When China Plugged In: Structural Origins of Online Chinese Nationalism

Editor’s Note: The rapid growth of the Internet in China has created a new form of social interaction between the state and various segments of society. In Chapter 1 from the recent book Online Chinese Nationalism and China’s Bilateral Relations (Lexington Books, 2010), Simon Shen and Shaun Breslin note how the emergence of an online civil society in China intrinsically provides some form of supervision of state power, and perhaps even a check on it.

“In the remote but beautiful Malegebi, there is a group of grass-mud horses (caonima)…”[1]

On 12 June 2009, the Chinese government suddenly announced a new and immediate standard for computers manufactured and sold in the mainland: a mandatory internet filtering software system, luba-huaji huhang (the Green Dam), was to be installed from 1 July. According to a Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) spokesperson, the primary objective for the mandatory installation of the software was to screen out inappropriate material and pornographic websites, so as to “create a green and healthy internet environment” within the virtual community.[2] The announcement of the measure was quickly followed by considerable criticism, both from within China and without. For instance, US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Trade Representative Ron Kirk sent a joint letter to MIIT and China’s Ministry of Commerce, saying that the scope and the extent of the filtering activities raised “fundamental questions regarding regulatory transparency.”[3] In China, various “anonymous” netizens criticized the government for its de facto infringement of the freedom of expression and right to receive information, and decided to launch a series of attacks on the Chinese Communist Party-led internet censorship.[4] As a result of the fervent opposition to the scheme, Beijing finally postponed the implementation of the measure just one day before it was due to be introduced. Nonetheless, the controversy this proposal caused has fully exposed the friction between the official agenda and the online civil society.

Since the Chinese were officially plugged into the virtual community in 1994, the usage of the internet in the country has developed at an incredible rate. By the end of 2008, there were approximately 298 million netizens in China, a number which surpasses that of the US and ranks China the highest user in the world.[5] The rapid development of the online Chinese community has not only boosted the information flow among citizens across the territory, but has also created a new form of social interaction between the state, the media, various professionals and intellectuals, as well as China’s ordinary citizens. Although the subject of this book is online Chinese nationalism, which to a certain extent is seen as a pro-regime phenomenon, the emergence of an online civil society in China intrinsically provides some form of supervision of state power – perhaps even a check on it. The fact that the party-state has made use of this social interaction while at the same time remaining worried about the negative impact of the same netizens is a fundamental characteristic of the nature of the relationship between the state and the internet community.

The Nascent Public Sphere in Authoritarian China

As Andrew Chadwick comments in Internet Politics, “the issue is no longer whether politics is online, but in what form and with what consequences?”[6] This has become a globalized phenomenon applicable to almost all nations in the world. The launching of Web 2.0, which has enabled the evolution from static web pages to multimedia and interactive websites, has also furthered politics on the internet. In their Handbook of Internet Politics, Andrew Chadwick and Philip Howard list the new features of internet politics to be found in the developed world, modified versions of which are certainly also applicable to China.[7]

First of all, the internet serves as a platform for political discourse. The value of internet portals like Google or Yahoo! depends on their capacity to create the interface of their distributed networks, basically an infrastructure providing a huge information database and networked crawled pages. In other words, the internet provides a platform for netizens to flexibly adapt to sudden political changes. As a result, political campaigns are now being mobilized online. For instance, in January 2007, US politician John Edwards used Youtube to announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination; the popularity of Barack Obama has also been hugely boosted by online mobilization; and much use has been made of Youtube, Facebook and blogs for fund-raising and campaigning. In China, the party-state has also attempted to dissimilate information online in a top-down manner. However, the strong control of the party-state results in more pro-government messages being found online, making it difficult for researchers to differentiate state-sponsored online messages from voluntarily patriotic ones.

Another feature of Internet Politics 2.0 relevant to our topic is the idea of collective intelligence. The main thought here is that by gathering collective information from a critical mass, a wide-spread network of amateurs can potentially out-perform the official discourse prepared by the authorities. One example in East Asia is the culture of Kuso (or in Chinese, e gao) in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. Originating in Japan, Kuso is defined as “making fun of everything and playing practical jokes.”[8] For instance, messages given by pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong are often satirized by netizens by means of Kuso. Another obvious example that exhibits the power of collective intelligence is the creation of bottom-up interactive encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia and its Chinese counterpart, baidu. Supporters of different political candidates, regimes, causes, movements, etc. have engaged themselves in “edit wars” in these encyclopaedias. The Blogsphere also allows fellow bloggers to bypass traditional printed media to express themselves to the public. In short, Web 2.0 further empowers ordinary citizens to participate in public affairs. This is of considerable significance in authoritarian regimes like China, as citizen access to high politics is normally largely blocked. In fact, the internet has become the only platform for alternative messages to be circulated and reconstructed in China in a bottom-up manner, albeit that they are often disguised in patriotic colours in order to get through the official censorship. This feature is one of the key differences between the Chinese cyberspace and that of the West.Then what are the overriding features of China’s online civil society? When Guobin Yang gave his preliminary assessment of the relationship between Chinese civil society and the internet, he characterized the virtual community in China by the Habermasian concept of a “public sphere”.[9] This “public sphere”, as suggested by Jürgen Habermas, has several characteristics which offer: (1) a platform for rational debate among autonomous and rational individuals; (2) spaces where the public are free to engage and disengage themselves from the debate; and (3) a medium of communication, such as newspapers and books, that are necessary for deliberation.[10] While Habermas describes the public space as being similar to the café salon of the French Revolution period, the creation of the internet space in China encourages the involvement of laymen making it a truly public sphere. Identified by Yongnian Zheng and Xiaoling Zhang, one key issue of cyber-politics in China is whether civil society, which is still a nascent entity in an undemocratic China, could be empowered in its relation to the state, or could become a “digital civil society”.[11] Following the traditional definition suggested by Muthiah Alagappa, Guobin Yang defined a “digital civil society” as encompassing “the large numbers of online communities, web-based social networks and loose organizations, as well as the active online presence of offline civic associations.”[12]

The year 2003, Yang argues, was a particularly important year for the development of such a digital civil society in China.[13] To start with, there was a great surge in the number of websites and webpages, as shown by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) statistics.[14] BBS forums, dynamic webpages and chatrooms started to bloom a decade after China was first plugged in. With the gradual rise in China of Western civic ideas, such as human rights and environmental protection, new forms of civil activism, including rightful resistance (weiquan) and environmental protectionism in rural areas, were launched. In addition, the internet became the platform for Chinese netizens to commemorate various domestic political incidents, for example the Sun Zhigang, the BMW and the Liu Yong incidents.[15] While most of the incidents deliberated on the internet confronted the state machine, the protests of the netizens were quite diversified. One of the most famous examples is that quoted at the beginning of this introduction: the idea of a “grass-mud horse” is used to contrast with another metaphor, that of a “river crab”; the homonym for the former (caonima) is one of the most abusive colloquial insults in China while the latter (hexie) is a homonym for Hu Jintao’s repeated promotion of harmony (as in harmonious society – hexie shehui).

Neglected Structural Origins of Online Chinese Nationalism

Of course, the cyber community in China does not just target the party-state. In fact, it is far better known for its nurturing of a fervent dogmatic and patriotic nationalist stance against foreign pressure. The theoretical understanding of Chinese nationalism is also studied here. As Yongnian Zhang has argued, “to build a nation-state from above is the only choice for many late-developing countries like China.”[16] An imposed nation-state means the CCP would use all means available to promote the idea of nationalism, especially with the fading of communist ideologies following the open-door policy.[17] Drawing on the empirical evidence in US foreign policy, David Campbell sees foreign policy as always a “boundary-producing performance” which involves the construction of the “Self” and the “Other”.[18] A sociological understanding of nationalism may reject such a simple dichotomy; as Wendt argues: “if a process is self-organizing, then there is no particular Other to which the Self is related.”[19] Nationalism, as one form of collective distinction, is a pure collective identification which, by definition, concerns “a relation of self and other by which the identity of the self is constituted in symbolic markers.”[20] Therefore, foreign policy serves as the arena for contest and cooperation between official nationalistic and popular discourse on the question: “What is China/Chinese?” Answers to this question have been transformed and much modified since China “plugged in”.

By making foreign policy part of the focus of the book, we acknowledge the idea that international relations represents a consideration of domestic interests, and that giving privilege to some interests over others does not have to proceed from a liberal position. For example, neoclassical realists accept that domestic interests are important in shaping policy, but also argue that the freedom of states to act upon these interests is severely constrained by the nature of the global order; in short, the agency to act is limited by the structure of the international system.[21] On the other hand, like liberals, Marxists also conceive of state action at the international level representing the interests of a subset of society, but focus on class as the cause of societal cleavages and the source of different interests. When searching for contributions to this volume, while we wanted to emphasise the impact of domestic interests on policy formation, we were not prescriptive in terms of which theoretical approach to adopt (beyond a necessary rejection of some extreme realist ontologies). What we sought from each chapter was an identification of the different voices and interests – a taxonomy of nationalism within the given case study – and the author’s own interpretation of the sources of this divergence. Such divergence is exactly what the chapters in this book have individually and collectively uncovered.

The reasons which have led to the possibly exaggerated presence of online nationalists in China, when compared with the developed world, have already been briefly discussed and they will be repeatedly noted in the coming chapters. We also provide a more detailed overview of the collective findings of the chapters and their implications for the study of China in the Conclusion. This introduction simply serves to point out that online Chinese nationalism has been under-studied by academia. One reason for this seems to be the lack of acknowledgment of the existence of a civil society in China, whether online or not. In its definitional sense, a civil society must have two prerequisites: a pluralistic democracy and a capitalistic economy. Comparing it with the Western-style civil society, Baogang He and Jonathan Unger have coined the civil society in China as a “semi-civil society” or a “hybrid of socialist corporatism and clientelism”, whose significance is not always fully addressed.[22] In addition, methodologically, the state’s censorship has created new hurdles for researchers. It is also difficult for us to verify the credibility of online content. As Christopher Hughes observed, the nationalist players do not necessarily have to act upon their nationalist rhetoric.[23]

Indeed, the Chinese authorities have actually been relatively liberal in allowing online debate and discussion that can be very critical of government policy and action. But rather than creating a new political “space” where the promotion of liberalism flourishes, this new “space” has tended to be primarily a forum for the discussion of national interests and the promotion of what might bluntly be called “nationalism”. This is not to say that there is a clear and coherent expression of ideology or indeed a clear and coherent set of policy preferences and options, but simply that there is a dominant sentiment that defending national interests in the face of a largely hostile international environment should be the government’s main task – and that in some ways the government is not fulfilling this task effectively. Crucially, we argue that there is not a single voice, a single response and a single demand. Rather, there are different responses on a case-by-case level, and the purpose of this book as a whole is to tease these out by the provision of an empirically rich set of case studies. Furthermore, there are also different voices within individual case studies, and this will be a key component of the individual chapters. These features alone are sufficient to convince ourselves against seeing the online Chinese nationalists as a monolithic group. Instead, no matter how patriotic they appear to be, as Peter Hays Gries concludes, “China’s cyber-nationalists, armed with PCs and cell phones, are increasingly contesting party claims to nationalist legitimacy.”[24] In a departure from the first wave of the nationalist movement, which was confined to debates by (public) intellectuals of numerous incidents, the “second wave” of online nationalism has emerged from BBS groups such as the Strong Nation Forum (Qianguo Luntan). The grass-roots version of nationalism, while being equally anti-Western, has at the same time also challenged the official propaganda. Contemporary online Chinese nationalism was first embarked upon in 1999 after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade; the precedent of the Strong Nation Forum was exactly the “BBS bulletin forum Protesting Against the Violence of NATO”. The second wave can be regarded as building momentum in 2005, when the first online nationalistic campaign was mobilized into physical movements against Japan. As various communicative theorists argue, speedy communication has been crucial for the creation of this new form of Web 2.0 nationalism, showing that the netizens can be anti-Western on one hand while still being critical of the party-state.[25] As Shih-Diing Liu has commented, such nationalism is different from the officially propagandized nationalism; it is bottom-up in nature and has emerged from the people (renmin minzu zhuyi).[26]

The Scope of the Book

Inevitably, a book such as this will have methodological limitations. Even though each author is an expert in his or her relevant geographical or policy area, it is clearly not possible to cover all aspects of contemporary Chinese online nationalism in one publication. The contributors can only dedicate themselves to identifying one or two representative perceptions constructed by Chinese netizens about a particular area or region. The contributors to this book, however, have always sought to address the following questions:

  1. Which are the most important internet sites carrying online discussion of Chinese nationalism related to the author’s particular area of study?
  2. What are the differences between online Chinese nationalism and the conventional form of nationalism? Why are there these differences?
  3. Has nationalist online expression influenced actual foreign policy making?
  4. Has nationalist online expression influenced discourse in the mainstream mass media in China?
  5. Have there been any counter reactions towards online Chinese nationalism? Where do they come from?

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Tok Sow Keat provides the theoretical background to the analysis of online nationalism, focusing extensively in Chapter 1 on the inter-relationship between online Chinese nationalism and China’s sovereignty. The second section explores the “first layer” of online Chinese nationalism, i.e. the responses towards the US, Japan and Taiwan. In Chapter 2, James Reilly analyses the online Chinese response towards Japan from 2002 to 2005, concluding that the widespread use of the internet in China has worked against the liberal assumption on cyber-politics and in fact has strengthened emotional anti-Japanese sentiments. The analytical line is further picked up by Liu Shih-diing in Chapter 3, which places special focus on the 2005 demonstrations and the aftermath of their spill-over effect. In Chapter 4, Simon Shen provides a comparative view of Japan with his study of the diasporic contribution made to online Chinese nationalism. He uses Hong Kong as the case-study, arguing that online comments made about Japan in China’s Special Administrative Region are relatively apolitical and apathetic, and have been used more to distance the mainland identity than to embrace it. In his innovative method and critical analysis, Benson Wong discovers in Chapter 5 that online Chinese nationalism towards Taiwan has an ethnocentric perspective and has adopted a negative view of the political entity on the other side of the Strait. In Chapter 6, Yaling Pan presents an analysis of online nationalism towards the US by featuring a nice overall mixture of the mainland Chinese perspective.

The third section of the book includes what we identify as the “second layer” of online Chinese nationalism, i.e. the responses towards other geographical regions in the world. By referring to it as the second layer by no means undermines the importance of these regions: the fact that they have been little-studied adds significant value to their being featured here. Starting with China’s immediate neighbours, Chun Zhang in Chapter 7 focuses on the online Chinese view towards Southeast Asia and discusses how ideational attachment and pragmatic concerns are combined in the cyber-world. In Chapter 8, Winnie King describes the online Chinese nationalist response towards the European Union over the disruption of the Olympic Torch Relay in continental Europe in 2008. Tied to the study of the EU is the online Chinese nationalist response towards the UK, perceived as the first nation in modern history to have humiliated China. In Chapter 9, Chun-wing Lee discovers that in the eyes of Chinese netizens the UK has a dual-identity, as both a special-partner of the hegemonic Americans and a European power. To conclude this section, in Chapter 10 and 11 Simon Shen and Kai-chi Leung investigate the online Chinese perception of Africa and Latin America, providing one of the forerunning academic studies on the interaction between online Chinese nationalism and these regions of the developing world. The findings of each chapter are summed up and analysed in Chapter 12, which discusses the implications of online Chinese nationalism towards Chinese foreign policy in general.

[1] Message ID 4905226, Paopao Julebu (Bubble Club), 16 January 2009 [, on 20 June 2009].


[2] “Gongye he Zixunhuabu Xinwen Fayanren jiu Luse Shangwang Guolu Ruanti Wenti da Jizhewen (The Response from the MIIT Spokesman to the Questions Raised by the Press on the Issues of Green Online Filtering Software)”, Xinhua News, 30 June 2009.


[3] Office of the United States Trade Representative, “Secretary Gary Locke and USTR Ron Kirk Call on China to Revoke Mandatory Internet Filtering Software”, 24 June 2009.


[4] “Zhuanzai: 2009 Niming Wangmin Xuanyan (Forward: the Pledge of Anonymous Netizens)”, Hong Kong Inmedia, 26 June 2009.


[5] China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China, January 2009.


[6] Andrew Chadwick, Internet Politics: States, Citizens and New Communication Technologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).


[7] Andrew Chadwick and Philip N. Howard, “Introduction: New Directions in Internet Politics Research”, in Andrew Chadwick and Philip N. Howard eds., Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp.1–10.


[8] Bingchun Meng, “Regulating e gao: Futile Efforts of Recommendation?”, in Xiaoling Zhang and Yongnian Zheng eds., China’s Information and Communications Technology Revolution (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp.52–67.


[9] Guobin Yang, “The Internet and the Civil Society in China: a Preliminary Assessment”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 12:36 (2003), pp.453–475.


[10] Jürgen Habermas, Thomas Burger, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989), pp.27–56.


[11] Yongnian Zheng and Xiaoling Zhang, “Introduction”, in Xiaolong Zhang and Yongnian Zheng eds., China’s Information and Communications Technology Revolution, pp.1–16.


[12] Guobin Yang, “Historical Imagination in the Study of Chinese Digital Civil Society”, in Xiaolong Zhang and Yongnian Zheng eds., China’s Information and Communications Technology Revolution, p.20.


[13] Ibid, p.22.


[14] CNNIC, Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China, January 2009, pp.27–29.


[15] Sun Zhigang died in 2003 after being beaten by police. It is thought that he argued with the policy that detained him for not carrying his hukou ID card. In Harbin in 2003, a woman driver of a BMW apparently deliberately ran over and killed the wife of a tractor driver who had scratched her car (possibly having previously attacked the tractor driver and his wife), but only received a minor and suspended sentence for what was deemed a traffic accident. Liu Yong was the leader of a criminal gang in Shenyang whose original death sentence was reprieved as his confession might have been obtained through torture – though the reprieve was thought by some to be a result of his close connections with officialdom. He became the first person to be retried in China for an ordinary criminal case, and was immediately executed after the second trial passed the death sentence. For details see Guobin Yang, “Historical Imagination in the Study of Chinese Digital Civil Society”, p.22.


[16] Yongnian Zhang, “The Political Cost of Information Control: The Nation-state and Governance”, p.141.


[17] Thomas Christensen, “Chinese Realpolitik: Reading Beijing’s World View”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75 (1996), pp.37–52.


[18] David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), p.62.


[19] Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.225.


[20] Gerard Delanty and Chris Rumford, Rethinking Europe: Social Theory and the Implications of Europeanization (London: Routledge, 2005), p.51.


[21] For example, see Gideon Rose, “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy”, World Politics, Vol. 51:1, (October 1998), pp.144-172.

[22] [1] Baogang He, The Democratic Implications of Civil Society in China (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1997); [2] Jonathan Unger, “Bridges: Private Business, the Chinese Government and the Rise of New Associations”, The China Quarterly, No. 147 (September 1996), pp.795–819.


[23] Christopher R. Hughes, “Interpreting Nationalist Texts: A Post-structuralist Approach”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 14:43 (May 2005), pp.247–267.


[24] Peter Hays Gries, “Chinese Nationalism: Challenging the State?”, p.256.


[25] [1] Karl Deustch, Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry of the Foundation of Nationality (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1953); [2] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983); [3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983).


[26] Shih-diing Liu, “China’s Popular Nationalism on the Internet. Report on the 2005 Anti-Japan Network Struggles”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. VII:I (2006), pp.144–55. See also Liu’s later chapter in this book.