, or referring to the airship as “the wandering balloon” (流浪气球) after the Chinese film the Wandering Earth 2 (流浪地球), then the number-one film at the box office. These memes, however, were quickly deleted by government censors. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to the United States’ very public destruction of the balloon with a sidewinder missile as “unnecessary” and “irresponsible,” there was little in the way of a practical escalation. Therefore, the incident seems to show that although the government is aware of public sentiment and happy to make statements signaling strength (e.g., Mao Ning, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, responded that the balloon was “not America’s” when asked out about the United States refusing to return the debris), at present there is little practical response to public pressure.
An interesting dynamic is observable whereby, despite increasing dissatisfaction on a personal level, Chinese people are nevertheless more vocal in their support of China online. Moreover, as explored in subsequent sections of this paper, the online discourse environment in China is distorted through the twin effects of censorship and propaganda. This means that when evaluating a social phenomenon like “rising nationalism,” we must be careful to remember the conditions through which it is expressed and the social dynamics that contribute to it.
Public Opinion With Chinese Characteristics
As stated earlier, part of the reason for the rise in nationalist sentiment is a real sense of pride among the Chinese public. The Chinese government likes to quote the results of two surveys conducted by Western entities (Harvard University and Edelman) that it purports to show that the Chinese public has significantly more trust in their government than Americans have in theirs. According to Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer, 91 percent of the Chinese public trusts their government, versus only 39 percent of Americans. The Harvard survey, conducted by the Ash China Center, also found that since 2003, “virtually across the board,” Chinese satisfaction with the government has increased. Taken together, and compared with a severe erosion of trust and satisfaction recorded in many Western democracies, the Chinese government proudly wields these surveys as evidence of the success of its system and a proxy for national pride among the Chinese public.
Even when looking specifically at younger demographics — those who grew up in a China much richer than their parents’ generation and did not experience the seismic societal shifts of the early reform years — there is still significant optimism. In polling conducted in 2019, the China Youth Daily, a state newspaper, found that three in four of those born after 1995 think that China is “not perfect, but always improving.” This opinion was echoed in the results of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation survey, conducted by Ipsos, which found that 9 in 10 Chinese youth are optimistic about their future. Even women, who suffer significant gender discrimination (see The Last Generation, the previous paper in this series), were optimistic, with 78 percent believing that their future living conditions will get better. These general findings seem to be at odds with the fact that many people of same generation, across the gender spectrum, are expressing their dissatisfaction with their own lives online, speaking of their desire to “lie flat” and coining terms like runxue (润学) to express their desire to flee the country.
There seems to be a disconnect between young people’s belief in their personal futures and that of the nation more generally. In my anthropological research studying mental health and psychological counseling in China, I was struck by how often people chose not to focus on the wider social dynamics that were often the cause of their suffering and instead focus on their own perceived failings. While many of the participants were acutely aware of the unsustainability of China’s work culture and their own state of constant anxiety, they did not blame the government, for example, for not properly regulating the labor market. Instead, they turned inward and blamed themselves for their inability to shoulder the heavy expectations that burdened them. As one of the interviewees poignantly reflected, “I can’t rest, even for a minute. if you step away there are a hundred people who would fill your spot immediately.” This created within her a huge tension. She felt the need to pause and take time to decide what she actually wanted to do with her life, but she could not see a way to do that without losing her precarious place in the social order. In the course of the interviews, she was highly focused on her own actions and the ways she was trying to navigate this social reality, rather than probing whether this social reality was just or how it had emerged in the first place.
By pointing to surveys like those conducted by Harvard and Edelman, and by constantly reminding the population of the glorious achievements of China’s economic development over the past four decades of reform — and ensuring that overly critical voices are silenced — people come to view the fate of the nation quite differently than their own fate within that nation. This is coupled with stark punishments for those who attempt collective action to address social issues or raise the collective consciousness about the wider social dynamics at play. Thus we arrive at the slightly surreal fact that Marxist students from China’s top universities were detained and harassed, and in some cases continue to be monitored by the government, after standing in solidarity with protesting factory workers in the southern city of Shenzhen — even though they quoted the Chinese constitution and the slogans of China’s top leaders about the power of socialism to deliver for the weakest in society.
How long the Chinese Communist Party can sustain these dynamics is unclear. All regimes, whether authoritarian or democratic, must seek continued legitimacy from their people. In a democracy, this results from elections. In China, however, scholars have spoken about the long-term “eudaemonic” legitimacy that the Party has built from its successful economic development over the past four decades of reform. As Wang Yi thundered against a Canadian journalist, “Do you know that China has lifted 650 million people out of poverty? It is now the second-largest economy in the world, from a low foundation.” While this legitimacy may be considered longer term or foundational, many other scholars have pointed to mechanisms that ensure China’s authoritarian resilience. Le Yucheng, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, gave a prominent speech in 2021 about China’s “whole process democracy,” noting that “the people in China participate extensively in state affairs, especially local-level governance, to exercise their constitutional rights.” In the government’s telling, the mechanisms of the National People’s Congress and the fact that the Party conducts polling and monitors big data to guide policy means that China is in fact more democratic than Western countries, which only seek guidance from their people during election seasons.
However, the Chinese economy has taken a massive hit since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is partly attributable to the government’s decision to pursue zero-COVID policies long after they had been abandoned by the rest of the world. At the time, it seemed as if the government may have been seeking to alter the social contract in China, moving from a form of eudaemonic or performance-based legitimacy to something deeper. Through slogans such as “People First, Life First,” the Party seemed to suggest that it would be willing to sacrifice economic gain in the pursuit of ensuring life above all else. This stood in contrast with the balance that developed nations were striking. As Zhang Weiwei has said on his TV talk show, “America’s most important politicians openly discussed ‘abandoning the elderly,’ even going so far as to say that to protect the economy the elderly should be sacrificed and not given any treatment.” “Americans love to talk about human rights,” he continued, “but they don’t understand what Chinese people understand, which is that the most important human right is the right to life.”
With the rapid and unexpected abandonment of zero-COVID policies in December 2022, however, the Party’s next pillar of legitimacy is not immediately obvious. There is optimistic talk of economic recovery, suggesting a reversion to performance legitimacy, but China faces significant economic headwinds that are likely to hamper growth. Even if China does manage to grow, it almost certainly will not do so at the same rate as before. This is especially true given that developments such as decoupling with the United States and deglobalizing trends more generally, the precarious nature of the property market, and the continued global impact of the war in Ukraine all pose threats to China’s growth. Moreover, China faces other long-term problems, such as addressing the demographic challenge of an aging and dwindling population while also transitioning from investment- and export-led growth to an economy buoyed by domestic consumption. It is clear that even if China does beat economic expectations, it will not grow at the levels it achieved when its claim to eudaemonic legitimacy was strongest.
The Party will be forced to seek other forms of legitimacy. This possibility seems to spark the greatest fear among Western commentators, academics, and policymakers, who believe that the Party is likely to resort to nationalism to bolster its claims to legitimacy. This prospect is worrying, the argument goes, because it risks hardening a dangerous action-reaction dynamic within China: as the public responds to greater nationalist rhetoric, it will set even higher expectations for Chinese assertiveness on the global stage.
In the case of Taiwan, it is not clear that this fear is fully grounded. As Johnston notes in his paper, there are plenty of other factors that might explain the government’s more nationalistic posture, which have nothing to do with responding to public pressure (setting aside how we might measure the mechanisms through which public pressure influences the Chinese government, given its authoritarian nature). Chubb’s work also shows similar results in regard to maritime disputes. No matter how angry people were that Pelosi’s plane landed on Taiwan, the reason China did not respond even more forcefully had more to do with the current relative balance of power between the United States and China militarily and economically. In the future, how this balance changes, and the chance of an external precipitating force (e.g., Taiwan declaring independence) will prove far more decisive than public opinion.
“I’m So So So Sorry”
This is not to say that nationalistic outpourings online are not important. That is especially true for businesses working within the Chinese market. The year 2019 featured so many flameouts of luxury brands working in China that the hashtag #LuxuryBrandsApologyDay went viral. Brands such as Marriott, Nike, H&M, Dolce & Gabbana, and Balenciaga, and even domestic brands like Li Ning, have all come under fire from online nationalists. In one particularly bizarre example, the wrestler John Cena (shown above) was forced to apologize after telling an interviewer that Taiwan would be the “first country where people could screen Fast and the Furious 9,” the film he was promoting at the time. In passable (if atonal) Mandarin, Cena stares into the camera and says that he loves and respects the Chinese people. Although he is careful not to repeat the reasons why he is apologizing, the post was still heavily censored in China. “I’m so so so sorry,” he says, bowed and chastened, in a moment of contrition that is slightly at odds with his celebrity as a world-famous wrestler.
As research from Nikkei Asia has shown, recent years have seen a huge uptick online in the use of the phrase “insulting China,” or ruhua (辱华). As Nikkei’s research shows, “there have been 15 ruhua-related social media spikes, referring to days when the word appeared in more than 1,000 original posts, in the past three years. That compares with only three in all the years between 2013 to 2019.” When Dolce & Gabbana had its very public meltdown in the country after a racist advertising campaign and private messages from one of the designers, Stefano Gabbana, that appeared to show him stereotyping the Chinese people and calling the country a “piece of shit” (he used an emoji), posts containing the term “insulting China” surged to more than 7,000 a day.
While some brands are not doing enough due diligence to work effectively in China (or, in the case of Dolce & Gabbana, have quite clearly crossed a line), the sheer volume of incidents implies that a structural factor has changed. According to Nikkei, one factor at play is the rise of nationalist bloggers whose posts are shared by state media organs. There is a dynamic ecosystem developing in China that helps cross-promote nationalist sentiment throughout the Chinese internet. Bloggers on the more radical end of the spectrum, like Guyanmuchan and Sima Nan, still see their posts amplified by state media organs on a fairly regular basis. Then there are individuals like Hu Xijin, formerly of the Global Times, who benefit from the status conferred by their previous roles within the system. Zhang Weiwei benefits from his institutional affiliation at Fudan and is a regular commentator for the People’s Daily, the most prominent Party paper.
The sense of rising online nationalism in China today is also related to the fact that there is a financial incentive for individuals to stake strong stances and to be seen as championing China. The nature of the Chinese internet as a heavily surveilled and censored environment means that this is a relatively safe route for those seeking to gain internet fame (though not without its pitfalls; even nationalists can cross a line and find their posts censored or deleted). The rise of private individuals stoking nationalist sentiment and their uptake and cross-pollination by state media organs is something that researchers should consider in more detail.
Yu Liang, assistant director and associate researcher in the Institute of China Studies at Fudan University (which also employs Zhang Weiwei) and former editor of the prominent nationalist website Guancha, argues that another factor at play in nationalist online discourse is the intersection with internet fan club culture. As Yu argues, China functions like a popular celebrity figure or idol that online users rush to defend when they perceive it is being attacked. This is why the word ruhua has gained such prominence in recent years. As Yu notes, “in terms of their style of action, their engagement in commercial fan culture has allowed them to develop organizing skills, such as ‘supporting idols’ and attacking enemies, that the first two waves of patriotic youth groups did not possess.” These individuals come together when they perceive a slight against China, such as Dolce & Gabbana’s 2018 advertising campaign or John Cena’s slip in referring to Taiwan as a country. By swarming the perceived enemy online, they are able to force contrition — also online.
In a poignant segment of Yu Liang’s piece, he notes the role that disaffection plays in this dynamic. “Their personal life is becoming more and more ‘indoorsy (宅化),’ and their ability to understand offline real life and pressures has decreased. They were born on the Internet and will die on the Internet. They are increasingly in the grip of a combination of consumerism, overtime culture, and debt culture.” In many ways, the fact that Chinese youth vent their frustration online against foreign brands and perceived enemies of China is entirely consistent with their frustration with living within a highly competitive and unequal society. If you can’t shout about the unjust society you find yourself in, because you risk censure or worse, that doesn’t mean you stop shouting — you just direct your anger toward the path of least resistance.
It might seem like a contradiction that China’s youth are disaffected and unsure about their individual futures but also vocally nationalistic online. As this paper has shown, however, a number of complex dynamics are at play here. We have to separate the signal from the noise. Western fears that rising nationalist sentiment might back the government into a corner are likely overblown; on issues like Taiwan, questions of relative strength, normative environment, and precipitating factors are all more decisive than popular sentiment. Still, popular sentiment remains important: for those taking an interest in Chinese society, grasping the dynamics of online nationalism helps increase understanding of Chinese youth more generally.
The Chinese government uses propaganda and censorship to guide public opinion. As a result, many people respond to surveys (whether truthfully or not) with positivity about the way the government runs the country and the future prospects of the nation. However, as this series has shown, on an individual level, people are experiencing more conflicting emotions. Many are disaffected, burned out, and so uncertain about their futures they are not willing to have children. As I argue, drawing on my anthropological research, there is a disconnect between people’s sense of the bright future of their nation and their own futures within that nation, as they blame themselves for their failings rather than connect their circumstances to systemic shortcomings or injustices.
Beyond this disconnect, online dynamics play a key role in the way people engage with nationalist discourse. Fan culture, online pile-ons, and the way that censorship creates scant avenues to vent popular frustration all combine to create an environment in which bellicose nationalist outpourings are a theme of online life. For that reason, it may seem as if the younger generation in China is “Generation N,” the most nationalistic generation in recent memory. It is also true that reports of foreign journalists increasingly being harassed and prevented from doing their jobs make for a worrying trend. But at present, there is little evidence that nationalistic tendencies among Chinese youth are translating into observably changed foreign policy behavior by Beijing or into online hate speech that is spilling over to become openly violent.
Chinese people have much to be proud of in their country, not least 40 years of strong economic development. As China enters a “new era” — not the propaganda-fueled version attached to Xi Jinping’s leadership — but one of demographic challenges, slowing growth, and a more precarious global environment increasingly geared against China, it remains to be seen how the Chinese Communist Party will maintain its legitimacy. It may rely more on nationalism, stoking flames that could burn out of control. How that will manifest and whether it will have demonstrable effects on the Chinese government’s actions on the international stage remains to be seen.