China Is Sending Keyboard Warriors Over the Firewall

Online forums rally fans to defend national pride abroad.

Posters taken from the Chengdu subway rally young Chinese to support national pride online.
Posters taken from the Chengdu subway rally young Chinese to support national pride online. Lauren Teixeira/Foreign Policy

Last week, as rhetoric in mainland China turned increasingly vicious toward the Hong Kong protesters, China’s young “keyboard warriors” deployed over the Great Firewall en masse to defend the motherland. In organized battalions, they reported pro-Hong Kong Instagram accounts; flooded comments sections with Chinese flag emojis; and disseminated patriotic memes.

Most of the platforms on which global opinion battles are fought, like Twitter and Facebook, are blocked in China. But using a virtual private network (VPN) to conduct organized, large-scale raids on foreign social media is not a new phenomenon. The practice of chu zheng—which literally means something like “go into battle”—goes back to at least 2016, when patriotic youth scaled the firewall to bombard newly elected Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page with anti-Taiwan independence memes after an incident involving the Taiwanese K-pop star Chou Tzuyu and the Taiwanese flag on Korean television.

This most recent wave of chu zheng, however, differs from the “Facebook expedition” of 2016. Last week’s offensive appears to have been launched from two different online youth subcultures: Diba, a long-running Baidu forum similar in some ways to Reddit; and fangirl circles, or networks of young women who organize to support their favorite K-pop or C-pop idols.

The mobilization of Diba netizens, who were largely responsible for organizing the Facebook expedition, is not that surprising. The rallying of Chinese fangirl circles, however, represents the first time this formidable demographic has gone over the firewall for the motherland. How did this happen?

It seems to have started with a fairly run-of-the-mill campaign to defend some of China’s most popular flesh-and-blood idols. It’s obligatory for any celebrity who would like to keep doing business in China to voice patriotic sentiments whenever there’s an international incident, so when the Hong Kong protests flared up last week, a flurry of singers and actors rushed to social media to post the Chinese flag along with according sentiment. Among them were the pop idols Jackson Wang and Zhang Yixing aka Lay, both of whom command huge fanbases in China. When reports came in that Wang and Zhang were being criticized on foreign media platforms for their pro-Beijing stance, Chinese fangirls mobilized to defend their idols. Soon enough, this movement evolved to focus on defending China itself.

Rather than merely rallying around the flag, however, fangirls rallied around “A-zhong”: a pop idol stand-in for the Chinese nation. Soon enough, a flurry of memes uncannily combining strident nationalistic rhetoric with the cutesy conventions of idol fandom were proliferating on social media. A-zhong became the subject of several trending Weibo hashtags, among them “My idol’s name is A-zhong” and “A-zhong is the world’s most handsome guy.” Memes posted to A-zhong fan accounts celebrated the 5,000th anniversary of A-zhong’s “debut.” (The anniversary of an idol group’s debut is one of the biggest events of the year in fan culture.) Images circulated of adorable chibi-style fangirl warriors sporting red helmets with the Chinese flag.

In many respects, fangirls are the perfect warriors in the ongoing and online wars between pro-Beijing and pro-Hong Kong elements. One of the most important activities in fan culture, after all, is “fighting haters” or fan-hei, in which fans organize online to defend their idol. The power of this was evident last summer when fans of Kris Wu flooded an online forum called Hupu, where users were slandering the idol’s singing abilities. Nor are Chinese fans unfamiliar with jumping the firewall to support their idol. Last fall, for instance, hordes of Wu fans used VPNs to purchase multiple copies of the rapper’s debut English-language album, briefly propelling him to No.1 spot on the U.S. iTunes chart.

Now, with ungrateful Hong Kong youth slandering China and critics all over the world condemning the mother country for its treatment of the protesters, fangirls are pulling out all the stops to defend A-zhong. In exactly the same way they form “support teams” (houyuantuan) on the QQ messaging app to organize fan-hei activities, fans are now joining A-zhong support teams, of which there are now at least 17, each consisting of 3,000 members, according to a recent approving report in the state-run ND Daily. A-zhong fans are encouraged to refrain from engagement with pro-Hong Kong commenters, who may try to “brainwash” them; instead, team leaders suggest, it’s better to immediately report those Instagram users who appear to be spreading propaganda.

It’s hard to know how large the scale of the A-zhong support movement really is. While he has made a big splash in fangirl circles on Weibo, the way in which state media including the Communist Youth League and People’s Daily have so enthusiastically endorsed it suggests the movement may not be entirely organic or at the very least is being helped along. Several days ago, advertisements appeared in the Chengdu subway bearing an image of a concert and the question, “Have you shown up for your idol yet today?” Scanning the QR code led to the Chengdu subway’s official WeChat account, at the top of which was an article relating the recent heroic chu zheng campaign of Diba posters and fangirls.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems to be signing off on idol culture, toward which it previously harbored mixed feelings. The crackdown on online variety talent shows two years ago was more than anything about the ability of such shows to produce unvetted overnight idols; and last fall, state media complained about the popularity of “sissy boys.”

But the party’s attitude toward youth culture is cynical above all else. If it thinks something can be used to drum up youth sentiment, the CCP will use it—as we saw in the recent propaganda film The Founding of an Army, which included cameos from popular idols such as Yang Yang and Zhang Yixing. The prevalence of manga-style drawing in A-zhong memes also shows that even erciyuan, another subculture the party has typically been uncomfortable with, can be deployed in support of the motherland.

Finally, the party seems confident that two of the aspects of fan culture that have typically made it extremely nervous—mass youth organization and firewall hopping—are not credible threats. In the aftermath of the 2016 Facebook expedition, internal memos revealed that the government had become uncomfortable with the sudden widespread VPN usage and ordered local media to stop reporting on the expedition. VPN usage is associated with dissident activity, and the government has started to fine individuals who appear to be accessing sensitive content on foreign sites. But this time, those in charge have decided that the benefits of chu zheng outweigh the risks. The ND Daily report was unworried about youth being led astray by the firewall, citing the case of a 13-year-old who, after having returned from battle, admitted to “wavering.” Luckily, a steady-minded fellow warrior stepped in to assure her: “Don’t waver. It’s they who should be wavering.”