Money, power and the peril of courting Chinese nationalism | Politics News

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In January, a Chinese ultranationalist vlogger – video blogger – came across red circular stickers on the glass doors of a shopping mall in Nanjing featuring the words: “Happy 2024.”

The vlogger claimed that what appeared to be innocent New Year decorations were, in fact, nationalistic Japanese motifs since the red circles resembled the rising red sun in Japan’s national flag.

“This is Nanjing, not Tokyo! Why are you putting up junk like this?” he snarled at a manager at the mall.

Local police subsequently got involved and ordered staff at the mall to take down the decorations and gave the mall’s management an official warning.

“It is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,” 33-year-old noodle shop owner Alice Lu from Shanghai told Al Jazeera.

“If red circles are not allowed then there is no end to the things that must be removed,” Lu said.

Souvenir plates with images of China's Mao Zedong (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) in Beijing, China in 2017 [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
Red souvenir plates with images of China’s Mao Zedong (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) in Beijing, China in 2017 [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Following the standard set by the local police in Nanjing, users on Chinese social media were quick to highlight the absurdity of all the red circular objects that would need to be banned, including the logo of China’s telecommunications giant Huawei, posters of China’s first Communist leader, Mao Zedong, featuring a rising sun in the background, and even traffic lights.

The fiasco drew in China’s state-run CCTV which chastised the vlogger in an article on its Weibo account, calling his actions “detrimental to individuals, companies and society as a whole”.

Shaoyu Yuan, a scholar of Chinese studies at Rutger’s University in the United States, said CCTV’s comments demonstrated an attempt by the Chinese government to maintain state control over the narrative surrounding nationalism.

“They want to ensure that nationalism serves as a unifying force rather than being misused,” Yuan told Al Jazeera.

The logo of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies is pictured next to a statue on top of a building in Copenhagen, Denmark, June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
The logo of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies is pictured next to a statue on top of a building in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2021 [Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

Steering patriotism

Under the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping, fervent patriotic sentiment has been encouraged among the public for years.

Xi said in June that “love of our country, the feeling of devotion and sense of attachment to our motherland is a duty and responsibility of every Chinese”, and that “the essence of patriotism is loving the country, the Party and socialism all at the same time”.

The importance of state-defined patriotism was highlighted at the beginning of January when a new “patriotic education law” came into effect in China with the stated aim of instilling “love of the country and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)”.

During Xi’s presidency, that patriotic fervour has been projected outward from China by its “wolf warrior” diplomats, including former foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian who infamously floated the idea that the US military was responsible for the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

Zhao also posted a fabricated image depicting an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child in 2020, at a time when relations between Australia and China were in free fall.

While the CCP promotes its own version of patriotism, it also moderates nationalistic output at times, too.

Incessant bashing of the US online is a common pastime among active Chinese nationalists. But leading up to a highly anticipated summit between President Xi and US President Joe Biden in November, China’s media and nationalist commentators suddenly dialled down their anti-US rhetoric.

Beijing adjusts the volume on nationalistic rhetoric to serve its interests, according to Yuan, engaging in a balancing act of patriotic sentiment when necessary.

“While nationalism is encouraged as a means of fostering a strong national identity and loyalty, its excesses can lead to extremism and undermine international diplomacy, social harmony and public order,” Yuan said.

Nationalism turns violent

Lu from Shanghai said the Nanjing incident was an example of how the promotion of intense patriotic feelings in China has led to a toxic environment – particularly when it comes to Japan-related topics.

“It is a bit scary actually how anti-Japanese feelings can make some people react in China,” she said.

Chinese modern nationalism directed at Japan is deeply influenced by historical conflicts, most notably the events of the Second Sino-Japanese War during World War II, Yuan said.

“These have left a lasting imprint on the Chinese collective memory, fuelling sentiments of resentment and vigilance towards Japan,” he said.

Anti-Japanese sentiment was on display in 2022 when a known cosplayer was approached by police in Suzhou, a city not far from Shanghai, as she was taking pictures of herself on the street wearing a Japanese kimono. Before being taken away, a police officer was recorded shouting at the woman: “If you came here wearing hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing), I wouldn’t say this, but you are wearing a kimono as a Chinese. You are Chinese!”

A few days after the arrest, CCTV launched a social media topic promoting the wearing of hanfu-style clothing.

A protester holding a banner shouts slogans during an anti-Japan protest over disputed islands called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, outside an Ito Yokado shopping mall from Japan, at Chunxi Road business area in Chengdu October 16, 2010. Thousands of Chinese people went on street Saturday in several cities to defend China's sovereign rights amid the latest dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. Xinhua reporters have witnessed demonstrations in Xi'an, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Zhengzhou in the Chinese mainland. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
A protester holding a banner shouts slogans during an anti-Japan protest over disputed islands called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, outside the Japanese Ito Yokado shopping mall at Chunxi Road business area in Chengdu in 2010 [Jason Lee/Reuters]

The Suzhou incident pales in comparison, however, to August 2012 when a dispute in the East China Sea over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, led to large anti-Japanese protests across urban China.

While protests are often swiftly broken up by the Chinese authorities, the anti-Japanese demonstrations in several cities saw no interference, and from there they turned increasingly violent.

In the central Chinese city of Xi’an, a Chinese man in a Japanese car was pulled out of his vehicle and severely beaten, sustaining life-changing injuries.

The government-controlled People’s Daily subsequently said in an editorial that it did not condone the violence, but attempted to explain it as a sign of Chinese people’s patriotism.

By the time police intervened and restored order at the end of September, Japanese shops, companies and restaurants had been vandalised and China-Japan relations were bruised.

Sales representative Simon Wan, 36, remembers the demonstrations in Beijing devolving into riots at that time.

“From our apartment window, we saw people smash my father’s Toyota (a Japanese car brand) which was parked on the street below,” he told Al Jazeera.

“My family and me stayed indoors most of the time those days to avoid trouble. It was quite frightening.”

Wan believes that the government does not want to see a repeat of the anti-Japan riots in 2012.

“So, I think they reacted to the nationalistic vlogger in Nanjing because they wanted to avoid any kind of escalation,” he said.

When ultranationalist fervour leads to property damage or becomes counterproductive to China’s diplomatic goals, it goes too far, according to Yuan, at which point the Chinese authorities will seek to contain it – as in Nanjing.

Making patriotism pay

The vlogger in Nanjing was not just chastised for being too nationalistic, however. He was pilloried for using patriotism to turn a profit from his video blogs.

“Patriotism is not a business,” CCTV stated in its rebuke of the vlogger.

But, patriotism can in fact be a lucrative business for many nationalistic bloggers and vloggers on Chinese social media.

According to Yuan, there are many ways to monetise patriotism for people such as Hu Xijin, a public figure and commentator who has leveraged his nationalistic stance to amass significant followings on social media.

“This business aspect of patriotism involves not only direct profits from social media platforms through advertisements and sponsored content but also endorsements and partnerships with brands that wish to align themselves with patriotic sentiments,” he said.

Chinese social media accounts with more than a million followers can earn their owners a few hundred thousand dollars a year, while nationalistic commentators such as Hu Xijin have tens of millions of followers. But as the vlogger in Nanjing discovered, the attention garnered by nationalistic tropes does not guarantee fame and fortune, and can instead lead to infamy and misfortune.

The logo of Chinese social media app Weibo is seen on a mobile phone in this illustration picture taken December 7, 2021. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration
The logo of Chinese social media app Weibo is seen on a mobile phone in this illustration picture taken on December 7, 2021 [ Florence Lo/Illustration /Reuters]

In 2022, blogger Sima Nan had his social media accounts across Chinese platforms blocked after he engaged in a war of words with China’s tech firm Lenovo during which time it was revealed that he was a homeowner in the US state of California, despite his overt anti-Americanism.

Another nationalist, Kong Qingdong, was banned from Weibo in 2022 for undisclosed reasons. Kong was also temporarily banned in 2012 after he had sparked a public outcry when he referred to Hongkongers as “dogs” and other slurs.

“Navigating the waters of nationalistic content creation in China can be as perilous as it is profitable,” Yuan said.

“While the Chinese government often supports and promotes nationalistic sentiment that aligns with its policies and image, there are red lines that cannot be crossed, and content creators who venture too far, misinterpret the government’s stance or criticise its policies – even under the guise of nationalism – can find themselves facing swift repercussions,” he said.

Adding to the peril, China’s red lines are fluid and can quickly change depending on the situation.

The sudden shift in nationalistic rhetoric leading up to the Biden-Xi summit in November is an example of such a rapid change.

“A nationalistic stance that aligns with the government’s current diplomatic posture might be encouraged at one time but could become problematic if diplomatic priorities shift and the stance is no longer deemed appropriate,” Yuan explained.

Such fluidity is an element of the CCP’s balancing act regarding nationalism.

“It (the CCP) aims to promote a strong sense of national identity and pride among its citizens while avoiding the pitfalls of hypernationalism that could lead to xenophobia, regional tensions, or internal dissent,” Yuan added.

“Additionally, the Chinese government has always sought to prevent any single voice or group from becoming so influential in nationalist discourse that it could challenge the authority of the Communist Party or create factions within society.”

Looking back on his experience during the anti-Japan riots in 2012, Wan, the sales rep from Beijing, said he worried that the government’s promotion of patriotism and tolerance towards nationalism would endanger Chinese society in the long run.

“I think President Xi told American President Biden a few years ago that those who play with fire will get burned,” he said.

“I think that is also the case for anyone in China that plays too much with the flames of nationalism.”

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