Last summer, a friend of mine told me that she found China’s biggest social media platform Weibo was becoming “unusable” for feminists and liberals such as her. Tempers were so heated, Bao told me, that disagreements easily became personal pile-ons. After a friend became the centre of a social media storm, she posted a message: “We’re all just blades of grass, what’s the point of fighting with each other?” Bao ended up becoming the next target.

At the time, we put it down to Covid-19, which, across the world, left people stuck at home, bored and anxious. They were just venting. But a year on, Chinese nationalist sentiment is even greater online. It used to be outsiders, a US politician criticising the government for instance, who received the worst of the attacks from bloggers. Now insiders bear the brunt.

Recently, Weibo influencers have gone after journalists at the Global Times, the English-language, state-owned tabloid, for being “traitors”. (Some of the publication’s journalists had criticised a government account’s Weibo post mocking India’s Covid death toll.) Earlier this month, the popular science blog Science Squirrels Club deregistered its Weibo account after a few lines in a post challenged a myth about historic Japanese experiments on Chinese prisoners of war.

What’s changed? The audience, the platform or the government? All of them — in different ways.

Nationalist feeling has soared since the Chinese government all but eradicated Covid through stringent lockdowns and other measures. The fact that China’s relationships with the US, India, Australia and other countries are under strain has offered a number of easy enemies.

What’s on social media doesn’t always reflect reality, in China as elsewhere. For Chinese people who only see the US via culture wars on Twitter, it can be easy to assume the country is on the brink of breakdown. Likewise, those reading Chinese social media from outside might think there are no liberals left. That isn’t the case: many, such as Bao, have simply left social media. Before she did, she had an amusing exchange with someone who had sent her a barrage of insults online. “Our views are different, but I wouldn’t attack you,” Bao wrote. The response: “That’s the difference between liberals and nationalists.”

Weibo has changed too. Its ecosystem of influencers has shifted vastly since Bao joined a decade ago, when online political discussion was still relatively freewheeling.

After Xi Jinping became leader of the Chinese Communist party in 2012, crackdowns on political speech and even celebrity gossip limited what Weibo users were allowed to say. Influencers — who need to keep attracting followers and attention — have the difficult task of creating hot topics without touching political hot potatoes. For many, nationalism is a safe arena.

Influencers often earn their keep by promoting brands, as they do in other countries, and it’s not unusual to find posts promoting washing machines alongside those on who should own the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are subject to a territorial dispute with Japan and Taiwan. The same people who accuse, say, public intellectuals of “selling out to Japan” often sell Japanese products via sponsored posts.

The final element is the government’s hardline approach, which has created an online climate ripe for nationalism. “On the topics of nationalism and feminism, our hands are tied,” said a social media industry insider.

China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration, aims to promote patriotic speech. But the line between fervent patriotism and aggressive nationalism is difficult to manage. “Platforms can’t gently direct the influencers, lest they leak our conversations and cause even more trouble,” says the insider. And even if posts are deleted, some controversies become big enough that they still burst into the open.

Bao believes that when “blades of grass” — ordinary users — attack each other, the government benefits because people are distracted from criticising it. While that’s true, both government and company censors have an uneasy hold on China’s new online nationalists. After all, they don’t always do what’s in Beijing’s best interests.

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