China Power | Society | East Asia

China’s Nationalist Cancel Culture

In China, celebrities can be blacklisted in the span of days – or even hours – for perceived offenses against national dignity.

China’s Nationalist Cancel Culture
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

It might be the fiercest example yet of cancel culture.

After three-year-old photos of Zhang Zhehan at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine were dug up by web sleuths, the Chinese actor was dropped by all his commercial sponsors, including Coca-Cola and two Japanese brands, in the span of four hours and was immediately expelled from the entertainment industry by Chinese authorities, including the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

It is not the first time for a Chinese celebrity to be “cancelled” by internet users. Earlier this summer, pop star Kris Wu’s carefully crafted reputation was destroyed after a two-month-long #MeToo-like movement. Wu was eventually arrested on a rape charge. However, when it comes to the “dignity” of the nation and the “feelings” of the people in particular, the power of cancellation has become vehement and all-encompassing.

The Case of Zhang Zhehan

The photos that led to the end of Zhang’s career were taken in 2018 during the Sakura bloom season. Little public attention was paid to them for three years until someone noticed the Yasukuni Shrine through a street-view comparison. The Japanese Shinto shrine is dedicated to 2.5 million war dead from 1867–1951, including 14 class-A war criminals convicted by the Allied tribunal after World War II. Accordingly, Yasukuni has been widely seen as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past, and is a flashpoint for regional tension. Every ritual visit by a Japanese prime minister in the last 70 years has been strongly condemned by the Chinese government and has aroused anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese people.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Clearly, the Yasukuni Shrine has left a national scar on the psyche of the Chinese people. It become a taboo place for Chinese travelers with the country’s rising tide of nationalism. In Zhang’s letter of apology, he claimed to be ashamed of his ignorance but denied being aware of the building’s historical significance. He might indeed be innocent, as the shrine is located along one of Tokyo’s famous Sakura walks, and there is no sign indicating Yasukuni if the shrine is entered through its southern gate. Yet Zhang’s apology failed to appease his critics.

In a sharply worded statement, the China Association of Performing Arts denounced Zhang for “severely harming the national feeling and bringing baneful influence to his young age-group audience.” The association demanded its members “not to engage [Zhang] in any employment.”

Such a zero-tolerance approach has even been applied to the participants of online discussion threads. In a since-deleted Weibo post, Gao Ge (also known by the online moniker Zhanan), a popular novelist, reposted a condemnation against Zhang from China Comment, a magazine often seen as one of Party’s official mouthpiece, adding, “So I can’t even go to the Yasukuni Shrine? It’s inexplicable.” Facing a swift backlash, Gao was forced to offer a lengthy explanation within an hour, suggesting that the purpose of a visit should be to better understand Japan’s national character and history.

However meritable his argument might be, it didn’t stop Gao from being cancelled. China Comment posted a screenshot of Gao’s original post with a resolute assertion: “No, never!” Despite Gao’s quick apology afterwards, he was removed from the production of the TV adaptation of his book. One day later, Weibo deleted Gao’s account.

Ironically, this new enthusiasm to cancel “traitors” seems to contravene a more tolerant approach only a few years ago. In 2017, state-backed media Huanqiu.com called on every Chinese to “visit the Yasukuni Shrine once, in order to see for oneself Japan’s dirtiest soul” in an emotional essay. In a Japan travel guide posted by the Chinese Communist Party-run People’s Daily online in 2014, the Yasukuni Shrine was even listed among the famous Sakura viewing spots.

The Rise of the Nationalist Netizen

Zhang’s swift downfall is, to some extent, a microcosm of China’s nationalist atmosphere in the post-COVID-19 era. Many observers note that growing tension between China and Western powers has intensified xenophobic and nationalist sentiment in the country. Nonetheless, rather than a superimposed state agenda, grassroots nationalist furor like this is more likely a result of the imbalance in the system.

The Chinese Communist Party has a well-known history of cultivating nationalism to garner support for its governance while trying to keep nationals from becoming too extreme. With the withering of any counterweighing narrative, the CCP has maintained this balance using the “incite vs restrain” model, with China’s powerful state apparatus providing the ultimate guarantee. In a model like this, the competition of ideologies in the market of ideas is prohibited. When the incitement of nationalism goes too far, the party turns to restraint through behavior-based approaches like censoring or banning.

However, the internet, where a flattened hierarchy is innate, adds its own weight to the system.

In Zhang’s case, despite the lightning speed with which the boycott materialized, the authorities initially seemed to have played no role apart from a passive response to online sentiment. In its initial comment on this issue, the People’s Daily wrote that Zhang needed “some extra learning.” The wording was seen as offering a potential way of redemption for Zhang and was eviscerated by the outraged online mob. The official CCP paper quickly capitulated and revised the comment.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This is not the first time that the Communist Party’s supposed mouthpieces have been challenged by the people. Earlier in June, the Global Times, the People’s Daily-owned jingoistic tabloid known for its belligerent reporting style, also became a target of abuse for failing to be “patriotic enough.”

While the establishment still controls the lever to incite and restrain nationalism, the balance of power has been somehow shifted toward the more radical voices, regardless of rank. During the Zhang episode, Torch of Thought, an official social media account from a far lower administrative level than the People’s Daily, went viral. It was regarded as the true patriotic voice, thanks to shrill exclamations such as “Double-dealers shall be spit on, those who don’t love their country shall be cast aside by the motherland.”

In this new order, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has gained the most exposure and authority in domestic public opinion through its trademark combative “wolf warrior” diplomacy. In June, MOFA managed to quell another nationalist backlash against academics who participated in Japan’s foreign exchange program – the same controversy in which Global Times reporters were attacked for not standing firm politically. Ironically, while MOFA arouses suspicions and anxieties internationally for amplifying domestic propaganda to global audiences, its peer government agencies are often criticized for being insufficiently aggressive in defending China’s honor against “hostile outside forces.”

In Zhang’s cancellation, though MOFA played no role, its influence was often felt. Infuriated netizens were concerned that Zhang’s transgression would embarrass the MOFA spokesperson during the regular press conference, should foreign reporters ask questions such as  “if your own celebrity can visit the Yasukuni Shrine, why can’t the Japanese prime minister?”

It is, of course, ridiculous to assume Zhang’s visit would have any impact at an international level. But the mindset behind that assumption is indeed reshaping China’s diplomatic style.

Weaponized Nationalism: The Case of ‘Pink Feminism’  

What are the sources of surging patriotism in China? A conventional answer would be the narrative of national humiliation – a belief embedded into the collective Chinese memory formed after a century of defeat at the hands of the technologically superior West. The modern-day lesson is that the country must be on alert to the insidious attempts by foreign forces to weaken China and hold it back.

But there is another factor at play. In a tightly controlled information environment, nationalism reigns supreme. That, in turn, makes nationalism the best weapon for other causes fighting for a voice. In the popular grassroots theory of nationalism, patriots fight for China’s national interest against Ziben (literally “capital,” but in this context a Chinese version of deep state) which is in collusion with foreign forces. Chinese netizens who want to promote their own ideas, ones that might face pushback otherwise, must incorporate themselves into this theoretical framework.

Feminism is one example. Due to its critical disposition toward the patriarchy, the movement is often seen as a threat to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, and outspoken activists stand accused of being operatives funded by the CIA. However, the smears gave rise to “pink feminism,” an identity that supports both feminism and patriotism, as a survival strategy for women’s rights advocates. The online activities of pink feminists successfully promote women’s issues in China, accompanied by fanatical nationalism.

During Zhang’s ordeal, every corner of his internet history was scrutinized in search of possible unpatriotic contents. In addition to the Yasukuni Shrine visit, Zhang’s attendance at a wedding at the Nogi Shrine in 2019 has also been interpreted as proof of him being a “spiritual Japanese.” Nogi Shrine honors Nogi Maresuke, a major general during the Port Arthur (now Lushunkou) massacre in China. However, due to Nogi Shrine’s low name recognition, this evidence was initially challenged even by male nationalist influencers. These accounts were immediately attacked by their female counterparts for taking money from Ziben to whitewash the “traitor” Zhang.

Not coincidentally, the accounts being criticized had deep male chauvinist tendencies. Being unpatriotic may be the most unlikely reason to criticize these nationalists, but being more patriotic than the male chauvinists is certainly beneficial for pink feminists; it allows them to gain a greater say and legitimacy in issues that matter.

A similar episode can also be found in the controversy over the NBA after Daryl Morey, then the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” in 2019. Male fans who still went to watch NBA games after the incident were attacked by angry feminists as “kneeling basketball boys.” Once again, feminists deployed ultranationalism as a defense tactic in response to their own accusations of collusion with the foreign forces.

In China today, anyone can be Ziben, and Ziben can be weaponized by anyone – even Zhang’s remaining fans. Due to the unchallengeable status of nationalism, any defense of Zhang would be portrayed as an attempt to whitewash the Yasukuni Shrine, and thus the evidence of their idol’s baneful influence on his audience. Some of Zhang’s fans, therefore, embraced a conspiracy theory that foreign powers like the United States cooperated with Ziben to instigate a smear campaign against Zhang, aiming to incite anti-Japanese sentiment, weaken China-Japan relations, and eventually undermine China’s Asia-Pacific strategies. Contradictory narratives compete within the framework of nationalism, fighting for the right to speak while pushing nationalism into climax.

By now, Zhang’s presence has been completely erased from China’s online platforms, as if he never existed. But the battle between patriots and Ziben continues. Two weeks after Zhang’s cancellation, Zhao Wei, one of the country’s biggest stars and Zhang’s boss, also had her profile and works removed. Although there has been no official announcement of the reason for her cancellation, the nationalist narrative seems to be at play, without a legal justification, of course.