Nationalism in China has been on the rise for the past few years, but in 2021, China’s social media became visibly more nationalist and uglier, progressively drowning out dissenting voices. Individuals embracing liberal and diverse values, Western brands deemed hostile against China and celebrities or tech companies accused of being unpatriotic fell victim one after another to fervent nationalistic campaigns.
It is unclear whether these campaigns were directed by authorities or entirely organic, spontaneous movements started by grassroots nationalism. What we do know is that social media platforms, from WeChat to Weibo and from Douban to Douyin and Kuaishou, doubled down on censorship while largely leaving the ultra-nationalistic users who instigated hatred and harassment alone.
The political environment in 2021 particularly emboldened the nationalistic discourse online: The Chinese Communist Party turned 100 in July, and China’s pandemic control has been translated into political influence. Looking abroad, the U.S. handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as domestic crises like the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have created “an opportunity not necessarily to push for Chinese political norms, but to create acceptable spaces for PRC government viewpoints,” said Rui Zhong, a researcher at the Wilson Center.
“It’s not surprising that the Chinese internet became more nationalistic and uglier this year,” Kecheng Fang, a professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong who researches political communication and digital media, told Protocol. “Political and commercial interests have kept fueling these behaviors.”
Fang believes that the Chinese government tacitly approves of and even, to a certain extent, encourages private actors’ purging of individuals and groups whose views deviate from the Party line because that helps spread censorship for free. And the political environment has encouraged both platforms and individual ultra-nationalists to turn nationalism into a lucrative business: Viral nationalistic content consistently drives traffic.
A year of hate campaigns
Hateful speech and nationalistic fervor started sweeping across China in March, when state media and ultra-nationalists on Chinese social media led widespread boycotts against a spate of major Western apparel brands, such as H&M and Nike, which had expressed concerns about the alleged use of forced labor to produce cotton in Xinjiang. In the midst of the boycotts, ultra-nationalists initiated a separate campaign trolling and doxxing Vicky Xu, a China-born journalist and researcher who was known for her research into the massive human rights abuses in Xinjiang for Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Across social media platforms, countless accounts accused Xu of being the "mastermind" behind the Xinjiang boycott. Infuriated "patriots" called her "a race traitor," "a female demon" and "a slut," and have threatened to dox her parents in China.
A month later, a few prominent ultra-nationalists on Weibo ganged up against China’s feminist activists, resulting in over a dozen accounts being deleted by Weibo. The Red Vs patched together what they felt was evidence of the women's disloyalty to China and their intent to subvert the state. They urged their followers to report the feminists' accounts to Weibo in an effort to get them deleted — a favored tactic among nationalist users. Weibo, which is listed on Nasdaq, deleted each woman's account without giving any a reason. Meanwhile, the accounts of the Red Vs who attacked them remained online. Shortly after, the same group of ultra-nationalists used the same playbook to ostracize popular science bloggers and publications, as well as student-led LGBTQ+ groups.
“[These campaigns] have been inconsistent, which might be an indication that it's companies, or regional governments, or lower-level directives that are shutting down the civic spaces,” Zhong told Protocol, “which is still very concerning because it cuts off the formation of certain civic communities that have been forming online in China, especially now that in-person gatherings are not happening.”
As summer was beginning, even apolitical celebrities came under nationalistic firestorms. The Cyberspace Administration of China in June kicked off a campaign to curb what it believes is a toxic celebrity-worship culture. Several celebrities have since been erased from the web. A tell-tale example is the canceling of actor Zhang Zhehan: Zhang weathered a social media firestorm in August after a picture he took years ago at the controversial Japanese Yasukuni Shrine, which Beijing considers an embodiment of Japanese aggression during World War II, resurfaced on social media. His entire online presence has been wiped out since.
Tech companies also began facing fervent nationalist condemnation. In July, Chinese ride-sharing company DiDi came under cybersecurity review in China after it pushed forward its $4.4 billion U.S. IPO without gaining full approval from Beijing. Some Chinese nationalists at the time started a “delete DiDi” campaign: They accused DiDi executives of being "sellouts," "Han traitors" and "capitalist running dogs." Toward the end of 2021, nationalists got a new target — Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker that acquired ThinkPad from IBM in 2005. They accused the world’s largest PC company, which was once seen as a national point of pride, of being “unpatriotic” and kowtowing to international markets.
In previous investigations, Protocol found that some of the most vocal nationalistic social media users appear to have associations with Chinese authorities. One such person, with the Weibo handle of @ziwuxiashi, has declared that "issues like feminism and LGBT have been given a high priority at the national level," and said that he has submitted "evidence" about feminist activists and LGBTQ+ groups he has collected to "relevant state authorities." Last year, the Shaanxi province Cyberspace Administration Office publicly pledged to work with @ziwuxiashi in order to propagate the Party line. And another account, using the name Fanchen Jun on short-video platforms Kuaishou and Douyin, is operated by a low-level propaganda official in Chongqing, a municipality in southwestern China.
Nationalism = political correctness
“By now, the canceling playbook has proven to be highly effective,” Fang told Protocol. “And social media platforms might have believed that this extremely-nationalistic content could shield them from political pressures … After all, being nationalistic means political correctness in the Chinese context.”
The belief that tolerating or even prioritizing nationalistic content could free social media companies from regulatory strikes, however, may be wishful thinking. In December, the powerful CAC revealed it had imposed dozens of fines on Weibo and Douban throughout the year for lax content moderation, totaling $3.66 million. While nationalistic content drives traffic for now, after witnessing a year of raging nationalistic campaigns, fearful social media users may retreat back to private chats, Fang said.
“I think going forward, fewer Chinese social media users will voice their opinions or express their political stances online,” Fang said, adding that the social media platforms that were once seen as public squares “are only going to be uglier and more nationalistic.”