Nationalism Online: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans & You

Nationalist Chinese in Korea? Or Just Proud Chinese?

Chinese netizens have earned something of a reputation for being a bunch of xenophobic hyper-nationalists. This sentiment is most true amongst many of the “Westerners” actively following Chinese sentiments online, whether through occasional mainstream news reporting or through the plethora of English-language blogs on China.

To one extent, this reputation is a product of availability bias, the predisposition to overweight the extreme and unusual, to overestimate and overexaggerate the phenomenon that stands out to us, especially if we’re developing most of our impressions of Chinese netizens from websites like chinaSMACK. What doesn’t help is the addition of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and recall information that reinforces existing attitudes.

American and Japanese flags taped to a urinal in China.

Emptying bladders for China!

To another extent, the reputation may be well-deserved. Chinese netizens themselves readily admit to government-sponsored “internet commentators”1 being a fixture of the Chinese internet experience, astroturfing, propagandizing, and “shaping public opinion” for, you know, the stability of a fragile Chinese nation, a nation besieged by those with ulterior motives, by “splittist” forces from within and foreign powers from without.

But even without these internet commentators stoking the glue of nationalism that keeps a nation together in times of great national crises, there’s plenty of bonafide fenqing and nationalistic Chinese expressing genuine pride and, er,  prejudice online. Controversial topics involving the Koreans or Japanese prompt even average Chinese who usually love Korean fashion or swear by Japanese brands to take a petty swipe or two. And when it comes to Euro-American men poaching Chinese lasses, oh boy.

Of course, it needn’t be said that online expressions of nationalism are hardly limited to the Chinese. However prevalent and pervasive Chinese nationalism appears, nationalism can easily be found in many nations amongst many nationalities…when we look for them.

Korean hyper-nationalists beating birds.

Koreans mistakenly beating their own national bird. Oops.

Just recently, angry Koreans organized themselves into “The Just Terrorism Cafe” on the popular Korean Naver portal to bring down one of Japan’s most popular internet forums, 2chan, through a DoS attack. Over what? Over alleged Japanese criticisms of the recent 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic gold medalist figure skater Kim Yu-Na. The online attack, rumored to involve 30,000-110,000 Koreans button-mashing F5 to repeatedly reload 2chan’s website and use up its bandwidth, apparently caused 2.5 million dollars worth of damage, affected US government servers, and now involves the FBI.

This is why people dislike that crass nation of barbarians.2

Which country is this referring to? Which country does it apply to?

When we see these things, statements like this, what exactly are we supposed to think or feel? How are we supposed to respond, if at all? What’s the reaction we do see, amongst ourselves? How are we supposed to interpret, for example, Chinese netizens mobilizing themselves to vote “No” en masse when CNN has a poll up asking if the 2008 Beijing Olympics should be boycotted or if Tibet should be independent?

Are they making their voice heard or are they skewing the results? Is this an expression of a legitimate position or some frightening manifestation of brainwashed nationalism?

When is it one or the other?

When we denounce a country and its people for their nationalism, do we do so because it’s nationalism, or only when we feel that country somehow presents a credible threat to us?

Just for fun…

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  1. Also known as the “wu mao dang” or “50 Cent Party”. []
  2. Translation from Sankaku Complex. []


33 Comments

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  1. terrell

    “Stoking the glue?” Interesting turn of phrase.

    Every nation has its own subset of barbarians, which they have to deal with themselves.

    Its a domestic issue. It doesn’t matter how westerners feel about nationalistic Chinese netizens. Nothing the former can say or do will influence the latter.

  2. lxjx

    Moderate nationalism is not a bad thing in general, especially for countries that are in a weak position/developing phase. It helps uniting a nation and promoting national pride, as long as it’s non-aggressive. This has been approved to be effective and is being used in many countries today. What’s bad is ultra-nationalism with violence intentions. But I don’t think a strong nationalism will ultimately lead to ultra-nationalism.

    Few people have no nationalism. The difference is the degree and the way they express such sentiment. And, to my observation, peeps from a less nationalist/collectivist country are more inclined to be ‘pissed off’ by nationalism in a country with stronger nationalism. One example is, as a Chinese, I rarely hear Chinese folks complain on how annoying other country’s ‘nationalism’ is to them, if there’s not interest conflict between the two countries. To a lot Chinese (and people from some other countries), a people with stronger nationalism gets more respect and is deemed ‘more united’ (更团结) and has hope.

    • The notion that Chinese see nationalism in others as a sign of their unity is definitely an interesting perspective to bring to this discussion. Great comment!

    • How would you say Chinese people view Israelis, then?

      • In my experience, many Chinese respect and admire Jewish people. To be cliche, they “share the same values” but less cliche is that many Chinese do identify with the Israeli situation of unity and strength in the face of enemies, real or perceived. Of course, some foreigners tend to be less sympathetic of China’s victim complex.

        • lxjx

          What Kai said agrees with my observation.

        • But do you really think China still plays up to the victim thing? It’s decidedly less prevalent than previously, in my estimation.

          • MAC

            Well, depends on what you call “China” and “playing up.” I suppose that in public statements the government might shy away from it, realizing that it’s tiresome. But I saw a post the other day in response to a news story about a French TV program on the sanitary conditions of Asian restaurants there that said, in essence, “just you wait you damn Frenchies, we haven’t paid you back for burning the Summer Palace yet!” It’s just one post, yes, and so close to self-parody that I would hardly try to suggest that it represents everybody, but really, does that sound like the victim mentality is gone to you?

          • Yes, I do think the victim complex is still prevalent amongst the more nationalistic and vocal members of the general population. Of course, it waxes and wanes, subject to stimulus and provocation.

  3. Nationalism, patriotism, Chinese earn a reputation on the Internet?! I don’t believe it.
    Well, since there are 1.3 billion++ Chinese people in this world, how could they–non-Chinese take those small bunch of guys as the whole Chinese nation.
    We shall never forget those non-netizns–who have no access to the Internet, hence no chance to let us see their very idea.

    • The oft-bandied about 1.3B population number is used manipulatively in discussions surrounding Chinese online behavior for precisely the reasons you cleverly mention here. Nice catch.

  4. SteveLaudig

    Do the Chinese children say the pledge of allegiance every day in class like many American children are required to do? Do the Chinese play their national anthem, and require attendees to stan, before every athletic game [except golf, I think] like the Americans do? Is there a Chinese analog of the American Legion promoting “Chineseism” the way the American Legion [chartered by the U.S. gov’t] promotes something called “Americanism”? What is the metric of “nationalism”. Americans having no natural common culture born of being a people have adopted “patriotism” or “nationalism” as their “common culture.”

    • Ted

      “Do the Chinese children say the pledge of allegiance every day in class like many American children are required to do?”

      They raise the flag at school every morning and do exercises to national songs.

      “Do the Chinese play their national anthem, and require attendees to stan, before every athletic game [except golf, I think] like the Americans do?”

      Americans don’t require anything, many just do it. How about looking into the origins of the singing of the national anthem at baseball games.

      “Is there a Chinese analog of the American Legion promoting “Chineseism” the way the American Legion [chartered by the U.S. gov’t] promotes something called “Americanism”?”

      No, that’s entirely managed by the government. Do you think a group like that would be allowed to operate in China independent of any government guidance?

      —-

      I think part of the issue is the variously centralized vs. decentralized manner in which these traditions and practices are propagated that makes them so difficult to accept at times. I had a student mention he took part in a protest one day in class to which the other students reacted with shock. Another student said she would never do something like that and threw a dissapproving glare. When the first student clarified that he had marched on the US embassy after the spy plane incident the second student then indicated her approval.

      I think a major reason Chinese nationalism is viewed/portrayed as angry nationalism is because only one side comes out. Despite all the nuanced interpretations of what people may actually be unhappy about, the root of the problem always seems to be ulterior motives or an outside force. Where are all the laid back, let’s all be happy, take things as they come folks?

      I’m not going to get into the story of the student gave Taiwan a separate slice on a pie chart… (sales accounted for 13% of the company’s total).

      • SteveLaudig

        “Americans don’t require anything, many just do it. How about looking into the origins of the singing of the national anthem at baseball games.” If by “require” you intend a legal requirement, no I know of no legal requirement. But if by “require” you mean incredible pressure on a person who doesn’t stand and place hand over heart, then you are incorrect. It is a non-negotiable social obligation at athletic events to stand during the national anthem. One is guaranteed nasty looks and stares if one doesn’t stand and there is a real risk of mob violence in certain [southern and western] locales.

        • Ted

          lol. I’m from one of those southern locales and won’t disagree on that. But an individual’s right to object is still intact. Can the same be said in China? What would happen in China if a student refused to participate in their school’s morning flag raising? Is there a legal recourse for that individual? I guess that’s where I was trying to go with my post. In China it seems to be Nationalism/patriotism or nothing. I think that’s why I have less of a problem with nationalism in other countries. It just seems to be better counterbalanced.

          • I wouldn’t say it is nationalism/patriotism or nothing. It’s at worse lip-service or nothing.

          • Teacher in C

            Students refuse to go for it all the time. Usually they do it by faking an illness (“I’m on my period” seems to be a popular one, it also gets them out of gym class), although they are also pretty good at playing hide and seek. Not much really seems to happen as a consequence, other than the teacher getting mad. If it happens several times then the parents get involved and the student could potentially get removed from school on a temporary or permanent basis. That’s been my experience anyways.

      • SteveLaudig

        thanks, I have learned something.

      • SteveLaudig

        “No, that’s entirely managed by the government. Do you think a group like that would be allowed to operate in China independent of any government guidance?” The American Legion has a special legal status granted by the U.S. federal government and coordinates with the government all the time. The Legion was begun as a foil to progressive veterans.

    • Joe

      Yes, many Chinese schools have children sing the anthem. Long ago when I was in high school they had the pledge of allegiance. Most of us kept our butts in our chair because we were trying to sleep.

      After the demise of communist ideology the Party needed something that unites the people. So they used nationalism to do so. It is very dangerous to do so or you can have a few excessive outbreaks that the Party cannot control such as after the 1999 bombings of the Chinese embassy.

    • Jed

      “Do the Chinese children say the pledge of allegiance every day in class like many American children are required to do?”

      no but they funny red scarves and do that silly half nazi salute to their flag…

      “Do the Chinese play their national anthem, and require attendees to stan, before every athletic game [except golf, I think] like the Americans do?”

      no, but they should, but then again the Chinese really arent any good at team sports so it doesnt matter

      “Is there a Chinese analog of the American Legion promoting “Chineseism” the way the American Legion [chartered by the U.S. gov’t] promotes something called “Americanism”?”

      yeah its called the Confucius Institute or somethings – spreading harmonious society throughout the world

      • roninstevie

        The Confucius Institute is the chinese equivalent of the German “Goethe Institut”, the French “Alliance française” or the Japanese “Japan Foundation”. Their declared goal is to deepen mutual understanding and to support foreigners who want to learn chinese.

        To compair this with the “glorious” American Legion is just nuts.

        Yes, there are many chinese nationalists. But I am more worried about the hatefull, ethnocentric and aggressive ignorance many people in the US and Western Europe are showing.
        You´re postings are a perfect example for that.

        • Jones

          Hmm…we’re going to need more examples than just one post. If that one post is all it took to verify a claim, then we could say it about anyone. I could say that I’m more worried about Chinese (or whatever nationality you are) showing a horrible misunderstanding and dislike for Americans and Western Europeans based on one silly post that someone posted on the internet.

          But that’d be silly of me.

          • roninstevie

            Silly you :-)

            Your posts at chinasmack are good examples to. So we do not even have to look around a lot. ;-)

  5. Joe

    As a frequent guest to China I have never had a problem with people saying xenophobic things to me. I am sure online just like with any other nationality, it is easier to be an asshole.

    That said I have come across disturbing things online, specifically the “Out of China Theory” of human evolution and migration. It is counter to all scientific evidence and nationalism fuels the ignorance.

  6. Terry

    Nationalism and identity is a story that people tell themselves and tell others (everything can be boiled down into a story, a structure of interpretation). Propaganda and the story of 5,000 years of glorious Chinese culture are just that, often with no basis in archeological records. A great deal of our understanding of the Qin dynasty (who Mao admired) is due to the writings of Ssu Ma Chien who was employed by the dynasty that overthrew the Qin and obviously had his biases or a desire to please his employer.

    States and elites employ education, history writing, interpreters to further their own goals and in the case of China that is one of creating a vision of a unified China a shared story where regional cultural differences have long been the source of local identification vs. national identification and the resultant regional armies.

    What is scary is the 100 years of shame victim narrative, a whole nation subscribing to the story that others are picking on them and will do so at the first chance (to wit… hurting the Chinese people’s feelings commentary). In truth in the past many Chinese have treated the Chinese far worse than any foreign “wai” group has ever done. There were ethnically Chinese perpetrated horrors in the past that probably equaled the Rape of Nanjiing . So larger nationalism does serve the state well in uniting a people above and beyond their local or ethnic narratives, beyond local tribalism (with the exception of sports teams!!)

    It is a glue for sure and group think is scary!. The compulsion of this identify narrative is amazing. I remember perfectly well educated and rational friends insisting that the US purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrave without being able to come up with one possible reason as to why it was in NATO’s interest to do so. Facts or reasonable analysis are eclipsed by the emotional tug of this identity narrative.

    Chinese identity as a nation state has long been rooted in a strong sense of nei vs. wai, and the Great Wall is a wonderful physical manifestation of that. But this also goes for many other states that arose out of tribal affiliation/identification as well. Non-mobile agrarian societies have long been suspicious of those who are different, who are strangers, who are outside, and one purpose of the state’s universal education policies is to inculcate the people in a larger and broader identification narrative.

    I am highly suspicious of national narratives in myself as they occur and in others and am suspicious of “public” education for that matter as too often it is an agent of the state. The source of almost all conflict/war in the world is ethnically/tribal based and colored by stereotyping galore about the “other”. Perhaps it is just part of the human condition, but it does make living in a place where I physically look different than the majority just a bit scary at times.

  7. xian

    The internet lends itself to nationalism. The more time you spend online the more insecure you become, that’s my theory. I admit nationalism is more prevalent and commonplace than most countries, but overall most Chinese don’t care much for the angry spouting online.

    • friendo

      I admit nationalism is more prevalent and commonplace than most countries

      This is because they actually have a reason to defend their country

  8. JoE

    Nationalism? No. It is all explained in “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.” As in a (Normal Person)+(Anonymity)+(Audience)=Total Fuckwad.

Continuing the Discussion