Beijing has fanned the flames of nationalism. Now it’s struggling to contain it.
July 12 was a dark day for fervent Chinese nationalists. An international court based in the Hague issued a long-awaited ruling, rejecting many of China’s territorial claims in the hotly contested South China Sea, where China has clashed with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries over land features and fishing rights. After the tribunal announced its judgment at 5 pm Beijing time, declaring that China’s historical claims in the region have no legal basis, a massive wave of anger erupted across Chinese social media, where grassroots nationalism flourishes. But to the ruling Communist Party, such sentiment is a double-edged sword: official censors moved quickly to curtail online discussion that seemed to overstep the bounds of acceptable nationalist discourse.
Within hours of the announcement, “South China Sea arbitration” was trending on Weibo, China’s heavily filtered Twitter-like microblogging platform, and hundreds of thousands of comments poured in. Many expressed anger at the ruling itself, at the United States — China’s perceived great power rival in the South China Sea — and the Philippines, which filed the case against China in 2013. One user described the tribunal’s decision as “waste paper and nothing else,” echoing former Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo’s comments at an event in D.C., the week before the ruling; Beijing has repeatedly stated that it will not accept or implement the arbitration. “Struggle for every inch of land,” wrote another, echoing a phrase widely repeated online in the aftermath of the ruling. Another user called for a boycott of the iPhone 7, presumably because it is the product of Apple, a U.S. company.
Other comments expressed anger towards the Philippines. The tribunal did not rule on the sovereignty of land features in the sea, but rather that land features such as reefs and atolls in the Spratlys, near the Philippines, are not large enough to merit their own 220-mile exclusive economic zone. The court also ruled that China had illegally blocked Filipino fishing boats from fishing around the Spratlys. “Does Philippines Island want to become Philippines Province?” challenged one Weibo commenter, who also included an emoticon of a fist punching in the air. “Those who sell bananas should keep selling bananas, don’t keep concerning yourselves with my fish,” wrote one Weibo user in a comment, referring to the common Filipino export to China, which garnered more than 35,000 likes. “Bringing the United States with you won’t work.”
Similar discussion dominated other online platforms. One article called “War in the South China Sea Starts Tonight” received more than 100,000 views on mobile messaging platform WeChat; similar articles were widely shared as well. One popular meme on both Weibo and WeChat showed a map of China with the distinctive Nine Dash Line dipping below it; a slogan beneath the image read, “China: We can’t lose even one dot.”
Phoenix, a Beijing-friendly media outlet based in Hong Kong, even posted Chinese web game called South China Sea Adventure. Users play a Chinese fisherman who gets lost in a storm in the South China Sea. Whether facing demands from the U.S. navy or imprisonment by armed Vietnamese, players are inevitably saved by the powerful Chinese military — and its well-equipped bases built on artificial islands in the sea.
But a wave of censorship also accompanied this outpouring of online commentary. Unsurprisingly, censors removed Weibo posts that contradicted the party line, such as one July 12 post that read “The South China Sea does not belong to China,” with an attached photo of a Filipino protesting China’s actions in nearby waters. But, according to information collected by anti-censorship website Freeweibo, most deleted posts were not anti-nationalist but ultra-nationalist, calling for military action against the United States or the Philippines to defend China’s territorial claims. “War is finally going to break out in the South China Sea,” wrote one user, whose post was later removed. “I was so damn excited last night that I couldn’t sleep!” Another wrote, “The South China Sea arbitration itself is an insult to China. Why would we wait for the result for this kind of crap? With such a large military, why don’t we just go fight to get back [what is ours]?” The post that was later removed. “We’re definitely going to fight,” wrote another user in a deleted post. “’We can’t lose even one dot’ means that we must take back the reefs and islands that Vietnam and other countries have occupied. How can we take them back? We can only rely on fighting.”
To understand why Chinese authorities would want to suppress speech that supports Beijing’s official line, it’s important to understand the risks that unbridled nationalism pose to the party. “Grassroots reactions represent an opportunity and a challenge for the Chinese government, which wants to harness public opinion but fears its power to destabilize the regime,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University who studies Chinese nationalism. “The Chinese government tends to suppress grassroots nationalism when it wants room for maneuver in handling foreign incidents.” Weiss told Foreign Policy, “However tough the Chinese government’s response, it is unlikely to satisfy these ultra-nationalist demands for war.” Weiss said that “censoring extreme voices is part of China’s risk management strategy.”
Beijing has made its position uncompromisingly clear to both domestic and international audiences that land features within the Nine Dash Line are its sovereign territory. In 2012, China revised its passports to include a map which claimed the South China Sea as Chinese territory. In 2014, the government issued a new vertical map that portrayed the South China Sea as a continuous part of China, replacing previous horizontal maps that included the sea only as a pop-out. Chinese state media outlets have repeatedly emphasized that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
While likely intended to strengthen national resolve and put forward a strong face to the outside world, this strategy is risky. If the party is unable to maintain China’s territorial integrity, or if it is unwilling to heed popular calls for tougher measures, it runs the risk of being viewed as too weak to defend China’s national interests. Grassroots nationalists may unleash their anger against the party itself. Beijing has often emphasized that peace in the region is vital for prosperity, indicating that while maritime claims are important, it is unlikely to start a war with the Philippines or the United States. But an ultra-nationalist populace may pressure the government to take reckless measures.
Territorial sovereignty is a highly sensitive issue in China. During the 19th century, the ruling Qing dynasty was unable to fend off European incursions, resulting in key territorial concessions to Britain, France, and other countries. The Republic of China, which governed mainland China from 1912 until it retreated to Taiwan in 1949, similarly was unable to stop invading Japanese forces in the 1930s. Many Chinese remember the weakness of the Qing and Republicans governments with shame and derision and admire the strength of the current government. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a major source of legitimacy for the party has been its ability to prevent similar territorial incursions.
While extreme speech was not completely scrubbed from China’s online spaces, the substantial censorship in the aftermath of the ruling serves as a reminder: Just as China’s internal security budget often exceeds its military spending, even in the throes of a major territorial dispute, Beijing continues to view threats to the country as originating more from within than from without.
Leah Liu contributed research.