Tea Leaf Nation

The New Face of Chinese Nationalism

The New Face of Chinese Nationalism

The just-completed 2016 Rio Olympics didn’t just mark the ascendance of major Chinese athletes like swimmer and internet darling Fu Yuanhui — it also showed, in real time, how Chinese nationalism can affect the global online dialogue. During the games, Australian gold medalist swimmer Mack Horton called Chinese competitor Sun Yang a “drug cheat”; in response, Chinese netizens flooded Horton’s accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — all of which are blocked in China and can only be accessed with censorship circumvention tools — to demand an apology. (Chinese fans were in such a rush to bombard Horton’s social media presence that some of them even misspelled his name and ended up attacking Mark Horton, an English IT worker, instead.)

But members of this latest group jumping over China’s so-called great firewall of censorship don’t necessarily fit the well-worn trope of the young, angry male internet troll. On what seems to be Horton’s personal account on Chinese social media site Weibo, for example, Chinese users left over 243,000 recent comments under a 2015 post, most calling Horton a “loser.” A Weibo analytics tool developed by prestigious Peking University shows 83 per cent of these users identifying as female. Some were likely part of an increasingly high-profile, active, and female-dominated online group commonly called the “Little Pink.”

While less known to Westerners than the so-called 50 cent party, a much-reviled online group that praises the ruling Communist Party (whose members may be paid, at least indirectly, for their support), the Little Pink group is gaining momentum in China’s online spaces. While many 50-centers may actually be government workers, and skew male, Little Pink members are known to be predominately young women, both in China and abroad, who genuinely believe that they have a sense of duty to guard their country against unwelcome opinions or criticism.

The group’s backstory is surprisingly genteel. “The term ‘Little Pink’ probably originated from Jin Jiang Literary City (Jinjiang Wenxue Cheng),” an online Chinese forum where users share original writings, according to Gu Chetan, a former forum user who refers to himself as “a veteran netizen,” explained in a Weibo post. Founded in 2003, Jin Jiang Literary City has a simple web design with large blocks of pink background color. With 16 million registered users, 93 per cent of whom are female, it claims to be “the most influential female-led literature website in mainland China.” From early in the forum’s existence, discussion was often heated, as those “who have similar views would usually form a group and argue with others.” According to Gu, in 2006, forum administrators opened a hidden section for users to discuss politics. The temperature began to rise further.

Around 2008, a group of vocally patriotic overseas students and immigrants, predominately female, started to reach critical mass on that hidden discussion board. “They disliked users who posted negative news about the government,” Gu wrote, “and would say they had been brainwashed by overseas media.” (Opponents frequently replied by asking why patriots were living overseas.) According to Gu, the patriotic group would migrate to other websites to argue with and taunt anyone who dared disagree with them. Eventually, users started calling the group “Little Pink.”

But only in 2016 did Little Pink’s roving members start to bombard overseas social media en masse. It started in January; Chinese Internet users were uproarious after Chou Tzu-yu, a 16-year-old Taiwan-born pop singer in a South Korean band, waved Taiwan’s national flag — a move that Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of China, sees as treasonous — while on a television show. Mainland netizens swarmed Chou’s Instagram account, accusing her of supporting Taiwanese independence. (Chou later apologized, apparently under duress.) Then on January 20, less than a week after Tsai Ing-wen won Taiwan’s presidential election, partly because of her less-than-cozy attitude toward the mainland, Chinese netizens bombarded Tsai’s Facebook page as well as the Facebook pages of Taiwan- and Hong Kong-based media organizations viewed as pro-independence. Some of these messages were Chinese Internet memes and emojis; others decried “pro-independence dogs.” Wang Liming, a Chinese Cartoonist more commonly known as “Perverted Chili Pepper,” said in an interview with Voice of America that some of the participants are members of the Little Pink group.

The recent flurry of activity, though unpopular with overseas audiences, has elicited praise from Chinese state media and increasing awareness of Little Pink among the general public. The Communist Youth League of China, a cradle of many senior party officials, has name-checked the Little Pink group and praised them for their online assertiveness. But that praise has been highly gendered. On its official Weibo account, the League wrote, “As the cross-strait ‘meme war’ continues, certain people use the word ‘Little Pink’ again to ridicule patriotic girls. But this time, these girls fought back with action.” It called members of the Little Pink group “our daughters, our sisters, the girls next door we secretly love. Let us protect them together.” (The post was later deleted by the account administrator for reasons unknown.)

Online commenters seem to agree, often referring to Little Pink rhetoric as offering kukoupoxin, which roughly means firm but motherly advice. That may be overstating the case, but compared to some other online tribes, Little Pink are at least less likely to swear. In one instance, tens of thousands of Weibo posts — predominantly by members of the Little Pink — scolded Leon Dai, a high-profile Taiwanese celebrity, for supporting Taiwanese and Hong Kong independence, and labeled Taiwanese youth supporting him “misguided.” Another wrote, “the Taiwan regime is like a mistress who only loves herself but not the kids.”

Although they are best known through their online screeds, several members of the Little Pink brigade opened up during a remarkable interview with Hong Kong-based Initium media. Zhang Youyou, a 25-year old mainland Chinese citizen who now works in Hong Kong as a book editor, and who participated in the Facebook bombardment of Tsai and Taiwan-based media organizations herself, complained, “It sucks that only [Taiwanese] are allowed to lash out at us and we are not allowed to argue back.”

Others were more ambivalent. “This country is full of propaganda everywhere, asking you to love the country and love the Party. If you disagree, you will feel very uncomfortable,” said Dingding, a 22-year old college student in the southern province of Guangdong who did not give her surname. Dingding said in the same interview that “the fundamental basis for any political discussion in China is that you are a patriot.” Being anything else in China “would be very tiring, so I choose to live a more relaxing life.” That requirement seems to have been extended to Chinese who live abroad. In January, the Party issued a new directive to education officials, calling for more “patriotic education,” and President Xi Jinping said in April that Chinese students abroad must be a focus of that effort.

Small wonder that one Weibo user asked whether it was more accurate to call members of Little Pink the “Birdcage Generation.” That birdcage, built and maintained by the state, may be getting larger, but it’s also getting harder to escape.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images