Friday, April 28, 2017

The "little pink" and online nationalism

Last month's protests over the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence system in South Korea turned into the latest bout of nationalistic hysteria to hit China in recent years, with Lotte supermarkets boycotted and closed down by the authorities, travel agents being pressured to stop sending tour groups to South Korea, and videos appearing of Chinese primary school children encouraged to chant slogans against Korea and Lotte at rallies in their playground.

I would say that the level of hysteria was about equal or superior to what was seen last summer after the UN ruling over the South China Sea dispute, but still nowhere near as bad as what went down in 2012 over the Diaoyu islands dispute with Japan. Living in China I have come to see such bouts of collective insanity as akin to episodes of extreme weather: they happen regularly, they are unpredictable, they are annoying but fortunately they don't normally cause anyone much genuine harm, and they pass relatively quickly.

Much has been said and written about China's popular nationalism, its legions of "angry youth" spewing their bile online, the way that the educational system inculcates resentment of Japan and other foreign powers into the minds of young students. The latest development is the appearance of the term xiao fenhong, or "little pink", as a new label for the legions of young Chinese who take part in online campaigns aimed at vilifying the targets of nationalistic rage, and whipping up support for patriotism.

Last summer Australian swimmer Mack Horton became the target of concerted attacks by legions of such young Chinese patriots, after he called his Chinese rival at the Rio olympics a "drug cheat". His social media accounts were bombarded with derogatory and aggressive messages in both Chinese and English. What is striking is the readiness of these young people to take their nationalistic campaigns onto foreign websites like Facebook that are blocked in China, implying that they are either living abroad, or more likely are using a VPN to get round the Chinese government's firewall.

The term "little pink" apparently started off as a disparaging term, because the "movement" began on a well-known Chinese chat group called the Jinjiang forum, whose site has a pink background. A lot of the xiao fenhong are women, making the term even more apt. Later the People's Daily ran an article praising the xiao fenhong as a community of millions of internet users, mostly female, who are patriotic and defend the state online. Since then some have started using the term as a badge of honour.

Essentially we are looking at young, well-educated, middle or upper-middle class young people who know how to access censored foreign websites and in many cases are quite able to argue in English, and use these skills to show support for their country and state and hurl invective at those who they perceive as unfriendly to China. Many of them are indeed women, something that will hopefully put to rest the misguided Western commentary claiming that all these young Chinese nationalists are frustrated "excess men" who can't find a woman due to the gender imbalance created by the one-child policy.

It may seem strange that some of China's most privileged young people, the ones who come from the sort of social classes who tend to send their children to study in the West, take part in such nationalistic online ranting. But as a person with a long connection with Chinese society, it doesn't surprise me. Some of the most unreasonable, extreme, wilfully closed-minded nationalists I have had the misfortune to meet here in China have been young people from the country's privileged classes who had studied or lived abroad, and spoke pretty fluent English.

This is of course by no means a rule. I have also met plenty of young Chinese from such backgrounds for whom studying abroad was a genuinely eye-opening and enriching experience, and who refuse to be roped in by simple-minded chauvinistic discourse. It does appear to be the case, however, that in modern China nationalism does not decrease as one moves up the social scale. It may actually be strongest among the wealthier classes, although they express it in a more sophisticated fashion.

I could give the example of a colleague of mine. She is a 23 year old girl, a native of Beijing, who has just come back after getting a master's degree in a European university. She likes travelling and once took the Trans-Siberian Express all the way to Moscow, in spite of knowing no Russian. She is energetic, opinionated and independent. Recently a conversation I was having with her and another colleague turned to the topic of politics. She started saying that she knows that she was "sort of brainwashed" in school, but she just can't help herself. When she hears people criticise the Communist Party she just has to defend them as the people who liberated the country, even though she knows it isn't really that simple.

The topic then turned to Taiwan. She said that she will resolutely oppose any Taiwanese who claims that Taiwan isn't part of China, because this is a 民族的问题 (ethnic/national question). She said she doesn't understand why the Taiwanese always have to 抱美国大腿,抱日本大腿 (Cling to America and Japan for protection, said using a derisive expression). She then said she wished her government wasn't so kind and understanding towards Taiwan, and showed some muscle by boycotting them and destroying their economy if they continued talking about independence.

Young people of this kind may have grown up in a nationalistic bubble, but they are by no means unable to find out about the world from independent sources. Even when they are not abroad they are quite able to use VPNs and connect to any website worldwide, and can read material in English as well as Chinese. It would not be difficult for them to find out how things look from the perspective of, say a Taiwanese student who took part in the Sunflower movement. The point is that they display little interest in doing so.

Many dismiss such people as brainwashed, but the word doesn't quite do the situation justice. I often notice a disconcerting willingness, almost a conscious decision, to wallow in a bubble of unjustified nationalistic attitudes, instead of questioning comforting but wrong-headed and dangerous beliefs. Of course it could be argued that most people anywhere are not keen on questioning their long-cherished beliefs. That's probably how religions manage to keep going down the generations, even when their core axioms have become quite untenable. On the other hand the way that in China people's core beliefs currently revolve around nationalism, and tend to be similar for large swathes of the population, make them potentially explosive.