Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Online Warriors Are a Risky but Useful Tool for Beijing

Cyber-nationalists are uncomfortably reminiscent of the Red Guards of the 1960s.

By , the vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific.
A Chinese 100-yuan note is held in front of an image of a Chinese Red Guard.
A Chinese 100-yuan note is held in front of an image of a Chinese Red Guard.
A Chinese 100-yuan note is held in front of an image of a Chinese Red Guard from the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai on April 10, 2008. Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

When China’s Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the Red Guards were at its forefront. Under the spell of propaganda and nationalism, with the goal of helping Mao Zedong spread the red sprout of communism, the Red Guards—mostly adolescents, some as young as 14—started an assault on China’s society and its elites, from party leaders to teachers.

Asked to destroy the “Four Olds” (old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs), the Red Guards picked their targets, whether philosopher Confucius or military leader Lin Biao, based on both direction from the top and their own local vendettas and whims. One could end up in the crosshairs for being a political leader who opposed Mao’s policies or a farmer who dressed a little better than the rest of the village. Those chaotic times, which resulted in purges, deaths, and social disruption, left a deep scar on China and its people, visible even today in the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s fear of chaos and uncontrolled mass movements.

Today, decades after the Cultural Revolution, a new type of popular army has risen in China. Driven by the same nationalism and propaganda, the cyber-Red Guards, with the same mix of grassroots inspiration and direction from the top, are defenders of China’s delicate feelings. Whether they’re targeting a foreign company, a K-pop group, or a foreign basketball team, they bring back uncomfortable memories of Mao’s Red Guards and the fervor to punish offenders.

When China’s Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the Red Guards were at its forefront. Under the spell of propaganda and nationalism, with the goal of helping Mao Zedong spread the red sprout of communism, the Red Guards—mostly adolescents, some as young as 14—started an assault on China’s society and its elites, from party leaders to teachers.

Asked to destroy the “Four Olds” (old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs), the Red Guards picked their targets, whether philosopher Confucius or military leader Lin Biao, based on both direction from the top and their own local vendettas and whims. One could end up in the crosshairs for being a political leader who opposed Mao’s policies or a farmer who dressed a little better than the rest of the village. Those chaotic times, which resulted in purges, deaths, and social disruption, left a deep scar on China and its people, visible even today in the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s fear of chaos and uncontrolled mass movements.

Today, decades after the Cultural Revolution, a new type of popular army has risen in China. Driven by the same nationalism and propaganda, the cyber-Red Guards, with the same mix of grassroots inspiration and direction from the top, are defenders of China’s delicate feelings. Whether they’re targeting a foreign company, a K-pop group, or a foreign basketball team, they bring back uncomfortable memories of Mao’s Red Guards and the fervor to punish offenders.

Today’s online legion is not as young as the Red Guards were, but they are mostly people born after 1980, who grew up with computers, phones, and internet but were also exposed to a huge amount of patriotic education and propaganda. They are sometimes called “Little Pinks,” though the original term no longer captures their diversity. The term wumao was originally coined to describe paid propagandists who work online for all levels of the Chinese state, but became slang for nationalist posters in general—leading to the coinage of the term ziganwu (roughly “self-supplying wumao”) to indicate that these posters don’t receive financial compensation for their actions. Regardless, what unites today’s cyber-Red Guards is a patriotic desire to protect China from perceived foreign attacks or slights.

Recently, companies such as Walmart and Intel were added to the list of Western companies targeted by Chinese netizens. Walmart allegedly ceased sale in its China locations of products manufactured in Xinjiang, because of suspicions of forced labor in the Chinese region. Intel also tried to distance itself from products from Xinjiang. These developments were amplified by a new U.S. law that banned products imported from Xinjiang, unless companies proved the products weren’t made with forced labor.

The online pressure from China was successful: Intel apologized to China for telling its suppliers not to source products or labor from Xinjiang. The pressure mixed grassroots efforts and state power: Walmart was targeted by China’s anti-corruption agency.

These weren’t unusual cases. Shortly after the European Union imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials and an organization involved in the abuses taking place in Xinjiang, China called on patriotic netizens to boycott H&M, a Swedish clothing company that in 2020 announced it would stop buying Xinjiang cotton because of the risk of it being sourced from forced labor.

In China, these boycott movements are supported by three entities: the government, the companies, and the masses. Although the central government keeps a relatively low profile during many boycotts, in reality the cyber-Red Guards’ uproar is used as a non-official tool to punish or pressure a country or foreign company. On the world stage, official sanctions or tariffs are promptly reciprocated and abusive economic measures can be easily reported to the World Trade Organization. But popular boycotts, seen as grassroots movements instead of government actions, are harder to counter, though sometimes just as efficient. The government might provide rhetorical support and state or party entities might even decisively amplify small organic campaigns—in the H&M case, a Weibo post by an account of the Communist Youth League brought the boycott to a wide audience. Regardless of official boosts, in China’s tightly managed online environment, no campaign could ever achieve success without the government allowing it to grow.

Companies and public figures are also involved in boycott movements in China. Out of their need to dissociate themselves from “toxic” issues and project a patriotic and trustworthy image, they ride the nationalistic wave. For example, H&M products were also boycotted by the e-commerce platforms Alibaba, JD.com, and Pinduoduo, which removed the products because of the public criticism. Xiaomi, Huawei, and Vivo app stores removed the H&M app from their offerings, while DiDi, Baidu, and Meituan erased H&M shops from their maps. Online publications might join the train to boost their traffic or image during the boycotts, as well.

The boycott of H&M was also led by celebrities, such as singer Wang Yibo, singer and actress Victoria Song, and actor Huang Xuan, who announced they were breaking their endorsement contracts with H&M. Celebrities also cut ties with Nike, which together with Burberry, Adidas, New Balance, and Zara were on the list of boycott targets. In the recent Intel case, singer Karry Wang broke ties with the U.S. company.

Finally, the most visible boycott participants are the masses, who mostly do not have financial or political interests but feel a responsibility to stand up for China, or even anger against foreign entities that seem anti-China and need to be punished. In this category, we should also add influencers on Weibo or other platforms, some of whom might be driven by personal, instead of patriotic, interests. These people preach patriotic actions while criticizing Western companies or Chinese people seen as Western apologists—and in the process gain more followers. This movement becomes a force that helps the party and government both internally and externally.

Crusading against foreigners is an old tactic, and it’s sometimes an offline one too. Back in 2012, when Sino-Japanese tensions grew following the Japanese government’s decision to buy a group of islands known as the Senkaku (in Japan) and Diaoyu (in China), Chinese citizens didn’t just peacefully protest against Japan. They started boycotting Japanese goods, companies, and tourism, and even attacking Japanese businesses, such as a mall owned by Japanese company AEON and a Panasonic factory, and destroying Japanese stores and cars owned by Chinese citizens. Not only did the Chinese government approve of and support the protests, it facilitated the transportation of protesters via tour buses. As a result, many Japanese companies temporarily closed their factories in China due to concerns about violence.

In 2017, Chinese netizens boycotted South Korean companies because of the South Korean government’s deployment of a U.S. missile defense system. South Korean company Lotte had provided the Korean government with land to host the system, which was meant to protect against North Korean missile threats. Online Chinese anger didn’t stop at Lotte; it extended to boycotting tourism in South Korea, K-dramas, and K-pop, affecting China’s relations with South Korea and becoming a serious diplomatic conflict between the two countries.

In October 2020, the Chinese cyber-army started canceling K-pop group BTS after its leader made comments about the Korean War. Over the past few years, numerous episodes of fights and criticism between Chinese and South Korean netizens have contributed to a sharp deterioration of China’s image among the South Korean public.

The Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards left a deep mark on China’s history, having affected the country’s stability and put at risk even the existence of the party. Mao succeeded in calming spirits by dispersing the youth to the countryside, stopping the growth of the dangerous movement. But most of the people implementing today’s boycotts are young people born long after the Cultural Revolution, who learned little from or forgot about those past experiences.

Censorship and instigation have been powerful tools for public control in China. But the government is playing a risky game, because the nationalist fervor it is stoking could come back to haunt it. In diplomacy, sometimes one needs to take a step back—something hard to explain to online movements.

The consequences of China’s assertive and nationalist foreign policy are building, and the Chinese government will eventually have to take that step back in order to preserve vital economic ties. For example, the European Parliament has already signaled it will not approve the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment until Beijing removes the sanctions on its members. How will the Chinese public react then? In the past, China has backed off once-passionate nationalist commitments; the anti-Soviet protests and fiery border disputes of the 1960s didn’t hinder a cool, sensible solving of most border problems with the Soviet Union and then Russia in the 1980s and 1990s, but it took years of distance to allow that.

As a great power, China cannot be offended by every action worldwide. Boycotts and online targeting affect not only foreign companies, but also the Chinese citizens who work for them, some of whom might lose their jobs and income because of affected or closed businesses. At the same time, cyber-armies worsen China’s image abroad and might force some foreign companies to leave China. Starting online fires risks Beijing itself getting burnt.

Andreea Brinza is the vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific, where she analyses the geopolitics of China and East Asia. She is also a Ph.D. student, researching the Belt and Road Initiative.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.

Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.
Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.

Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World

The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.

With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.