China’s Digital Nationalism and Activism

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China’s Digital Nationalism and Activism

Insights from Florian Schneider

China’s Digital Nationalism and Activism
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Florian Schneider – senior university lecturer in Modern China Studies at Leiden University, director of the Leiden Asia Center, and managing editor of “Asiascape: Digital Asia” – is the 283rd  in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

Explain the key elements of China’s digital nationalism and activism.

Digital nationalism emerges when nationalism gets filtered through the socio-technical systems of the internet. In China, those systems consist of four types of activities. First, the state and party promote a state-led nationalism to inspire unity and legitimate their actions. Secondly, commercial enterprises like ByteDance, Sina, or Tencent monetize viral interactions that feed on strong emotions like anger and fear. Then there are the internet users who produce their own content, engage in discussion, and “poach” the communicative resources available to them online, for instance nationalist symbols and discourses. Finally, and most crucially in digital nationalism, interfaces and algorithms curate content, promote specific activities, and guide how users can behave.

Together, these four dynamics lead to a networked logic full of feedback loops that creates resonance: a small change in one interaction can cascade to generate powerful, unanticipated outcomes elsewhere. This phenomenon is not unique to China, but examples from the PRC abound, for instance when nationalist outrage escalates over celebrity comments that touch on China’s sovereignty or when Chinese athletes disappoint at the Olympics. This is the outcome of spiraling patriotic sentiments that, on their own, can seem banal, but that develop a life of their own in complex communication systems.

Examine the transformative role of new media in China’s state-society relations.

New media have transformed how collective action works, for instance how online activists defend the nation on the internet. This now involves highly organized and strategic communication activities by users who draw from idol worship and popular online culture. My colleague Liu Hailong has called this “fandom nationalism.” Much like fan groups, nationalists now crowd-source their activities, produce and systematically spread memes, engage in disinformation campaigns, dox their opponents, and generally use the affordances of digital technology to their advantage.

The state and party react by trying to create hip memes for their own propaganda, but not necessarily to great effect. More commonly, they outsource such activities to private actors like transnational influencers, animation artists, satirists, and so on. This at times breaks down the state-society distinction: Governance in China is frequently characterized by public-private collaboration rather than top-down dictates.

Analyze the clampdown of Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on exploitative content on Alibaba and Tencent’s platforms.  

The recent clampdown should not come as a surprise. The state is effectively consolidating an industry that had been underregulated. In fact, it is often tech entrepreneurs themselves who ask for clearer regulation, particularly on issues like privacy or monopolization. Then there are users demands. China’s internet has long been dominated by vulgarity and abuse, not to mention online scams. It is often users with middle-class sensibilities who insist the government clean up the web. The result are campaigns that lean heavily on the party’s paternalistic tradition of fighting what cadres think of as “spiritual pollution.” Such campaigns are often justified as attempts to protect minors, though they also ensnare critics and dissidents, which the party likely sees as a welcome side-effect.

What is the role of digital nationalism in China’s “discourse power”?

The leadership is trying to reframe what China stands for on the world stage, by pushing state and private actors to “tell China’s stories well” and counter threat perceptions of China abroad. At the same time, the authorities have insisted that their state-led nationalism should serve as the framework for understanding China’s role in the world, and this creates tension. Chinese diplomats and officials now frequently default to nationalist statements, often in the hope of legitimating their causes at home and improving their career prospects. Such statements are staged for domestic audiences, and so they are both outcomes of, and further fuel for China’s digital nationalism. The result does not gel with the government’s soft-power goals. In fact, it feeds into the very same China threat perceptions the authorities were trying to counter, leading to a great deal of frustration among more liberal-minded Chinese diplomats.

Assess the U.S. and European counterpoint to China’s digital nationalism.  

When China’s digital nationalism produces vitriol, the best response is the same as for any other kind of online toxicity: don’t feed the trolls. Retaliation sustains the spiral of outrage. That said, it is important to acknowledge that the loudest nationalist voices are not necessarily the most representative. Not everyone is a troll. Public discussions in China run the gamut from liberal to conservative views, just like anywhere else. It can still be fruitful to join those conversations, albeit with some sensitivity to the strong emotions involved.

Any U.S. or European counterpoint should recognize that incensed Chinese online reactions are often the result of deeply felt, shared emotions about historical experiences characterized by a great deal of suffering at the hands of foreign powers. The authorities stoke those emotions, and nationalists embrace them, but that does not make them unfounded. It would be wise to formulate any responses or interventions into China’s digital nationalism with a great deal of self-awareness, humility, and empathy, to avoid the trappings of imperialist and colonialist legacies. And when it comes to incentivizing change, it’s probably best to point fewer fingers and instead live by example.