How social media users weaponized patriotism
TOKYO/NEW YORK/HONG KONG — The November protests in China against President Xi Jinping’s draconian zero-COVID strategy made global headlines as the biggest public act of anti-government resistance in decades.
The demonstrators, some of whom even called for Xi to step down, laid bare frustration at long lockdowns that have damaged the economy and people’s livelihoods.
But some prominent Chinese social media commentators saw a very different universe. These nationalist netizens accused “foreign forces” of stoking the rage – a conspiratorial idea long used by the ruling Communist Party to discredit opposition.
“What are the goals of foreign forces? To worsen our internal conflicts, of course, but also to totally politicize our epidemic prevention policies,” a user known as Chairman Rabbit posted to his 1.8 million followers on the popular Weibo social media platform. Rabbit, whose real name is Ren Yi, is a Harvard-educated investment banker and grandson of the prominent late politician Ren Zhongyi.
Guyan Muchan, an influencer who used to work for China’s Communist party youth league, warned her 6.5 million Weibo followers that protestors should “not be used by people with a hidden plan.” Her comment was reposted by the wife of Zhao Lijian, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
The anti-protest backlash highlights a crucial change in the nature of online nationalism in China, a force capable of humbling powerful people and international brands. Such ultra-patriotic campaigns were once openly led and directed by state media. Now individuals play a more prominent role, Nikkei Asia data analysis has found.
The online patriots often proclaim that they represent a deep public well of national pride and loyalty to the ruling Communist party. But more skeptical observers question the extent to which the messaging is orchestrated by state-affiliated groups. In this way, sentiment can be made to look more like instinctive loyalty -- and less like government propaganda.
Either way, the rise of individual online nationalist voices with huge followings carries risks as well as rewards for China’s communist rulers. Sometimes, the social media uber-patriots take more aggressive stances than authorities in Beijing.
When U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, netizens even urged their rulers to shoot the veteran Washington power broker’s aircraft down. Their justification: to punish Pelosi for provoking China through her visit to the self-ruled island, which Beijing claims as a province.
Pelosi’s subsequent safe touchdown prompted another wave of criticism from militant social media users -- including some aimed at the Chinese government.
“I suddenly feel so depressed. Like many Chinese, I believe that our country will punish her for us. But where were our fighter jets that took down Pelosi? Why is the country so timid?” a user nicknamed “Chan Xiaoyan” posted on Weibo.
This online fire has consequences for China and how foreign governments and international companies deal with the country. The ultra-patriots’ ferocious messaging can force big businesses to change their behavior. Increasingly, social media nationalists are outriders for - and potential influencers of - government policies as President Xi Jinping starts his third term in office.
“Ten years ago nationalism didn't have this momentum because it could be refuted on social media,” said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “But in the past decade, with official support, in specific ways including censoring dissident comments, deleting posts, and organizing online commentators, the voice of nationalism has grown stronger.”
Ruhua rage: How China’s online nationalists mobilized around one key word
The accusation of ruhua, or “insulting China,” has become a powerful magic spell on the country’s internet in recent years. Social media users invoke it to attack perceived cultural slights and defend the Chinese Communist Party regime. Netizens and even big foreign brands have learned of its power to break reputations.
Nikkei Asia has analyzed the use of ruhua in posts on Weibo -- China's heavily censored Twitter equivalent -- over almost 10 years to give a snapshot of the wider story of rising online nationalism. The research timeframe starts in 2012, the year Xi came to power. It examines incidents that led to surges in the use of ruhua, the web users responsible and who amplified those posts.
The data for ruhua could be retrieved from the Weibo search engine before the party’s 20th congress, but has largely disappeared since at least November. The reason for the disappearance is not known, but it is possible that the authorities have imposed restrictions. The analysis for this story is based on search results that Nikkei had previously retrieved and stored.
The term ruhua first appeared in Chinese media in the early 2000s and started to spread much more widely over the past decade through amplification on social media.
In late 2013 the term ruhua was used to criticize comedian Jimmy Kimmel of U.S. broadcaster ABC over a conversation he had with a group of young children about reducing U.S. government debt, much of which is held by China. When a child suggested that “killing everyone in China” could be a way to solve the debt problem, Kimmel said the proposal was an “interesting idea.” (Kimmel later apologized and said he “thought it was obvious that I didn’t agree with that statement.”)
Ruhua reared up again in mid-2014, over a video clip of a Chinese person being turned away from a club in Spain after a sign saying "Chinese and dogs prohibited" was aired on Spanish TV channel Five. The incident again sparked a backlash on Weibo. Hundreds of responses called for an apology.
Ruhua nationalism reached a new high in November 2018. The surge came after a social media advert by Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana featured a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian cuisine with chopsticks. Posts containing the “insulting China” term surged on Weibo to 7,000 a day.
Among them, a post by China News Network, a state-owned website, calling Dolce & Gabbana out was reposted at least 33,000 times and liked more than 150,000 times. In the same year, 579 posts containing ruhua were reposted more than 100 times on Weibo. Of these, 15% were posted by media either owned by the state or long-established as government mouthpieces.
A turning point in ruhua nationalism came in early 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Danish newspaper illustration depicting the distinctive yellow stars of the Chinese flag as viruses triggered a ruhua social media surge. While this was still led by People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, personal accounts had started to gain more influence, Nikkei’s analysis shows.
Last year, online nationalists pressed for a boycott of big international consumer companies including H&M, Adidas and Nike. The brands had refused to use Xinjiang cotton in their garments due to multiple allegations of forced labor in the region, which China denies. The subject generated an online tsunami of pro-Beijing fury, with more than 5,000 posts a day on Weibo at one point. A string of Chinese celebrities announced they would cease cooperation with the businesses involved.
The rise of the private uber-patriots
If a company or a person is labeled as ruhua on the Chinese-language internet, it can be fatal to their standing in society. Conversely, a netizen who leads the humiliation of the alleged offender has a good chance to gain many fans -- and much money.
Personal accounts have grown even more pronounced over the past two years. In 2019, 26 of 299, or about 9%, of the posts containing “ruhua” reposted more than 100 times were posted by state media accounts. But the proportion plunged in 2021, when eight of 517, or 2%, were initially posted by state media.
Personal accounts such as The Eagle of God (上帝之鹰_5zn), The Official Account of Diba (帝吧官微) and Diguaxiong Laoliu (地瓜熊老六), are among the most prolific posters of ruhua campaigns. Each has a distinctive personality: Diguaxiong Laoliu, for example, is a nationalist cartoonist known for frequent commentary on news events. Users like them have become well-known patriotic opinion leaders on the Chinese internet, each with millions of Weibo followers.These accounts have posted ruhua claims against businesses and people -- and such accusations have become more frequent.
“Nowadays nationalism generates the most traffic online,” said Seaver Tao, business partner of a well-known internet uber-patriot known as Niu Tanqin. Niu Tanqin, a former senior reporter at the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, has more than 4 million followers on Weibo. “Mainstream media has created an atmosphere of confidence in our nation, fanning this sentiment of pride,” Seaver Tao said.
Weibo posts containing “ruhua” that were reposted 50+ times by account type
- State-controlled media
- Local media
Nationalism as a tool to boost the CCP’s legitimacy
There have been 15 ruhua -related social media spikes, referring to days when the word appeared in more than 1,000 original posts, in the past three years. That compares with only three in all the years between 2013 to 2019, Nikkei’s analysis shows.
The Chinese government has long promoted national pride through patriotic education and media propaganda. Those efforts escalated after Xi came to power in 2012 -- and deemed the internet a critical battleground for Chinese hearts and minds.
The party’s legitimacy has always been a top priority for China’s rulers, said Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver. Nationalism has become a preferred tool to unite domestic forces and reaffirm the party as the absolute leader of China.
“When Xi came to power, one of the most important things he did was to control information flow in China, including the internet,” Zhao said.
“Xi has not only intensified patriotic education, he has changed the tone. The Chinese economy was in decline when he came in and it was difficult for him to rely on economic performance, so he had to rely more on nationalistic appeals to boast the party’s legitimacy.”
Wolf warriors online
The rush of online nationalism is consistent with the aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy that Chinese ambassadors have adopted since Xi came to power.
But the increasing aggression risks are running out of control. Zheng Wang, director of the Center for Peace and Conflict studies at Seton Hall University, summarized the consequences of fanning ultra-patriotism with a Chinese idiom: “Once you ride a tiger, it’s hard to get off.”
“After using nationalism, it is more difficult for the government to choose another path for the nation,” said Wang, the author of “Never Forget National Humiliation,” a book about the revanchist historical roots of modern Chinese nationalism. “It makes it much harder for the government to change its foreign policy, even though many people in China know that the current [direction] is not in China’s [best] interest.”
Grassroots or astroturf?
The surge of nationalistic content on the Chinese internet has been further accelerated by geopolitical tensions with the West. Those were supercharged by the U.S.-China trade war that began in 2018. Washington has imposed sanctions on prominent Chinese businesses including telecoms company Huawei.
“Especially when the U.S. cracked down on Huawei, there was a feeling of unfairness, people felt China was bullied and we shouldn’t be,” said Tao, the business partner of internet uber-patriot Niu Tanqin. “People’s emotions were running high and nationalistic takes became very popular.”
Online nationalists have seized on the superpower battle to portray their popularity as driven by grassroots public opinion.
But censorship makes it impossible to know for certain if hardline nationalistic views are representative of the population. Critics say that what may seem to be campaigns driven by genuine public opinion are often actually “astroturfing” -- orchestrated efforts to give the appearance of spontaneity and authenticity.
One area of concern is the potential for manipulation of material promoted on Weibo. Last year, Weibo disclosed its operation mechanism for “Weibo hot searches,” or trending topics. This shows that subjects are promoted if Chinese authorities deem them to have “positive energy” -- and played down or removed if they are considered negative.
Individual users can also engineer hot-search status. For example, marketing agencies can post the same or similar content from multiple accounts at the same time. This pushes keywords to the top of hot-search lists.
Still, the algorithm behind Weibo’s hot search is like a black box and is easy to manipulate, said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“There is no way for outsiders to know if a post on or off the list of trending topics is there because it is in compliance with government requirements -- or for commercial objectives,” Fang said.
Weibo didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Only an extremely small number of Weibo’s 570 million monthly active users post frequently, Fang added. He estimated the proportion might be as low as 1%.
“Using Weibo posts to gauge the level of nationalism might be inaccurate,” he said. “Those who talk more frequently or who hold more extreme ideas are probably more willing to speak. There are also factors of censorship and propaganda to take into account.”
More random – and less about racism
Another significant trend is that online outrage about supposed insults to China have become more widely targeted. They are no longer solely about foreign racism as some have even attacked domestic brands.
The backlash against Chinese snack giant Three Squirrels last year is a high-profile example. It was blasted for allegedly insulting the country in an old advertisement. The monolid model in it was deemed by some netizens to have stereotyped Chinese people as "slanty eyed" and played to Western prejudices.
The pursuit of Three Squirrels was led by personal accounts, including The Eagle of God (上帝之鹰_5zn) and Shufen Dada (淑芬大大N), Nikkei Asia research shows. They spearheaded calls for a boycott of the brand -- and surpassed official media accounts in terms of repost numbers. Three Squirrels apologized and pulled the ad.
In October, Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning felt the heat of the nationalist social media furnace. It came under fire from netizens who claimed some of its latest clothing designs resembled Japanese World War II military uniforms. The company apologized and withdrew the products.
Individuals have replaced state media as the main creator of ruhua content
The Weibo effect
These incidents highlight how Weibo has become a key online-patriot outlet. The platform, which was founded in 2009, had expanded to 252 million daily active users by 2022. This makes it the most powerful nationalistic social media platform in China, especially when it comes to calling for a boycott of a company, person or country.
The number of active users by the end of each year (in millions)
- Daily average
Weibo is attracting an increasing number of younger users. About 80% of its users were born in the 1990s or later, according to the company’s 2021 annual report. Women are well represented, especially in more youthful age groups: 60% of users born after 2000 are female.
Many Weibo fans come from outside China’s largest urban areas. As of Dec. 31, 2018, more than 30% of users were from so-called fourth-tier cities or counties, defined in terms of their political status and economic development. Just 16% were from first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, according to Weibo.
Most Weibo users live outside China’s biggest urban centers.
The younger generation of Chinese nationalists are already sufficiently prominent to have earned their own nickname: “little pinks.” That is a reference to the Red Guards, a paramilitary youth organization that destroyed people’s homes at the start of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s to show allegiance to Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
Weibo’s output is further shaped by censorship that has tightened over the past decade. In a high-profile case in 2017, He Weifang, a prominent law professor at Peking University, decided to remain silent on Weibo after the platform repeatedly blocked his posts. Weibo even barred him from posting for 108 days for promoting universal values and the rule of law. When his Weibo account was shut down in 2017, he had about 1.9 million followers.
Censorship tightened further the next year. Beijing imposed new rules known as the Law on the Protection of Heroes and Martyrs. The party said it was needed because some people had “twisted history” and questioned communist heroes in the name of “academic freedom.”
Official pressure is manifested in fines imposed on social media platforms. Last year, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) imposed 45 penalties on Weibo totaling 17.3million yuan for repeatedly publishing “illegal” information.
When the Ukraine war broke out, the CAC ordered social media platforms not to allow internet polling or new discussions on the topic, according to a leaked document published by China Digital Times. The CAC also banned platforms from livestreaming footage from the battlefield.
From December 15, 2022, all news-related comments on Chinese online platforms would be reviewed by censors before publication, according to a new regulation introduced by the CAC. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The patriotic darlings
The online ultra-patriots who have thrived in this highly controlled environment have unsurprisingly become party darlings.
Many of the highest ranking Weibo accounts for news commentary and national security matters are operated by such patriotic opinion leaders. These include Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times tabloid, Guyan Muchan, an influencer who often writes commentaries on international events, and Sima Nan, well-known for anti-U.S. views.
They usually label themselves “news commentators” or “national security experts” on their Weibo pages, even though they generally do not offer detailed knowledge of defense or military subjects. Instead, they frequently jump on topics such as COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., “foreign influence” on the Chinese internet, and unsupported allegations that Washington has built bioweapons labs in Ukraine.
Nikkei extracted data from about 90 accounts with frequent patriotic posts on Weibo, and examined interactions between those accounts and media accounts over the past few years.
- State-controlled media
- Local media
Nikkei’s analysis shows that patriotic opinion leaders frequently interact with accounts held by state media outlets, government agencies, and nationalistic private media outlets.
Patriotic opinion leaders frequently repost state media such as CCTV and Xinhua, but they amplify the People’s Daily the most.
The People’s Daily is the largest newspaper group in China, has 150 million Weibo followers and operates under the party’s Central Committee.
The People’s Daily rarely reposts from or tags other accounts -- but high-profile ultra-patriots number among the few that it does. They include a notable nationalistic duo: Renmin University’s hawkish professor Jin Canrong and rap group Tianfu Shibian.
The Ukraine war has given further impetus to individual Chinese online nationalists. In April, the People’s Daily tagged Jin Canrong on Weibo and interviewed him about the Ukraine war. Jin claimed the U.S. was responsible for the conflict and was using Ukraine as a “chess piece.”
The People’s Daily has also promoted rappers Tianfu Shibian. Their 2016 song “This Is China'' became a hit and they were featured on the cover of Global People, a People’s Daily magazine. Last year, Tianfu Shibian’s track “Hey Democracy” -- which brands the U.S. hypocritical for condemning Beijing’s crackdown on protests in Hong Kong -- was heavily promoted on Weibo by state bodies. CCTV, the People’s Daily, the Youth League of the CCP, Global Times and Xinhua all gushed over it. This year the group collaborated with Xinhua on “Join Us in Winter,” a promotional song about the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Similarly, China News Service -- the second-largest state news agency after Xinhua -- has reposted material from individual nationalists such as Hu Xijin and pro-Beijing Taiwanese TV commentator Joyce Huang.
Gunayan Muchan, The Eagle of God, Tianfu Shibian, and Jin Canrong didn’t respond to a request for comment by Nikkei Asia.
Moreover, individual nationalists have close online ties with the party’s Youth League. The league is among the few very active government-affiliated agencies on Weibo, with more than 17 million followers. It is mostly reposted by patriotic opinion leaders, including Sima Nan, Guyan Muchan, Diba Guanwei, Jin Canrong and Shen Yi.
The information flow goes the other way, too. In 2017, the Youth League reposted The Eagle of God after the account published claims that four Chinese citizens had shot photos while wearing Japanese-style military uniforms. The Youth League often invites influential nationalists to speak about their experiences online.
Playing with nationalist fire
Weibo set up another platform for nationalists in 2020, launching the feature #V光计划#, which later changed to #V光深评#. They loosely translate as “spotlight commentary.” These are supposed to encourage opinion leaders to keep creating hot trends.
The nationalist Guyan Muchan, who has over 6 million followers on Weibo, published a series of articles in July and August with the spotlight commentary hashtag. These articles attacked the U.S. and NATO over the Ukraine war, as well as Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
The platform “prioritizes accounts like ours” for special programs such as commentaries, said Seaver Tao, business partner of the internet uber-patriot Niu Tanqin. Weibo grants access to more audiences for content with such hashtags, and the creators earn a cut in the profit based on the number of views they attract.
But the nationalist online buzzsaw is potentially dangerous as well as advantageous for China’s authorities. As the Pelosi Taiwan trip showed, sentiment can run out of control and swing behind moves that even Beijing is not prepared to make. The pandemic, Ukraine conflict and trade war between Washington and Beijing have all escalated the antagonism in China towards the West, with patriotic opinion leaders fanning the flames.
Beijing dramatically eased zero-Covid restrictions after November’s demonstrations, risking an intensification of a surge in infections that had already begun. The Chinese government and its online outriders continue to defend the idea that the country has dealt with the pandemic better than western powers have done.
Murong Xuecun, a Chinese writer who currently lives in Australia, argues that online nationalism “may endanger the Communist Party itself if it spreads like wildfire.” Murong had his Weibo account terminated in 2013 after he criticized restrictions on what university teachers can discuss with students.
In a June conversation with Nikkei Asia, Murong eerily foreshadowed the online calls weeks later to down Nancy Pelosi’s plane. His remarks are a stark reminder of the risks that officially licensed extremism can take on a life of its own.
Murong asked what China’s rulers would do if millions of online “little pinks” bayed for a war over Taiwan -- and for stronger action than Beijing wanted to take.
“What will happen if the Communist Party does not start a war?” he asked. “Will this group of ‘little pinks’ become fanatical militants in the future? I think to a large extent the answer is yes.”