For most of us, calling those who argue about politics online “keyboard warriors” is a joke. But the Chinese Communist party takes the metaphor seriously. Since its inception, the CCP has recognised the importance of propaganda to the building of a state identity, and in recent years the cyber space regulator has championed the need for a “main force” on the internet, which it calls “the main battlefield for public opinion”.
Some readers are probably already familiar with the loudest battle cries on this field. Last month, an influencer on Weibo, the microblogging site, attacked brands such as clothes retailer H&M, which had, half a year previously, stopped using Xinjiang cotton because of forced labour concerns.
This nationalist cause turned into a mass boycott after being reposted by the Communist Youth League of China the following day, according to research by Taiwan’s Doublethink Lab. State media picked up the story, foreign ministry spokespeople gave it legitimacy and it caught fire.
While such periodic explosions have an international impact, it is difficult to learn much from them about the underlying state of Chinese patriotic discourse. China’s grassroots nationalist bloggers seem less like that unified “main force” than dispersed militias which argue with one another as much as they do with external enemies.
“The difference between Chinese nationalist factions is probably bigger than the difference between all of them and an American patriot,” says one Beijing-based blogger who is researching a book on Chinese internet culture. And while the CCP’s professional trolls may generate reposts and likes, “volume is not influence”, he adds.
The CCP has upgraded its efforts to use third-party media studios and public-opinion monitors to boost its online sway, but it still does not produce the most gripping material for the internet age, he argues.
One of the most influential memes from these unaffiliated nationalist groups is ruguanxue, or “the breakthrough school”. It refers to when the Manchu forces in the 1600s entered China through a strategic pass in the Great Wall and eventually established the Qing dynasty.
The populariser of this term, who went by the username Shangaoxian on the question-and-answer website Zhihu, has explained that before the Manchu entered China, the ruling Ming dynasty saw them as barbarians. Rather than trying to struggle on in parallel, the Manchu could only flourish after breaking through the pass and creating their own dynasty.
According to this view, China is the eventually victorious Manchu and the US is the declining Ming empire. It is pointless, Shangaoxian argues, to try to win over public opinion when the ruling empire thinks you are barbarians. (It is unclear whether the Manchu tried to launch any public-relations offensives in the 17th century.)
In a video on portal Bilibili, Shangaoxian shows shots of skyscrapers belonging to telecoms giant Huawei, now under US sanctions, while describing China’s woes at the hands of the US. The answer, he shouts at the end, is to “break through!”.
Breakthroughism’s popularity has been helped by its vagueness. Shangaoxian has intentionally never defined what “breaking through” means and whether his military metaphors are just metaphors. But the world of China’s nationalist keyboard warriors is diverse and filled with internecine skirmishes. Others criticise Shangaoxian for being too pessimistic about the geopolitical pressures China faces.
Some of these critics belong to a rival camp, the tougongxue or “join the Communists” school. They are a rather jollier tribe who gained renewed faith in the Chinese government following its hardline approach to Covid-19 last year. They in turn are mocked by the neo-Marxists, who also dislike the US political system but are more concerned with labour conditions at home than nationalist causes.
While ruguanxue is not officially endorsed, its proliferation on the Chinese internet means at the very least officials have decided not to censor it. It is a delicate balance: the government doesn’t want nationalist sentiment to become a lobbying force.
It can be too easy to conclude from incidents such as the H&M blow-up that all patriotic sentiment online is manufactured. In fact, that outburst illustrated the complexity of Chinese nationalism on the internet: that while party organs placed a target on H&M’s head, the public anger was real. To better understand this complexity, one must explore the internet communities that exist away from the spotlight.
Yuan Yang is the FT’s deputy Beijing bureau chief
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