China Power | Society | East Asia

The Chinese People Step up to Enforce China’s Nationalist Propaganda

Other countries need to take hyper-nationalistic rhetoric seriously, as it is both a top-down and bottom-up phenomenon.  

The Chinese People Step up to Enforce China’s Nationalist Propaganda
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

With successful containment of COVID-19, Chinese politicians and media have hailed the Chinese system and praised Xi Jinping’s leadership. The people of China, in line with the government’s rhetoric, have also trumpeted the nation’s victory along with mocking other nations’ performance. Nationalistic self-congratulations and boasts are not exclusive to any nation, nor is it a modern phenomenon. As explained by Chinese historian Ge Jianxiong, it was common for the feudal Chinese court to salute the greatness of the emperor and glorify the middle kingdom. He regards this “blandishment culture” (颂圣文化) as a “defect within Chinese history.”

Yet, with the development of information technology and the government’s propagandist tactics, blandishment culture has taken a more modern form in the name of “positive energy” (正能量). Former Chinese Cyberspace Administration director Lu Wei stated that the phrase, borrowed from psychologist Richard Wiseman, has become a core guiding concept for China’s domestic propaganda – to “give people confidence and hope, encourage people to love their country, society and life.” As seen in the nationalistic fervor during its National Day, the Chinese government’s propaganda systemhas seen success in “transmitting positive energy” both offline and online by promoting the positive aspects of the Communist Party, government, and nation.

While China’s authoritarian grip on the way information flows domestically may create a propensity to view China’s narratives from a CCP-controlled, top-down perspective, the influence of spontaneously formed public opinion is often overlooked. The nationalism stoked from China’s rise and external conflicts have propelled the population to take a more significant role in promoting cohesion to enforce “positive energy” while fending off dissenting opinions.

Within a few weeks after it was announced that her chronicle on Wuhan’s coronavirus crisis would be published in English, writer Fang Fang become the target of zealous Chinese nationalists accusing her of giving foreigners “a giant sword” to attack China. In Fang Fang’s case, the patriotic public, rather than the government, was in charge of witch-hunting “traitorous” individuals criticizing the country. The population’s aversion to contradictions that threaten their ideal image of the nation creates powerful narratives. In the words of Global Times editor Hu Xijin, “the state interests are the fundamental interests of the public — the greatest common divisor of everyone’s interests.”

China observers should more accurately regard the nation’s self-praise and outward belligerency – which the Chinese government is often criticized for – as in part the reflection of popular nationalist sentiments. Voices coming out of state media such as the Global Times should be treated more seriously as indications of popular sentiment and not be brushed off as mere government propaganda. To quote Hu again,, “You could call us radical or nationalistic, but we reflect true sentiments of Chinese society.”

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The trend may bode well for the government but it threatens to further damage the nation’s image. On the upside, pro-government “positive energy” can be maintained with less effort, and the propagation of nationalistic rhetoric can thus be outsourced to the zealous public. Government goals may be viewed with more legitimacy since political interests would be claimed as the “voice of the people.” On the downside, the irrational nature of nationalism encourages self-lauding at the expense of other nations. Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has noted that nationalist narratives encourage double standards: They “rationalize whatever one’s own side does” and “make cross-border empathy and understanding more elusive.”

It has become more difficult for domestic narratives on foreign relations to balance nationalistic self-praise and provocations. Catering to public sentiments, one article titled “Why Kazakhstan is eager to return to China” argued that many in Kazakhstan want to return to China due to historical allegiance and that many Kazakhs “do not have too many complaints” about being repeatedly invaded by China. The article prompted Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry to summon the Chinese ambassador in discontent, and Chinese social media platforms scurried to delete 153 accounts and over 200 articles on different countries trying to “return to China.”

The Chinese government may become more representative of its people as the population becomes more nationalistic and active in pushing narratives to defend state interests. Once other countries realize that the Chinese people are not sheep mindlessly following the shepherd, tolerance for China may decrease with the increasing awareness that the common Chinese have become the state’s accomplices in supporting and carrying out nationalistic objectives. As China’s patriotic population become more active in promoting “positive energy” while aggressively witch-hunting for dissidents, the idea of China’s “peaceful rise” may gradually fade away.