Tea Leaf Nation

The Making of a Chinese Nationalist Internet User

One teenage boy’s journey from casual web surfer to pro-party digital vigilante goes viral.

BEIJING - OCTOBER 02:  A Chinese teenager waves a national flag during a rock-and-roll festival to mark  Chinese National Day on October 2, 2005 in Beijing, China. Various activities are being held in China to mark the National Day.  (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)
BEIJING - OCTOBER 02: A Chinese teenager waves a national flag during a rock-and-roll festival to mark Chinese National Day on October 2, 2005 in Beijing, China. Various activities are being held in China to mark the National Day. (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

On July 22, a group of teenage assailants attacked a student named Hou Jusen outside his high school in China’s eastern Shandong province, beating him with sticks and dousing him with pepper spray. The assault quickly went viral on microblogging platform Weibo after it was revealed that Hou was a self-styled “patriot” whose acerbic online nationalism had earned him digital enemies — who had in turn uncovered Hou’s personal information and lain in wait for him at his school.

Grassroots nationalism is a potent force in China today, and, fed by state media which often panders to such sentiment, it thrives in online spaces. While Chinese authorities have even been known to recruit Internet users to post comments favorable to the government and ruling Communist Party, much of online nationalist sentiment is genuine, and those nationals can exchange vicious insults with more liberal, sometimes pro-Western users. A July 24 interview with Hou syndicated by state agency Xinhua reveals one teenage boy’s transition from casual Internet user to digital vigilante, who hopped from forum to forum and traded insults with other web users who strayed from the official party narrative. Below is an excerpt featuring some of Hou’s responses. Foreign Policy translates, with edits for clarity.

***

I began going online in the beginning of 2013, usually on Baidu Tieba [a popular web forum] and Su 27 Ba [a sub-forum dedicated to discussing the Soviet Su-27 fighter plane]. I like military affairs, and I would mainly go online to look at posts about the Su-27. Because I like history, I would also go on forums about the Soviet Union and the Soviet Red Army. Later when I went to [Japanese culture-focused] forums such as [now-shuttered] Hefengwu and saw their rhetoric, I thought it was just unbelievable. The users there said Japan’s imperialism was good and said bad things about the Chinese Communist Party. I felt they were online traitors. So I cursed them, I called them “dog traitors.” Slowly I became well-known in some forums.

I didn’t start getting on Rabbit Bar until 2014, but I didn’t go on it often, just to doodle around. Rabbit Bar is a place where people frequently post a lot of nationalist opinions. I also would get on two forums directed at Rabbit Bar — they were essentially the same site, a back-up in case the other gets shut down. All run by the same person. In these forums, they are constantly doing “human flesh searches” and hurling all kinds of insults, in order to intimidate patriots. As soon as they find someone patriotic, they post the name in the forum and curse them. They would also promote some reactionary rhetoric, the same as those Internet public intellectuals who promote tearing down the Great Firewall. They would obscurely satirize the social system, the ruling party system, the state, the forced demolition of homes, and other hot-button social issues.

In the middle of 2014, I switched mostly to [web forum] Qzone. There, I was debating and refuting rumors, mostly historical rumors. For examples, others made the argument that the army of the Kuomintang [which vied with the Communist Party for control of China, lost, and later retreated to Taiwan] made a large contribution to defeating the Japanese during World War II; praised the KMT army to the skies; said that in eight years, the People’s Liberation Army only killed 300 Japanese devils themselves — this kind of historical nihilism. They also advocated American-style democracy and overthrowing the Communist Party.

Comebacks against my arguments were usually personal attacks, sarcasm, or ridicule. Responses were usually a few sentences of ridicule. Sometimes if I was in a bad mood, I would also curse them out. On Qzone, the people who liked me really liked me, but the people who hated me really hated me. After I became popular there, people started to harass me. At first they didn’t have my personal information, so they would just curse at my Internet alias. At first I didn’t respond much, but after they kept cursing me, I learned from them how to curse back. Someone also opened a Weibo account under the name “self-five Hou Jusen” [a term referring to a reflexively pro-government commenter] to deride me. The account has been closed now, since it posted some illegal content.

So much of the rhetoric is reactionary; they even admit they are reactionary. They say they would rather be a dog for the Americas than be Chinese. When we fight back against that kind of narrative, they just curse back at us all day long. It’s useless to respond in a pleasant way.

Both sides may think of themselves as standing on the moral high ground. But I look with disdain upon the [liberals’] moral high ground, and I despise them. Their behavior is that of traitors, and no one can think highly of traitors. It’s probably not proper to curse people, but at that time I just wasn’t thinking that much about it. Looking back, on May 30, 2013, I posted a status that read, “If you trade insults with villains, you too will become a villain.” But as soon as I posted that I forgot it. It’s logic everyone can understand, but to actually live by it is difficult.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, where she covers Chinese government influence in the United States. @BethanyAllenEbr

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola