Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Clickbait Nationalism

Sensational headlines, misleading translations -- it’s how Chinese state media keeps its citizens angry at Japan.

Workers from Japanese company, Meiko Electronics (Wuhan) Limited, march with anti-Japan banners during a protest against Japan's "nationalizing" of Diaoyu Islands, also called Senkaku in Japan, in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province, on Septermber 18, 2012. Firms ranging from electronics giants Sony and Panasonic to Japan's three big carmakers -- Toyota, Honda and Nissan -- temporarily halted production at some or all of their China-based plants as anger erupted over a disputed island chain claimed by Tokyo and Beijing. CHINA OUT    AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)
Workers from Japanese company, Meiko Electronics (Wuhan) Limited, march with anti-Japan banners during a protest against Japan's "nationalizing" of Diaoyu Islands, also called Senkaku in Japan, in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province, on Septermber 18, 2012. Firms ranging from electronics giants Sony and Panasonic to Japan's three big carmakers -- Toyota, Honda and Nissan -- temporarily halted production at some or all of their China-based plants as anger erupted over a disputed island chain claimed by Tokyo and Beijing. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

On July 16, the lower house of the Japanese Parliament passed a set of new security legislation that would grant Japan limited power to engage in foreign conflicts for the first time since its defeat in World War II. Despite domestic public opposition and doubts from Japanese legal scholars as to whether the legislation is in line with article 9 of Japan’s constitution, in which the country “forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was able to get enough votes.

In China, Japan’s huge neighbor and regional competitor, the new legislation met with a wave of alarm. The memories of Japanese cruelty during World War II still hover over China’s collective consciousness, made fresher by constantly replenished propaganda both in schools and in Chinese media. Highly publicized quarrels with Japan over wartime atrocities, as well as contemporary territorial disputes in the East China Sea, have only added to Chinese distrust and even hatred of Japan. And Chinese state-run online media outlets — especially the fervently nationalist Global Times, which produces much of the virulent content circulated elsewhere online under separate cover — have seemed eager to fan the anti-Japanese flames. While the nationalist drumbeat in Chinese state media is nothing new, what is novel is the use of modern Internet media tactics that slice, dice, and repackage stories in the name of national pride, not to mention page views. At each step in this process, the truth recedes further from view.

One popular approach, recognizable to anyone who’s ever bemoaned the ubiquity of so-called click-bait, is the practice of juicing a headline. One particularly egregious instance involved a June 27 article in U.S. outlet National Interest, called “3 Ways China and Japan Could Go to War.” That article was unlikely to leave anyone feeling better about Sino-Japanese relations, but at least it ended with a paragraph that asserted the exercise in imagination allows analysts to “look at where vital interests intersect and work to avoid them.” That paragraph went missing in a Chinese language translation appearing shortly thereafter on Global Times, which used a new, zestier headline, which read in part: “China and Japan Might Be Forced Into War.” Many other outlets, including major news portal Sohu, reposted the article.

If the article’s Chinese incarnation was intended to rile up the ranks, it seems to have succeeded. Of more than 2,200 comments to the article on Sohu, the most popular evinced eagerness for real action: “A war of words with the Japanese devils will never help reclaim the Diaoyu Islands.” (China and Japan have fiercely contested control of the Diaoyu, which Japan calls the Senkaku, a group of small islands in the East China Sea.) Another popular comment read, “The battlefield should not be limited to the Diaoyu Islands. We should attack the Japanese homeland at the same time.” Only a few commenters seemed reluctant to take the article at face value. One user wrote that “whenever the economy has an unoptimistic accident” — a likely reference to the recent stock market crash in China — “I can always see news of the imminent war between China and Japan on the media.”

Another popular approach is showcasing Chinese weaponry in a way that implicitly or explicitly links it to Japan. Accuracy is not a threshold requirement. On July 4, Sohu’s military page featured an article with the title, “China Coast Guard’s Wenzhou Station Home to Ten Thousand Ton ‘Monster;’ Japan Shocked.” (It was first published June 15 on the Global Times.) That headline, too, is click-bait; the actual article notes that the ten-thousand-ton “monster,” which has yet to be deployed from a coast guard base in the coastal city of Wenzhou, is nothing more than a patrol ship. Another example: On July 15, portal Netease published an article with the headline, “Expert: Japanese F-15 Pilots Scared of China’s Su-27, Get Nervous as Soon as They Sight a Su-27.” The genesis of the headline is a comment that a Japanese commander allegedly made to a Chinese military expert, saying that whenever a Su-27 fighter jet takes off, “Japanese Air Self-Defense Force pilots are highly concentrated and vigilant at all times.” That, of course, is not the same as quaking in one’s boots. One reader commented on the article, “Only after reading this did I realize the magic of Chinese culture. Through distorting the words of others, we’ve vanquished the enemy.”

A more sophisticated strategy takes advantage of the readers’ source amnesia. On June 29, an article under the headline “Abe admits to war planning: Japan’s new security law targets South China Sea” appeared across the Chinese Internet, having again originated with the Global Times. The piece cites Japanese reports that during a meeting with representatives from domestic media, Abe “produced one shocking remark after another after finishing his share of red wine.” Among these remarks, the piece said, was an admission that with the help of U.S. forces, Japan “intends to beat China in the South China Sea.” The article included a selection of similarly sensational quotes of Abe disparaging South Korea, not to mention U.S. President Obama. Among the more than 9,700 comments on a version syndicated on Sohu, this one garnered 14,000 likes: “War between China and Japan is unavoidable. Are we ready?” Leading TV channels then picked the story up, including China Central Television, the country’s major state-run broadcaster.

Yet no major Japanese press seems to have covered the story. The occasion on which Abe has allegedly made the remarks was supposed to be what the Japanese call an informal “off-the-record gathering” between the prime minister and representatives of the reporters club of the Japanese cabinet. The first Global Times article identifies the sources as Shukan Gendai, which translates as “Modern Weekly”) magazine and a website called LITERA. The Modern Weekly is a well-known gossip magazine in Japan, while LITERA is a rather obscure website with a gossipy spin.

These articles are not isolated exceptions. News of imminent war, or something that sounds like it, is a constant drumbeat on Chinese media. Many major news portals have a subsection devoted entirely to military affairs; on Sohu’s, a sampling of titles from the week of July 21 includes: “Japan Acts Abnormally and Intends to Return to the Battlefield,” “Japan Spends Lavishly on War Machines,” “Abe Has Devised Multiple Preparations for China-Japan Conflict,” and “It’s Easier Now than During World War II to Suffocate Japan.”

Of course, not everyone in China believes what they read about Japan, or takes what they read to represent the sum totality of China’s relationship with Japan. And not all Japan-related state media coverage is negative. On July 9, Sohu ran a story about Chinese and Japanese youth engaging in “friendly hugs” in Tokyo. Chinese students studying in Japan had organized the early July cross-border hug-in, first covered by state mouthpiece People’s Daily on July 6. But the Chinese Internet being what it is, the article  still drew mostly negative comments from Sohu readers. One wrote, “The longer we are friendly with Japan, the closer we are to being traitors.”

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Yifu Dong graduated from Beijing No.4 High School and is now a student at Yale University.

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