Tea Leaf Nation

Are China’s Most Extreme Nationalists Actually Foreign Stooges?

A curious new conspiracy theory is afoot in Chinese cyberspace.

This picture taken on August 19, 2012 shows Chinese protesters waving the country's flag as they take part in a demonstration in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province against Japan's claim of the Diaoyu islands, as they are known in Chinese, or Senkaku islands in Japanese.  Anti-Japan protests broke out on August 19 in more than a dozen Chinese cities including Beijing and Hong Kong as authorities allowed thousands of people to vent anger over an escalating territorial row.       CHINA OUT    AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)
This picture taken on August 19, 2012 shows Chinese protesters waving the country's flag as they take part in a demonstration in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province against Japan's claim of the Diaoyu islands, as they are known in Chinese, or Senkaku islands in Japanese. Anti-Japan protests broke out on August 19 in more than a dozen Chinese cities including Beijing and Hong Kong as authorities allowed thousands of people to vent anger over an escalating territorial row. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

Two weeks have passed since an international tribunal at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and rejected many of China’s claims in the South China Sea. Despite maximum state media bluster against the ruling — known in China as the “7.12 Incident” — no major anti-foreign protests have erupted. There were, of course, scattered cases of nationalist mobilization. Protesters picketed at least one KFC in the province of Hebei; some others showed their displeasure by smashing iPhones (footage of which was, ironically, often shared via iPhone); and a bunch of online dried mango retailers claimed to have dropped suppliers in the Philippines. But there was no repeat of the angry mass demonstrations in the wake of the disruption of the Olympic torch relay in 2008, or the street-level violence over Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands in 2012.

While the state-run tabloid Global Times hailed this assortment of actions as a “new wave of patriotism,” it was clear that China’s party-state wanted to prevent real-world demonstrations. After the ruling, municipal and university authorities were reportedly instructed to stay on guard against potential mass gatherings. Neither, it seems, did the party-state see online warmongering as particularly desirable; jingoistic posts on Twitter-like Weibo got the censors’ ax.

That’s not just because China’s government fears nationalist protests might interfere with its foreign-policy making. It’s also because of a widely held suspicion that China’s wildest, most demonstrative nationalist protesters are actually anti-government activists in disguise. An article published July 16 on the Weibo account of the Communist Youth League, the ruling party’s key youth organization, offers a primer on this bizarre but surprisingly popular conspiracy theory.

The article, titled “Life’s-a-game memes and the hijacking of youth patriotism by ‘crazy uncles’” (more on that later), argues that much of the extreme nationalist outbursts within China are in fact the work of those engaged in gaojihei, which roughly translates to “high-level smearing” of good Chinese patriots by anti-party elements. The article, which has been read more than 2.6 million times, suggests that counterfeit patriots affect an exaggerated and ridiculous nationalism in order to critique party ideology through parody, blacken the name of true patriots, foment domestic chaos that risks destabilizing party rule, and even to use public opinion to push the government into a war that would have disastrous consequences for the party.

There’s no way, of course, to know how much of China’s ultra-nationalist output is actually the work of such fakers. But the article offers an interesting — and, in some cases, even persuasive — spin on some of the most visible and intense cases of what the outside world commonly understands as cuckoo Chinese nationalism. It’s also a helpful window into how the Chinese state conceives of these issues. The author’s article, Lei Xiying, is one of the Communist Youth League’s most energetic pro-party voices. Lei, a doctoral student at Australian National University, sits on the committee of the All-China Youth Federation, and received a Positive Energy Youth award from the Cyberspace Administration of China for being an “outstanding youth representative of online ideological construction.”

Lei’s analytical starting point is a photo of a shirtless middle-aged man striking a resolutely patriotic pose with a message for the United States, widely accused of having driven the Hague arbitration case, written in calligraphy: “Violators of my China, however distant, must be punished.” At a glance, Lei writes, the man who stands before it is another hot-blooded nationalist. But look closely and something’s not right: It’s addressed to U.S. President Putin. Look again, Lei suggests, and you see “a bald, bespectacled, half-naked, very inelegant ‘crazy uncle,’” whose bad posture and slovenly appearance is designed to drag down the image of patriots around China.

In another textbook example of online gaojihei, Lei writes, netizens purported to blame actress Zhao Wei for not only masterminding the South China Sea arbitration decision, but also the Turkish coup attempt and the Nice terror attack, all in order to divert attention from her alleged indirect support for Taiwanese independence and for Falun Gong, a spiritual movement long banned on the mainland.

Lei also cites as evidence the sickening violence seen in the anti-Japan demonstrations over control of the Diaoyu in September 2012. Lei writes that one person who had once burned the Chinese five-star red flag suddenly became a patriotic Diaoyu defender, inciting the masses to take to the streets. According to Lei, other suspect “patriots” had bragged about using the street-level chaos to help themselves to a free meal or a Rolex timepiece.

And those KFC protestors? In a follow-up post to Weibo, an associate of Lei’s mused that faux-nationalists specifically targeted KFC for boycotts, and not McDonald’s, because the former is franchised in China, while the latter is operated directly by the corporate parent. “Public intellectuals,” derogatory slang for liberals, knew that their “financial masters” in America would be relatively unaffected by a KFC ban, which would hurt Chinese franchise owners instead.

Lei makes an important distinction between those who initiate extreme nationalist actions and those who join in later. “The initiators are generally troublemakers, while those who forward it on [online] are overwhelmingly ordinary netizens with naive patriotic sentiments,” he writes. “Their heart is good, but due to their unfamiliarity with the internet’s complex public opinion environment” — i.e., the internet’s propensity to traffic in rumors and lies, and the presence of anti-China commenters paid by hostile foreign forces — they become tools manipulated by the gaojihei clique.

Such faux-protests, Lei writes, originate with “some groups who are normally very dissatisfied with the state, the current system, and the present state of affairs, [who] suddenly become interested in patriotism, and urge everyone to take to the streets, and take to the battlefield.” Their goal is to besmirch the “rational behavior of the overwhelming majority of patriotic youth.” Real patriots, he writes, are just “playing with memes” online.

The result of gaojihei conspiracies is a cycle of fake over-reaction to foreign affairs events by conspirators, whom bona fide but hot-blooded nationalists then follow, culminating in blowback from moderate elements that further blackens the image of all Chinese patriots. In the words of Liu Yang, one of the authors of Unhappy China, the bestselling leftist polemic: “If you trace the patriotic demonstrations over the past few years, you find that every time patriotic enthusiasm is ignited, a succession of acts of sabotage follow. Strong domestic voices immediately appear afterwards saying patriots are angry youth, patriots are criminals, patriots are extremist terrorists, patriots are ignorant brain-dead!” The result is the repeated failure of bona fide nationalism. ”Time after time,” Liu complained, “patriotic enthusiasm has ended in farce. This may be the behind-the-scenes manipulators’ objective … one day, when China really needs the power of patriotism, no one will appear, like the villagers in the Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

This same cycle could have repeated itself in the wake of the “7.12 incident.” But thankfully, according to Lei, the high-level plot was thwarted because the Communist Youth League used its online voice to discourage boycotts of any country’s products, instead designating memes as the “patriotic form” of choice for today’s youth. The article finishes with a rousing affirmation of the current generation: “Our understanding of history, of China, and of the world is inevitably more complete, more objective, more rational than that ‘historically burdened’ generation” born in the 1950s and 1960s. That is why, following the 7.12 incident, “we did not take to streets, scream protests, or even smash things up as some people had hoped; on the contrary, we initiated a form of mocking and scolding unique to this generation.”

The article, if imprecise and frequently fanciful, does highlight serious issues about the party-state’s ability to lead of popular sentiment on contentious foreign-policy issues in the internet era.

First, it suggests the party-state’s ability to tap into the power of popular nationalist mobilizations is compromised by the moderate backlash their more extreme elements generate. This notion, borne out in a study of the 2012 wave of anti-Japanese nationalism by scholars from Cornell University, has been recognized by other smart minds within the Chinese propaganda system. A state media employee once told me that any international leverage China may gain from allowing domestic protests is greatly diminished when violence ensues, because it brings forth strong anti-nationalist voices from across society, suggesting a lack of Chinese popular will for escalatory foreign-policy choices.

Second, the piece highlights that the Chinese government was rather clearly keen to discourage youth-led boycotts, and replace them with online meme-play. For the party-state to adopt these particular forms of internet-era youth expression as a vehicle for its propaganda makes perfect sense, and may reflect the need to protect trade ties in a time of economic uncertainty. But as a substitute for real political action it’s so openly inconsequential (and, due to the need for political correctness enforced via censorship, humorless) that one wonders how this could possibly satisfy any genuine nationalist anger about the South China Sea issue — let alone the kind of general dissatisfaction with political life that underpins part of it. 

This article is adapted from a post that originally appeared on the blog southseaconversations.

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Andrew Chubb is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Western Australia, who is researching the relationship between Chinese public opinion and foreign policy on maritime disputes

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