Technology · August 4, 2022

The dangers of preaching nationalism are playing out on Chinese social media

It’s not often that ordinary Chinese publicly say they are disappointed in their government. That they are ashamed of their government. That they want to give up their membership in the Communist Party. And that they think the People’s Liberation Army is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Rarer still do such angry comments come from the sort of nationalists who usually support whatever their leaders ask of them.

For much of Monday and Tuesday, many Chinese applauded harsh rhetoric from government, military and media figures trying to thwart Speaker Nancy Pelosis’ visit to Taiwan. Then, as Ms. Pelosi’s plane landed in Taiwan late Tuesday night, some social media users commented on how disappointed they were with Beijing’s lame response.

No military action in the Taiwan Straits as they expected. No shooting down, no missile attack, no fighter jet flying next to Ms. Pelosi’s plane. Just a few denunciations and announcements of military exercises.

Many people complained that they felt abandoned and lied to by the government. “Don’t make a show of force if you don’t have the power,” wrote one Weibo user with the handle @shanshanmeiyoulaichi2hao shortly after the plane landed. “What a loss of face!”

The user went on to say that the government didn’t deserve the people who waited for hours to witness history being made. “A great nation. How ironic!”

The strong online emotions showed the complexities of public opinion Beijing will have to contend with if it decides to invade Taiwan. And they showed that nationalism is a double-edged sword that can easily be turned against the government. Some anti-war commentary that managed to escape censorship, if only for a moment, also opened a window on the psychological impact of the Ukrainian war on the Chinese public.

Some users compared the People’s Liberation Army to the Chinese men’s soccer team, which is a laughing stock in the country for having qualified for the World Cup only once. They scoffed at the announcement that the PLA would be conducting military exercises near Taiwan. “Save some gas,” said one WeChat user. “It’s very expensive now,” replied another.

On WeChat, the comments section for a short video about a military exercise became a forum for disaffected people to whine. Amid thousands of comments, some Communist Party members said they would like to quit out of shame. One military veteran said he would likely never mention his military experience again. “Too angry to fall asleep,” commented a user with the handle @xiongai.

The comments section was later closed.

Many users from the Federal Foreign Office were particularly disappointed. “When China said ‘strongly condemn’ and ‘solemnly declare’, it was only to amuse common people like us,” wrote a Weibo user with the handle @shizhendemaolulu, referring to the language, Foreign Ministry spokesmen about Ms. Pelosi’s visit.

“So tough on domestic policy and so cowardly on foreign policy,” the user wrote. “Absolutely disappointed!”

On Wednesday afternoon, when asked about the public’s disappointment, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she believes the Chinese people are rational patriots and that they have faith in their country and government.

The Chinese Communist Party has used nationalism as a tool of government since the Mao era. Xi Jinping, China’s current supreme leader, took it to a new level. “Nationalism is becoming a mainstay of both the party’s and Xi’s personal political legitimacy,” wrote Kevin Rudd, executive director of the Asia Society and former Prime Minister of Australia, in his book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the USA and Xi Jinping’s China.”

The unification of Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing considers part of its territory, with the mainland is at the heart of Chinese nationalism.

But as Mr Rudd and others argue, once the nationalist genie has been released from the bottle, it has sometimes proved difficult to control. “This problem has grown under Xi Jinping as nationalist appeals have moved from the fringes to the center of the Chinese propaganda apparatus across the board,” he wrote.

This week’s online backlash is an example.

Most Chinese didn’t pay much attention to Ms Pelosis’ upcoming visit to Taiwan until Monday afternoon, when a spate of official and semi-official statements led many to believe China could take tough, possibly military, action to deter him.

Zhao Lijian, a State Department spokesman and perhaps China’s best-known “wolf warrior” diplomat, warned the United States on Monday that the PLA “would never stand idly by.” China will definitely take resolute and strong countermeasures to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.” On the website of People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, a two-paragraph article about his remarks has been read 2.7 million times called.

That evening, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, in charge of Taiwan, posted on Weibo that it was awaiting the combat order and would “bury any invading enemies.” The post has been liked more than a million times, and the embedded video, which includes footage of the bombings and explosions, has been viewed more than 47 million times.

And then there’s Hu Xijin, the retired editor-in-chief of the Global Times, the Communist Party’s tabloid that has probably played the biggest role in fomenting Chinese nationalism over the past three decades.

Mr Hu first suggested on Twitter last week that China should shoot down Ms Pelosis’ plane when she visits Taiwan. On Weibo, he urged his nearly 25 million followers to “support all government countermeasures and share the enemy’s hatred.”

“We will definitely launch strong countermeasures to hit the US and Taiwan,” he wrote on Tuesday. “So hard that the Taiwanese authorities will regret it.”

After Ms. Pelosi’s plane landed in Taipei, China issued many harshly worded condemnations and announced an intimidating series of military drills across Taiwan. But the lack of any direct military action left many nationalists feeling neglected. Their heroes, including Mr. Hu and Mr. Zhao, lost some of their haloes.

Now they have mocked Mr. Zhao by releasing a short video in which he made harsh statements on Monday.

Late Tuesday night, Mr. Hu’s Weibo account was flooded with angry, sarcastic and abusive comments. “If I were you I would be so embarrassed I wouldn’t dare say another word and hide until Taiwan Reunification Day,” commented one Weibo user with the handle @KAGI_02.

Ren Yi, a Harvard-educated nationalist blogger, wrote a searing comment early Wednesday morning urging that Mr Hu’s influence be curbed.

In a Weibo post, Mr. Ren said that the public’s unmet high expectations could hurt the government’s credibility. He blamed Mr. Hu for these unrealistic expectations, saying that his positions were taken too seriously because he once ran a party newspaper.

Mr. Ren is not the only person who wants to dethrone Mr. Hu, who is now a columnist for the Global Times, from his position as the most influential Chinese journalist. Other commentators and social media personalities are also calling for him to be held accountable. Mr. Hu wrote on Weibo Wednesday morning that he had become a “punching bag.”

However, some comments also indicated that Mr. Hu was only part of China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s visit, and suggested that any blaming of blame on him could be a sign that the government might be looking for a scapegoat.

There are also anti-war voices on Chinese social media. Some people argued that only online warmongers should be sent to the front lines. Some parents worry that their children could be drafted. Others tried to urge their compatriots to look at Ukraine and Russia to understand that war means death and economic destruction.

Zou Sicong, a writer who has been touring Poland in recent months, urged people on WeChat to have a realistic understanding of the war and said he experienced what Ukrainians and ordinary Russians experienced.

People should be glad nothing happened on Tuesday night, he said. “You should consider yourself lucky to still be able to do business, pay your mortgage, go to work tomorrow, get tested for Covid and live,” he wrote. “Please pray for yourself and your loved ones that we emerge unscathed from this approaching storm.”