Chinese Nationalism Goes Online

China Nationalism
By Edith Lai

Censorship of the internet in China has received worldwide attention. Hillary Clinton likened it to a new “information curtain”. Freedom House ranks China as the fourth least-free country in its report “Freedom on the Net 2011”. Reporters Without Borders called China an “Internet Enemy”. However, another phenomenon in Chinese cyberspace has attracted the attention of academics: online Chinese nationalism, and they are particularly interested in what role, if any, it plays in the political decision-making process in China.

In their Chatham House Research Paper "Online Chinese Nationalism" and their recent book Online Chinese Nationalism and China’s Bilateral Relations, Simon Shen and Shaun Breslin take a closer look at online Chinese nationalism and its relation to Chinese foreign policy. They have found that these patriotic sentiments mainly relate to two issues: perceived external criticisms of China and external interference in issues relating to Chinese sovereignty. Thus, it is no surprise that the US, Japan and Taiwan are the main targets of attack by online Chinese nationalists.

Initially, such nationalism proliferated on university-based bulletin-board systems (BBS) but has since spread to state-run or commercial portals hosted forums. The “Strong Nation Forum” (Qiangguo Luntan) is one of the better known examples. It was originally set up by the People’s Daily Online in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Apart from these larger websites, smaller forums and blogs have mushroomed throughout Chinese cyberspace. This form of nationalism is largely responsive to events such as the 2001 Hainan Island spy plane incident and the 2010 boat collision incident near the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands.

Shen and Breslin note that the role played by the internet in political debates in China is not necessarily one of paving the way to Western-style democracy but one of being an arena for the “articulation of popular nationalistic sentiments”. Online nationalism has materialised offline into, or at least corresponded with, protests and demonstrations as it did after NATO’s bombing. Another example is the Chinese response to the riots in Indonesia in 1998, at which time the Chinese state maintained its non-interventionist stance in response. When news spread about ethnic Chinese in Indonesia being particularly targeted by rioters, Peking University students asked the Beijing authority for permission to demonstrate. However, their request was turned down, triggering a wave of criticism on the internet against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for not being patriotic enough.

Some commentators theorise that the Chinese authorities are held hostage by online public opinion. Yet, unlike other forms of criticism of the CCP, Chinese nationalism is not as easy to clamp down on since it is considered a legitimate form of discourse by the CCP. It has been promoted by the CCP as part of the patriotic education campaign in response to the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Following Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy in the late 1970s, communism gradually faded as the prevailing ideology in China. The party had to seek an alternative ideology to continue providing legitimacy to its regime. Nationalism was the most suitable replacement, especially in the context of the “Century of Humiliation” that immediately preceded the CCP’s coming to power in 1949.

The nationalistic ideology, which was originally imposed from the top, has grown roots in a generation of Chinese netizens. The internet provides an arena for nationalism to be expressed in a bottom-up manner. However, at times it can be overzealous and the People’s Daily, a Chinese state-controlled newspaper, has published articles on these occasions asking people to remain calm. Furthermore, Shen and Breslin note a common tactic whereby Chinese citizens disguise criticisms of the CCP regime in heavily nationalistic language, which provides a better chance of evading censorship.

Online nationalism, be it questioning the patriotic credentials of the CCP or disguised promotion of democracy and human rights within China, is not something that the authorities can control by simply clamping down indiscriminately. In its first White Paper on the Internet in June 2010, the Chinese government seems to accept the internet’s value as an outlet for people to air their views. In fact, it is the only public space where the Chinese people can voice their opinions freely to some extent. Thus, it is unwise for the government to take an overly heavy-handed approach to completely censor all internet criticisms, as grievances which cannot be meaningfully expressed could threaten the stability of Chinese society.

But the study of online Chinese nationalism faces three major challenges. The first is one of methodology: how should one quantify and summarise online public opinion, given its vastness and often temporary nature? This is not a problem unique to the study of China, and can be overcome by narrowing down the field of study to a particular issue and monitoring a selected batch of forums within a specified time frame.

The second challenge is to identify which messages are really posted by ordinary netizens and which messages are posted by people who receive stipends from the Chinese authorities. Officially called “Internet Commentators,” they are also dubbed as the “50-Cent Army” (Wumao Dang). The name originated from a rumour that their salary is 0.50 RMB per post. Their role is to promote a certain political line by posting on forums, blogs and BBS, in a sophisticated attempt to control public opinion, especially at times when the reputation of the government is at stake. This is a compromise between a total clampdown and allowing complete freedom of expression on the internet. As posts by internet commentators are written in a tone similar to that of ordinary netizens, it is difficult to verify the authenticity and creditability of online sources.

The third and most challenging hurdle for scholars of international politics is to prove if online nationalism has any actual influence on Chinese foreign policy-makers. The process of foreign policy making in China is itself already highly opaque compared to Western democratic states, rendering the task of surveying the effect of online nationalism even harder. Although there have been times during negotiations with foreign leaders when Chinese leaders refer to domestic online public opinion, these still do not prove the influence of the online voices. They could merely be attempting to create a perception that Chinese foreign policy-makers are subject to a particular set of domestic restraints that bind them from acting in a way which goes against China’s national interests.

Furthermore, the Chinese authorities have demonstrated an incredible capacity to control the internet and stifle unwanted voices. One wonders to what extent Chinese foreign policy makers would allow themselves to be constrained by concerns over online public opinion. On the other hand, the internet has undeniably shown an exceptional ability in transforming societies and even initiating the downfall of unpopular rulers – a prime example being the Arab Spring. What’s more, the enormity and difficulty of the task of monitoring and censoring the internet increases as the number of internet users in China continues to rise at an astonishing rate.

Academics both within and beyond China continue to develop increasingly rigorous methods to tackle these challenges. Some, such as Shen and Breslin, have come to conclude there is an “emergence of an online civil society in China... [which] provides some form of supervision of state power, and perhaps even a check on it.” As more scholars devote their energy into the study of online Chinese nationalism, we shall soon be able to understand this phenomenon with greater certainty.


Edith Lai is currently studying the Legal Practice Course in London and will be working as a trainee solicitor in the City. She holds an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, having graduated with a BA in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include East Asian politics and diplomacy, with a focus on China and Hong Kong.


18 July 2011