Many young Chinese are skeptical of Beijing’s latest bid to link love of country to love of state.
- By Alec AshAlec Ash is a writer living in Beijing. His book on young Chinese society will be published in 2016.
BEIJING — In a hutong alleyway in the Chinese capital of Beijing, a sixty-seven year-old man surnamed Miao sits on a folding chair, watching life walk past. Above him, a red banner hangs from a pole, the characters for “watchpost” fluttering in the dry air. He proudly wears a spiffy blue polo shirt, with a red armband on one sleeve declaring him a neighborhood volunteer. No one stops to solicit his help, but Miao insists he is there to “check there’s no trouble.” He is playing his small part to prepare for Sept. 3’s Victory Day, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official surrender after World War II, which has inspired jingoism in generations who remember their parent’s horror stories of the war. But younger Chinese, born into a drastically different country, feel more ambivalent towards such government-sponsored patriotism.
This year’s Victory Day will, for the first time, mark a three-day national holiday — an unexpected surprise, although, as grousers have noted online, everyone will work Sunday to make up for it. A massive military parade on Tiananmen square will show off the latest People’s Liberation Army technology, replete with ZTZ-99A tanks, YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missiles loaded on the back of camouflage trucks, and J-10 fighters streaming smoke trails in yellow, blue, pink, and indigo. And authorities have promised blue skies on parade day in chronically smog-choked Beijing, which has seen record low levels of air pollution in the days leading up to the parade, thanks to suspension of work at over 10,000 factories in the area and restrictions on private cars.
The symbolism won’t be lost on those watching. Seventy years ago, China was still the “sick man of Asia,” a relatively helpless victim of Japan’s invasion until the American bombs Little Boy and Fat Man ended their war. Now China has the largest standing army in the world, at over two million. Externally, the parade sends a signal of China’s resurgent military power, one no longer feeble in the face of outside aggression. But the domestic message is more important still, with military strength conferring legitimacy on the government, which takes great pains to remind its citizens that the ruling Communist Party made the country strong after years of foreign oppression.
That’s certainly the narrative drilled into young Chinese throughout their schooling. The “Patriotic Education Campaign” launched in 1991 as a response to the Tiananmen protests of 1989, and for children born after 1980 it has helped to instill a strong sense of China’s historic violations under foreign hands, from the Opium Wars to the “War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” the common Chinese term for World War II — reinforced by over-the-top war dramas that blanket daytime television showing Chinese soldiers killing and being killed by the vicious Japanese. In February 2014, party mouthpiece People’s Daily released an online shoot-‘em-up called “Kill the Devils,” in which gamers can point their crosshairs at a roll call of Japanese war criminals.
In extreme cases this education has been all too effective, breeding xenophobia and an excess of nationalism. Anti-Japanese prejudice fueled protests in 2005 and 2012 by fenqing, a Chinese term meaning “angry youth.” Their nationalism can even risk going beyond the more moderate party line. Throwing rocks at the Japanese embassy is by appearances a gesture of support for China’s government, but the target could switch to the state if its response is seen to be weak. Much of this youthful vitriol finds its way online, in posts that include open calls for war with Japan, and the labeling of those who disagree as hanjian, or “race traitors.” One user on popular social media platform Weibo — whose online name is simply “Bored, on Weibo” — wrote in the run-up to Victory Day: “Whenever I have nothing to do I go online to watch television shows about fighting Little Japan. Even though they’re actors playing the Japanese Devils, every time the little devils are killed my heart fills with joy.”
Now Beijing is trying to reclaim the angry youth for their own, while repurposing their online nationalism to serve the party. In autumn 2014, President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping awarded national recognition to a 33 year old blogger, Zhou Xiaoping, for his “positive energy.” Writing under the moniker “Comrade Zhou Xiaoping,” with half a million followers on Weibo, Zhou’s brand of nationalism is more about bolstering China’s greatness compared to a perceived decline of the West. Zhang Xiaowu, a 30 year old novelist who self-identifies as an angry youth, told me that “China is rising now,” and the country needs people like Zhou “to express national self-confidence.”
More netizens scorn Comrade Zhou than admire him. A banned cartoonist has depicted Zhou in bed with Xi Jinping; one 29 year old Chinese friend of mine, who wished to remain anonymous, called Zhou “a clown.” Many young Chinese see the shouty minority for what they are – malcontents blowing off steam – and are quick to dismiss online nationalistic voices as stooges for the state, often paid. It’s a common online turn of phrase to switch the first character of “angry youth” to a homophone so that it reads “shitty youth.” Zhou himself has written that 80 percent of voices on the Chinese internet are critical of the government. (“Yet they still say China has no free speech,” he can’t resist adding.) For many Chinese born in the 80s and 90s, nationalistic feeling takes second place to more everyday concerns and distractions. While Japan might be a focus of spite, its culture also maintains huge pulling power, from anime to porn, and the country is a popular tourist destination for Chinese 20-somethings. Hong Wei, a lawyer-in-training born in 1988, told me, that when he was a student, he “understood the world through my textbooks, and hated Japan.” But in his 20s, he started going online, and “understood Japan better — its natural beauty and its cartoons — and now I have a favorable impression.”
To be sure, young Chinese who are natives of its reform era can be patriotic without being frothing-at-the-mouth nationalist, and are largely more confident in the notion of China as a strong world power than their parents’ generation are. Deng Min was born in 1976, the same year Chairman Mao died, and has witnessed the changes over her lifetime. She claims she remembers seeing images on television of injured Chinese soldiers returning home after a disastrous war with Vietnam in 1979. “My family brought eggs from home and gave them to soldiers,” she told me. “Now China’s army is much greater. Now, no one wants to pick a fight with China.”
The pomp and circumstance of this year’s Victory Day parade is the party’s latest bid to connect love of country to a love of the state, and to remind anyone listening that China’s return to health took place under its guidance. But while the volunteer Miao in my hutong freely donates his time to help the city ready itself for the festivities, younger Chinese are generally more skeptical about state-driven jingoism. As Hong Wei described the national holiday, “It doesn’t have anything to do with my daily life.” For him and the rest of his peers, the politics behind the national holiday aren’t half as important as the chance to take a break, enjoy the blue skies, and sit outside to watch summer end.