China Power | Society | East Asia

China’s Digital Cultural Revolution

Hyper-nationalist online attacks, like the campaign against Fang Fang, have disturbing parallels to the Mao era.

By Johanna M. Costigan and Xu Xin for
China’s Digital Cultural Revolution
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

In an environment of selective censorship, nationalist mobs are gaining traction and influence on the Chinese internet. 

Selective censorship permits aggressive activity such as trolling and cyberbullying — as long as it is pro-government and “patriotic” — while eliminating inoffensive posts that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deems politically inconvenient.

This practice empowers the most nationalist and conservative voices, making them disproportionately represented in Chinese digital discourse, in order to facilitate the CCP’s attempts to curate public opinion. It also brings to mind the “struggle culture” of the 1960s; the state encourages people to report and attack each other on the grounds that their views are anti-Party, and as a result, anti-China.

While this strategy has been in place to some extent since the creation of the Great Firewall, its reach seems to have been significantly extended in response to the coronavirus pandemic — and it is more than plausible that its expanded uses will outlive the virus. As one netizen noted in a WeChat article, “I miss the old days of the internet, when there were no bellicose trolls or cyber bullies.”

While allowing seemingly free expression to a segment of nationalist internet users, China’s party-state seeks to control the narrative of the present as part of a larger legitimacy-building project that it hopes will sustain credibility in the future. Online mobs composed of pro-government voices, who find each other on social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, unite to take down liberal and moderate perspectives over a perceived lack of patriotism.

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Their dominance contributes to the CCP’s narrative that state policies are backed by the people and implemented on their behalf. Selective censorship is a win-win for both the party-state and members of online mobs, whether they are genuinely nationalist warriors or simply trolls. Most importantly, this practice would leave a casual observer thinking that almost all Chinese online discourse is hyper-nationalist.

Wang Fang, a writer and Wuhan native who writes under the name Fang Fang, became a natural target for these groups. Her “Wuhan Diary,” a chronicle of everyday life in the city during the outbreak, has been widely circulated on WeChat and other platforms over the last few months. When the diary was translated and published in English, nationalist mobs who oppose Fang Fang’s candid depiction of Wuhan in crisis rallied against her. Content that they consider “anti-China” is deemed particularly egregious if it is directed at a foreign audience. Nationalists characterized her plan to have the diary translated into English as an especially hostile move against China, a clear effort to undermine the efforts of the CCP to make its coronavirus response look good abroad. Whether conscious or not, the combined efforts of these mobs craft a digital display of patriotism that helps to protect and enshrine the CCP’s narrative of success against the virus.

Dr. Zhang Wenhong, a respected doctor based in Shanghai, was another target of nationalist ire. Zhang recently said in an interview that Chinese children should have milk and sandwiches rather than rice porridge for breakfast for nutritional reasons. In response, he was attacked and accused of “崇洋媚外” (worshiping anything foreign and submitting to foreign powers) by a Weibo user with 6 million followers. The post got 300,000 “likes.” One comment says, “He has got some Western values in his bones. He is a time bomb.” Other netizens, however, accused these users of being too extreme and came to Zhang’s defense. 

But still, the fact that a figure as respected as Zhang is (when Shanghai’s mayor was sent to Wuhan to fight the crisis, Shanghai residents said they would feel safe as long as they had Dr. Zhang) could be taken down over a pediatric dietary suggestion speaks to the mobs’ speed and excesses. They are able to harness the power of nationalist rhetoric to mobilize efficiently, even against revered individuals. No one is immune to the swiftly changing tide of public opinion. Equally ruthless opinion shifts and purges were common under Mao Zedong.

Similarly faced with nationalist mobs, Fang Fang faced a harsher outcome than Zhang. The attack on her calls to mind the struggle sessions that took place during the Cultural Revolution. A number of intellectuals, including professors from top universities in China, were involved in her admonition. She was accused of being anti-people, anti-Party, and anti-socialism; one netizen threatened to attack her “with pen and gun” (文攻武伐), and she was attacked in a real-life big-character poster that was put up in Wuhan. She has been criticized in popular media, including a song that calls her a hypocrite and a traitor. Her Weibo posts from years ago were dug out and criticized, her home address was exposed, and some questioned whether her properties were attained through bribery.

In an interview with Caixin, Fang Fang refuted the accusations leveled against her with detailed evidence, but she understands that her attackers will not be content with logical explanations. “Many attack me just for the sake of attacking… they will not stop even if I clarify all these facts,” she said in her Caixin interview. That article was deleted soon after publication.

Hu Xijin, chief editor of the state-led tabloid Global Times, published an article on Weibo clarifying that in China, only three types of speech are not allowed: speech opposed to the CCP leadership and the socialist system, speech provoking collective action, and rumors with malicious intention. Other types of speech can be given more leeway.

Following this general guideline, selective censorship on Chinese media offers protection for nationalist content and its authors, while the mildest criticisms are subject to censorship implemented through computer programs, manually by human censors, or through reports sent in by loyal netizens.

This mechanism breeds die-hard nationalist pieces known as “wolf warrior articles.” Patriotic and pro-government in nature, they remain unmanaged until they go too far, causing potential trouble for the regime. Recently, articles claiming that nations including Kazakhstan and Vietnam wanted to be “reunited with China” caught the attention of the Kazakh foreign ministry and almost provoked a diplomatic crisis. As a result, China had to shut down 153 WeChat public accounts for publishing “fake nationalist content.” People’s Daily called them “filled with narrow-minded nationalism.”

Selective censorship and social media patriotism also reveal a dangerous trend on the Chinese internet, one that perhaps has been emerging since Xi Jinping’s takeover in 2013: the rise of a digital cultural revolution. Of course, the contemporary version is not nearly as omnipresent or violent as the original Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution spearheaded by Mao in the 1960s. But it isn’t seeking to be. The Party has learned its lesson. Such a complete breakdown of normal life isn’t beneficial to its aims in the long run, but that doesn’t mean certain coercive tactics from that era should not get implemented when they can further a cause.

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Replacing class background with degree of nationalism, online mobs shame, bully, and silence their opponents through digital struggle sessions that are insufficiently moderated by censors. One important side effect of the online setting is that these criticisms are preserved and can be viewed and evaluated by external observers. This movement is a reminder of the vital role observers of the internet ecosystem can play in highlighting these practices and encouraging fellow rational netizens to act against them.

Johanna M. Costigan is a freelance journalist and an MSc candidate in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford.

Xu Xin is a freelance journalist and an MSc Candidate in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford.