China Power | Society | East Asia

The Latest Target of China’s Nationalistic Backlash: Chinese Returnees

Chinese nationalists are mobilizing hate against fellow citizens returning from abroad. The government seems content to sit back and watch.

Chauncey Jung
This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

The Latest Target of China’s Nationalistic Backlash: Chinese Returnees
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

Being critical of the Chinese government is a difficult task for many, yet for individuals who have ties to the country, the consequences of expressing critical views can be more threatening.

Xu Kexin, a Chinese student from the University of Pittsburgh, was doxxed by a large group of social media users on Sina Weibo for expressing views that are critical of the Chinese government. Her posts and comments called out the Chinese government’s poor responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and also supported the Hong Kong protests against the extradition bill. These posts were rapidly circulated and shared by nationalistic social media users. Following the doxxing activities, Xu’s personal Weibo account was later censored by the Chinese social media platform.

According to local Chinese media, Xu was later found to have graduated from China Pharmaceutical University before attending the University of Pittsburgh for graduate studies. Doxxing activities further escalated to try to link Xu with a local Chinese official in China’s Jiangsu province, which was later proven false by local authorities.

This is not the first time that Chinese students studying abroad have been targeted and doxxed for voicing less-than-sunny views on China or the Chinese government. In 2017, a Chinese student named Yang Shuping fell victim to doxxing and cyberbullying backed by China’s state media over her comments on China’s poor air quality and lack of free speech. In 2019, a Tibetan Canadian student, Chemi Lhamo, was targeted by Chinese nationalists on social media following her political views on Tibet and China.

The doxxing and cyberbullying against Xu came at a critical time in China’s effort to combat the COVID-19 virus. As COVID-19 became a global pandemic, Chinese nationals studying overseas started their journeys to return home. Yet after going through lengthy flights and multiple checkpoints, they are more likely to face hostility than a warm welcome in China, both on and offline. Social media users are accusing them of bringing the virus back to the country.

China has stepped up travel bans against foreigners and put up a halt to almost all international flights, despite protesting against other countries for undertaking those same measures against China a few weeks ago. Yet according to China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Luo Zhaohui, 90 percent of people coming into China now are Chinese passport holders. All returnees must pay for their own quarantine cost. And with the new measures in place, it is rare likely for any travelers to get to China via commercial airlines.

For those who are currently going through the quarantine process, the conditions are reported to be less than ideal. A video clip documenting confrontations between Chinese officials and a returned overseas student went viral on the Internet, with a large number of comments blaming the returnees for trying to take advantage of China’s medical resources.

Different from the other countries, which have mainly focused on repatriating their citizens back within their borders, China is discouraging its citizens from returning. China’s propaganda messaging is attempting to blame additional cases on those returning from overseas.

Chinese overseas students are becoming a stigmatized group in Chinese society. Those students are often regarded as wealthy individuals regardless of their actual financial status. In 2012, two Chinese students from the University of Southern California were murdered. Despite the tragic loss, a number of comments from Chinese internet users were disturbingly unsympathetic and cold-blooded.

While the Chinese government is not directly involved with the doxxing and cyberbullying activities against Xu, the regime’s censorship apparatus has been strangely tolerant of the voluntary actions harassing a private citizen because of her political views. The doxxing efforts were able to become a trending topic on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, something that could not happen without implicit consent from the country’s cyberspace authorities.

Over the past weeks, the regime’s propaganda apparatus has been trying various strategies to evade taking responsibility for the earlier mistakes of silencing doctors and withholding information from its citizens. While the strategy of spreading conspiracy theories against the United States received tremendous backlash, the Chinese government is now turning against a specific group of people holding Chinese passports.

The rise of nationalism, propaganda efforts, and the laissez-faire attitude from Chinese authorities all contributed significantly to the political doxxing culture that is becoming more popular in China. The politics of division, hate, and fear are deliberately manipulated by the Chinese regime. As the country continues to dive into conservative, xenophobic, and nationalistic sentiments, doxxing is becoming an effective tool for the regime to silence those who are critical of the government without going through administrative or legal proceedings. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, China’s own returnees and critics are consequently becoming the scapegoat for systemic issues that the government failed to solve.